The Tuition Problem nobody wants to solve

Dear Voices Editor

I refer to the Today report “MPs call for closer look at private tuition industry” (Today 17 Sep 2013)

It was a disheartening story for parents of primary school children to read.

While the original question posed by MPs in Parliament was focused on whether teachers are leaving the Education Service for more lucrative careers in the tuition sector, the replies from Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah was a disturbing indication that the Ministry of Education doesn’t consider the tuition industry to be a critical issue.

Like it or not, it’s time for policymakers to stop ignoring the Tuition Problem if we are to improve the education system in Singapore. Continue reading

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Guide To Dieting in Singapore

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Dieting in Singapore – you can have your cake and eat it you know. Just know how many calories are in each slice. (About 100kcal)

When I first started counting my calories, I got quite a few responses from my friends. Some feigned mock horror, others said they couldn’t be bothered as it was a chore. To amuse myself and to annoy my Facebook friends, I posted regularly on the horrors of high calorie content in our local foods, and what do you know, some of them started calorie counting too. Sadly, most gave up after a while.

Anyway, in the past four months, I’ve dropped about 5.5kg from the time I swore to change my diet. On the bright side, I can see my jawline again, most of the spare tyres around the tummy and chest has disappeared and my waistline has contracted by over an inch, reversing a 15-year trend.

The bad part is now most of my usual work and casual clothes are now baggy and I have to buy new clothes.

To some people that isn’t a bad thing at all.

Anyway, some friends have asked me to share my diet plan and other tips, so you read this earlier post (My Mid-Life Food Crisis) first on the science behind dieting, and my new learnings as follows: Continue reading

Attitude Determines Destiny


Last weekend, I was swimming with the family at Bishan pool when I heard a China-born swim coach remind his young students “态度决定命运!”. It means “Attitude Determines Destiny”.

It was such a fascinating statement that I stopped swimming to listen further and I kept brooding on it. I went home and did online research, finding out that it was the title to the following saying (I’m not sure who the author is)

态度改变, 行为就会改变

行为改变, 习惯就会改变

习惯改变, 性格就会改变

性格改变, 命运就会改变

Change your attitude, and your behavior will change.

Change your behavior, and your habits will change.

Change your habits, and your character will change.

Change your character, and your destiny will change.

How true! All these, many of us know in one form or another, but it had never been laid out to me in such a clear, logical manner. I spent the rest of the weekend discussing this with Isaac, stressing to him how every step (attitude, behavior, habits and character) are essential to building one’s future. Of course, I don’t know how much he will remember of this conversation, since he is still young and inexperienced in the ways of the world.

I’ve always wondered if being a journalist was a good thing, because there was so much unhappiness during my SPH bond. But one thing that was beneficial was that it led me to meet so many different types of people in a very short time, and sometimes I got the opportunity to tell their unique stories.

As I looked back at people I’ve met over the years, the four steps manifested themselves in different ways, but always had similar roots in habitual behavior.

There was this army major, who spent his time blaming young NSFs for his mistakes of poor judgement.

There was this girl, who couldn’t help but keep making the wrong decisions in love, breaking up other lives along the way.

There was this person, who kept lying and covering up in almost everything at work, until it became chronic and known to everyone else.

There was this person who spent his time plotting against others, but never actually doing any real work. As far as I could tell, he didn’t really have any real skills either.

There was a writer who was addicted to plagiarism, but somehow was always let off the hook.

The pattern continues, and you get the idea. People who do the things they shouldn’t do, keep doing it until it becomes a fixed habit. Then they get stuck, because they really can’t stop.

What was the attitude that led to the behavior in the first place? The idea that they can get away with it? That it was an acceptable thing to do to survive in this cruel, unforgiving world?

Some will scoff, saying that you can’t be a goody-two-shoes if you want to rise to the top, because the bad guys always get ahead. The question needs to be asked – do you want to rise to the top, and where is the “top” anyway?

The peak of a corporate firm? Or the peak of your technical skills?

The peak of being a multitasker? Or the peak of being able to live with contentment?

The peak of being able to fool everyone (eg. cheating pastor of a big church)? Or the peak of self-awareness and humility?

How then, did such attitudes get planted? Through upbringing? Through peer influence? Through multiple failures or successes in life?

