Public transport and the lack of discourse

A scene from the Bishan MRT platform during the train system breakdown on 15th Dec. Photo from AFP

I just spent two weeks in Hong Kong and Penang, and it was during this time that two things happened in the Singapore public transport system – Comfort DelGro changed its fare taxi structure and SMRT suffered two consecutive days of train breakdowns on its Circle and N-S lines. Both things sparked off citizen fury on different levels, and what is remarkable is how little the Govt. has stepped in to moderate public sentiment, as well as its own image after the recent poor showing at the General Elections.

Transport is always a hot potato in Singapore for several reasons, and these are not being tackled correctly by the people in charge.

It highlights widening class differences

With today’s stratospheric COE prices, only the well-off can afford to buy a new car. I bought my Toyota Altis nearly 3 years ago at SGD49K brand new when the COE was at its all time low of a few thousand dollars, and now the current model is priced at over SGD100K. Thus it is no surprise that the cheap car brands in SG have died off or declined rapidly, leaving top car sales to the premium brands like Audi and BMW.

Most CEOs and ministers in Singapore do not take public transport, and if you drive all the time, you would not know the level of unhappiness on the ground when it comes to overcrowded trains (at all times, not just peak hours) and always-late public buses. Sure, a minister can give public transport a spin for several weeks to do his research, but surely he wouldn’t take it all the time.

The resentment that people would have towards Transport Ministry policymakers, cab company and SMRT CEOs, would probably include anger at the lack of empathy due to the different lifestyles involved.

It is all too easy for people to frame this as a contest of wills between the Haves and Have-Nots. Why would the Haves really bother about the transport woes of the Have-Nots?

Of course, there are a lot of well-paid people who do take the MRT daily, especially those working in the Raffles Place area where it’s not whether you can afford the season parking, it’s whether you can actually get a season parking lot.

FYI, for various reasons, I take the train, bus, car and motorcycle on different days of the week so I experience all the issues involved in any mode of transport. I hate taking public buses though, because the wait can really kill you.

It is not world-class, at least in the eyes of the locals

If you travel overseas quite a bit, you’d really appreciate the range of public transport choices there are here in Singapore. If you don’t, you’d always be unhappy with the situation.

In Penang, we struggled to find cabs to flag down, and when we did, we still had to haggle over pricing (which I would always lose if there are no cabs in the vicinity to provide competition). The bus stops were a sad sight, often with no signage about which buses actually stopped there. And if you go to Jakarta, you can’t simply escape the traffic jam by running to the subway – because there isn’t one.

On the other end of the spectrum is Hong Kong, where there is true competition in the transport industry. Taking taxis in HK has always been a fuss-free affair for me, and the MTR subway always impresses with its ability to transport millions of people with more efficiency than our MRT even though the HK system is older (and more grimy looking).

Singapore’s public transport is somewhat near HK’s level but the problem is that there is no perceived competition in Singapore (hey look, the national taxi association is encouraging the other companies to increase their fares like Comfort), there are confusing taxi surcharges all around, our public buses are notorious for being slow to arrive, and our MRT system is simply overloaded most of the time due to the population squeeze.

To the average Singaporean, it doesn’t matter whether it is CityCab/Comfort or SMRT that you’re dealing with. It all seems like the same entity and you always feel that you have no say over their levels of service standards. And if you don’t own a car or bike, you can’t actually boycott the main public transport providers.

When people write in to the media complaining about the lack of rationale or logic over public transport price hikes, the transport companies are either silent or give some template answer that doesn’t answer anything. That’s not good PR, that’s terrible PR. If you need to raise taxi fares due to rising costs, put forth your data – Singaporeans are largely educated and can analyse the data for themselves. At its most basic, good PR is simply communicating to people what you want to say and making sure people get your message with no distortion or misunderstanding. If it is rising COEs that is adding to the cost of taxi operations, then go fix that bit with LTA, not pass the cost to consumers.

It is a critical barometer of public sentiment

Due to poor management of the COE system by LTA in the past decade, the car population here rose rapidly, straining the road network and increasing the number of traffic jams. Add to that the influx of foreigners into Singapore which helped to put a strain on the public transport system.

Unlike other political issues which people may forget about (eg. ministerial pay, which we have still yet to hear anything about six months after the elections), public transport hits you like a sledgehammer every morning if you are part of the commuting crowd trying not to smell the other guy’s armpit in the train.

Yet oddly, on many instances when we face public transport issues, the authorities hardly  manage public sentiment on the issue with any finesse.

When Comfort raised its fares, this was the Govt’s response as reported by Today newspaper:

While he was “sympathetic” to concerns of both commuters and cabbies, Mr Cedric Foo, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for transport, noted that the taxi sector has been deregulated and market conditions would decide fares.

To observers, if one is “sympathetic”, one would use this to generate political goodwill rather than just let the taxi companies have their way (which still baffles the average person, including me) with no semblance of further action or thought on the matter.

So much damage has been done to SMRT, Comfort DelGro and the LTA’s image in the past two weeks, it is a no-brainer that the politicians should use this opportunity to repair public sentiment, and that PR experts should enter the fray to show them how proper damage control is done. It was only with the recent SMRT breakdowns that the Transport Minister finally stepped in to give his public comments, but what about the earlier taxi fare hikes?

The bottomline is this – if you don’t manage the issue of public transport carefully in Singapore, be it the actual infrastructure or the communications surrounding it, you will end up being on the receiving end of societal class divisions and anger at the lack of public engagement. There has been a consistent lack of discourse by the stakeholders in the transport industry, and they’ve allowed the media (traditional and social) to have a field day with their shortcomings.

In the meantime, I will go for a spin on my motorbike.


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