As the government imposes “Circuit Breaker” (CB) measures in Singapore in a bid to stop the spread of the corona virus, it would appear that there might be a weak link in the CB measures.
This weak link may lie in our public transportation services.
Part of the CB measures include social distancing. In a packed MRT train though, it might not really be possible to adhere to social distancing rules. It seems counterproductive for the public to report people in open spaces for not allegedly adhering to social distancing rules when everyone on public transportation may not be adhering to social distancing rules either.
Land Transport Authority (LTA) earlier announced on 14 April that it will be making alterations to its operating hours and frequency of public buses and trains in a bid “to mitigate the significant financial impact caused by the reduced riderships and help keep public transport operations financially sustainable”.
The whole point of social distancing rules is to ensure that people do not stand or sit too closely together. To that end, reduced passenger numbers on public transportation is a good thing as it could help ensure that people can commute and socially distance at the same time.
How then does LTA’s planned reduction in services help with CB measures? If Singaporeans are all told to observe CB rules, surely government bodies such as LTA should help us obey those rules?
Even though Minister of Transport, Khaw Boon Wan has acknowledged in his Facebook post on Friday about the issue on crowding of the trains. The issue of having to squeeze into the train carriages due to the reduced train frequency is still present, according to commuters.
Public buses and trains are essential services. At these perilous times, most people who are using them are not using them for fun. They are using them for essential errands or work. Many essential workers rely on such public transport. How will their safety be affected as a result of such service amendments?
Is it fair to ask them to go out and work if their means of getting to work may not enable them to effectively social distance?
Besides, to whom does the LTA owe its duty of care to? Given that the LTA is a statutory board (paid for by the public) tasked with looking after the transportation systems, it should really be prioritising the interests of the public over the interests of transportation companies. On its website, it states that they “are driven by the vision of a people-centric land transport network that connects communities and places”. By cutting services thereby creating more crowded trains and buses while CB rules are in place, are they being “people centric”?
As the regulator of transportation services in Singapore, the LTA is tasked with awarding contracts to various companies to manage and provide public transportation services in Singapore. Should it really be the LTA’s concern if the companies providing transportation services for the public make less money in this period?
While making sure that those providing our public transportation services remain financially sustainable is important, there is a difference between being “financially sustainable” and profit making.
Let’s take SMRT as an example. SMRT was a publicly listed transport operator in Singapore. In every financial year from 2000 to 2015, SMRT earned an operating profit in the range of $84.2 million to $197.2 million. There was never a year in which SMRT made a loss. And from FY2001 to FY2015, SMRT paid out a total dividend sum of $1.6 billion with the bulk having gone to Temasek. Today, we don’t know because SMRT has been 100 per cent bought up by Temasek and it no longer publishes its annual finances since 2017.
Are these measures to reduce service a bid to ensure that SMRT still makes money? Should those dividends have been given out all those years? In effect, are current commuters being put at risk so that dividends can be paid or are past dividend payments the reason why current commuters are now put at risk?
This goes back to the very ethos of public transportation services. Are essential services meant to be profit making in the first place? Is it really LTA’s concern if companies like SMRT run at a loss temporarily?
At the end of the day, ensuring that commuters receive a safe and reliable service should be of paramount concern. Compaines like SMRT has already made a lot of money over the years. They can afford to take the hit for this period and if not, it is up to them to revise their dividend payment structures. The health of our commuters should not be sacrificed for the sake of a company’s profit margin.
As the regulator, the LTA who awards these transportation companies their multi million dollar contracts should ensure that these companies who have made money out of the nation in good times earn their keep in times of trouble!