I don’t know, and I worry for my children as I seek to put them on the right path God instructed parents to. I keep making mistakes in parenting and I keep asking myself if I am doing right by my kids. I look back at my own life, and I wonder what did my mum do right so that I didn’t grow up with the wrong values.

Or was it that I was blessed with righteous and caring bosses in SAF, SPH and Microsoft that led to my current outlook on life? I’m not saying that I’m great at what I do, but my bosses all taught me the unshakeable values of doing my best no matter the size of the assignment, and being brutally critical of my own work and behavior because there is always someone better…..You know, there are few greater blessings than having wise mentors.

Or is it genetic? Are chronic liars and competitive people born that way?

Again, I don’t know, but all I know is that shaping my future, and hopefully my children’s values, all starts with my attitude, and for that, I thank the nameless coach for such precious wisdom. I’m not saying that man is in full control of his life – God is. But we have been given free will to decide what kind of life we want to lead, and what is our attitude that will please God and men?

The root issues of our education system

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This post has been edited and published in Today, 26 Mar 2013, under the headline “Hard truths of our education system”. Screenshot above.

Recently, a young mother asked me how one should prepare their children for the tough problem sums found in primary school mathematics.

Her father, a successful businessman, chimed in: “Why do parents have to go for classes to learn how to teach their children? That’s the teacher’s job! The job of parents is to go out and earn money to feed the family!”

The Education Minister recently expounded on the myriad of issues surrounding education during the Committee of Supply debate in Parliament. He mentioned a need to go back to basics, and it couldn’t be truer.

However, going back to basics requires an honest assessment of what’s truly broken, instead of asking parents to manage their expectations and to strive for school-work-life balance.

The situation isn’t as complex as the Ministry believes, because the many issues raised all lead back to a few root causes that are not being given enough emphasis by policymakers.

Roles need to be clear

Let’s ignore the unreasonable demands from “kiasu” parents and be explicitly clear about the roles we play : Parents are not teachers. Teachers are not supermen. Tutors are meant to help weak students, not raise the benchmark of top students to silly levels.

While parents should be considered “partners in education”, it is alarming when the time students spend in school is deemed insufficient for them to master the curriculum, hence the need for parents and tuition teachers to be constantly coaching them late into the night.

If you ask why everyone has to play an educator’s role today, it’s really because of the unrealistic curriculum.

Teach less, learn less, grow more.

The primary school curriculum is a topic that the Education Ministry has yet to publicly acknowledge as a a critical problem, despite much public outcry for reform. While the Ministry wants to encourage creativity, it is impossible when children are drowned with a huge range of topics.

The question educators need to ask themselves is – “How much does a child really need to learn to be a well-rounded individual?”

The Minister recently said that parents should not compare our curriculum today with that of the past. So how is it that we had less topics to study in the 1980s and 1990s, and that had no adverse effect on our lives today? Many of us have adapted to today’s technologies and business landscape without a hiccup.

Meanwhile, I see today’s kids lacking sleep because they simply cannot catch up with the sheer volume of things they have to remember. They learn more, but remember little.

Teachers keep saying “teach less, learn more” and some end up leaving the bulk of the teaching to parents and tutors. Perhaps let’s change it to “teach less, learn less, grow more”.

Also, if we truly believe in meritocracy, then any hardworking child armed with an MOE-approved textbook should be able to excel at the school exam without needing tuition or a stack of assessments books with questions of exceptional difficulty.

Celebrate achievements, not diminish them

While we need to reduce the sheer volume of tested topics, we also need to stop barking up the wrong trees in the same spirit of meritocracy.

The recent move to stop publishing the names of PSLE top scorers may do more harm than good in the long run.

Whether education is a “marathon” or a “sprint”, we should celebrate those who are able to excel, without letting schools obsess with the school ranking exercise.

Ask yourself, which athlete pushes himself to the maximum only to have his achievements disappear in a sea of political correctness? Who wants to take the marathon seriously then?

We desperately need to give more breathing space to the average student, but we should not diminish the achievements of the truly gifted or those who have overcome the odds to do their best.

Let’s speak English well. Please.

MPs recently debated about the falling popularity of literature, but nobody ever mentioned that students may actually fear the subject because of their poor grasp of the English language.

Yes, our top students do well in global tests and in Ivy League universities, but let’s also recognize that the average standard of English communication in Singapore leaves much to be desired.

Many young graduates are unable to switch out of Singlish into proper English at will, and good grammar is often lacking at the workplace.

The root causes are the continued emphasis on bilingualism and the poor understanding of how to teach English in our schools. For English exams, the key tenets of fluency, brevity and impact have been replaced by flowery words and much hubris. Children memorize colorful phrases to insert into every possible sentence.

The result is that many citizens don’t speak English or their mother tongue well, and that is a national tragedy.

If we are serious about improving the education system, then let’s not shy away from tackling the hard truths of our situation today.

A Gear Shift For The Car Population

This post first appeared on the Breakfast Network.

It was Budget Day and many carrots were handed out.

But most folks I know zoomed in on the two new rules for purchasing new cars:

1. The new MAS rulings for car loans, capped at 60 per cent for OMV less than $20K, and 50 per cent for OMV more than $20K. Car loans are now capped at a tenure of five years.

2. The new tiered Additional Registration Fee (ARF) which increases the tax on luxury cars by up to 180 per cent, versus 100 per cent for low capacity car models.  According to Today: “The ARF for cars with OMVs up to S$20,000 will remain at the current 100 per cent, but two more tiers will be introduced for more expensive models. The next S$30,000 of the OMV of the car will attract an ARF rate of 140 per cent, and any value beyond S$50,000 will attract an ARF rate of 180 per cent.”

The knee jerk reactions came Fast and Furious :

- Car dealers opening their showrooms till midnight for one last desperate lunge at buyers. The question is how many impulse buys were there last night? Once again, it looks like more car salesmen are about to lose their jobs as more buyers are squeezed out of the market.

- On any Facebook stream, you can see two clear reactions: “It’s about time!” vs “Another policy to favor the rich!”. It’s also obvious who is cash-rich and who isn’t, based on the comments.

- Speculation among the more car-savvy folks on how much the COE will drop due to this. Personally, I’m guessing 20-50 per cent drop over six months as the market of buyers shrink. The question is: Of the people who are interested in spending over $200K on a new car, how many of them are cash rich?

Don’t be hating me okay… but I think the Gahmen’s latest measures on tiered ARF tax and cap on car loans are logical and sensible ways of controlling the car population.

Some may think that this favors the rich, but not really, since the rich are taxed more on luxury cars now. Sure, it’s not going to stop a millionaire from buying his Porsche, but it does make the average Joe looking to buy a BMW think a bit harder about his purchase.

The latest policies favor the financially prudent who know how to accumulate cash for a rainy day. For too long, people have forgotten the virtue of saving cold hard cash, relying instead on loans and credit, and spending more than their means. Even if the COE price doesn’t drop much, at least this is sound public policy that will appease those who have been unhappy about the current COE system and have been asking for alternatives (which have been soundly rejected by the Transport Ministry repeatedly).

It also sends a very explicit message to young people just starting out in their careers that owning a car is not a given, but a luxury item. The 2000s were a period when COE prices were low (I got mine at under $5,000 in 2009) due to wrong projections of COE deregistrations, and many young people could afford cars then. Since then, there have been one corrective action after another by the authorities to reverse the over-supply of COE in the market, and this looks like the most potent move yet.

More interestingly, the latest move on capping car loans comes from the Monetary Authority of Singapore because it wants to “safeguard against borrowers defaulting on their repayments” and encouraging financial prudence.

Now how many people have defaulted on their car loans recently? That would be a newsworthy number to know. If the number is low, maybe the G folks should just say it straight: “We don’t want you to borrow money for a car you can’t afford.”

SAF, fix your IPPT system for those above 35

I’m sending this in as a letter to the press. As far as I can tell, I have not leaked any military secrets.

The Singapore Armed Forces often touts itself as a technologically advanced army, and it is in many ways. However, there is a pressing need to improve some basic IT services that affect many operationally ready servicemen before it can boast of being a “3G army”.

NSmen who are above 35 have to take a health screening test every year at an army medical center before they can be allowed to take the annual Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT). For the past two work years since I started taking the screening test, I have encountered a baffling issue that highlights the poor integration of data within the SAF.

Since 2011, I have attended my scheduled health screenings in September. However, the official personnel records are not updated with the screening test results even after five months. I have to call the NS hotline repeatedly in order to find out if my records have been updated.

To make matters worse, the SAF recently shortened the IPPT window to nine months each year instead of twelve months.

With over half of the window period made invalid by the lack of an updated health record, the NSman is then put under further pressure to clear his IPPT test in a compressed time frame.

This issue is not isolated, as I have checked with fellow NSmen and they have encountered the same scenario. With no systematic notification of the health screening test result, some NSmen actually miss their IPPT window and then have to go through the hassle of explaining to their respective unit why they should not be penalized.

It is clear that till today, there is no proper integration between the IPPT registration system and the health screening database. We will receive regular SMS alerts from MINDEF telling us to clear our IPPT even when the health screening results aren’t updated.

And after so many years, the NS portal website remains a messy “rojak” of critical services and marketing fluff which makes it difficult to navigate.

With the massive amount of the national budget that is poured into defence spending, the SAF needs to relook some fundamentals of how IT is implemented to drive better efficiency.

We NSmen sacrifice our work and family time to do our national duty and such broken IT services only lead to unnecessary frustration and inconvenience.

Ian Tan Yong Hoe

Think out of the money box

Since my last blog post, and later newspaper letter, on restructuring the COE system based on needs was published, I’ve observed several replies that follow the same lines of thought.

  • A certificate of entitlement (COE) must be tied to capitalistic market forces, because there is no other fair way of distribution.
  • The COE must cost a particular sum of money (eg. the rich should pay more for their high-end cars)
  • A COE system based on needs can’t possibly work, due to the subjective nature of “needs” and the existence of a black market.
  • Any distribution of COE based on needs must be communist or socialist, so it can’t be good.

It’s amusing and I must admit, somewhat tiring, to see how Singaporeans think when they see a new proposal that isn’t based on money principles. This permeates not just through the citizenry, but also the government. Here are some of the responses to my letter with alternative proposals

I suggest benchmarking road tax and rebate values against the latest COE prices (pegged to the OMV) to ensure that actual cost of car ownership is borne by all road users. In times of high COE prices, owners would receive incentives to de-register their vehicles, increasing the supply of COEs. This will also allow vehicle growth rate to slow down, while maintaining price stability. Market-based solutions remain the most appropriate approach to the problem

- Tan Si An, “Look to market-based solutions to improve current COE system”, 13 Feb 2013, Today Voices.

To correct this, we must adjust our system through cooling measures, like in property, that would be easy to administer, such as a maximum loan quantum of 40 to 50 per cent, to help regulate overall demand and reduce risks for many who might overcommit on debts. A re-categorisation of COEs and their supply according to a car’s Open Market Value would ensure a more equitable distribution, with the rich paying more.

A system based on perceived needs, though, would be a nightmare to administer. Is a family with three children living within a five-minute walk to an MRT station perceived to have a higher need than an old couple with no children but living 30 minutes from an MRT station? What about a young medical professional who must respond to emergencies but is 15 minutes away from public transport? There are hundreds of permutations. How would one judge and who would judge the perceived needs? Such a system would also create unhappiness for many.

- Chew Eng Soo, “Re-categorise COEs to ensure more equitable distribution”, 12 Feb 2013, Today Voices.

And here is the Gahmen’s take on it, when the idea of balloting was raised in Parliament

Balloting for Certificates of Entitlement (COEs) will generate additional demand and reduce the winning chances for those who really want to buy a car, said Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo.

Mrs Teo made the point in Parliament on Friday in response to MP Denise Phua, who asked if the system can be modified to allow for balloting. Mrs Teo said with balloting, even those who have no real intention to buy a car would try their luck.  “This is especially because the ‘prize’ of the ballot, in this case a COE, will be much sought after, and a person who wins the ballot can quite easily decide to cash out,” she added. Mrs Teo said there could also be a black market where balloted COEs are resold to genuine car buyers at a much higher price.

She said: “Balloting essentially means telling genuine buyers, whether they are families or businesses, that getting a COE depends on the luck of the draw or having to resort to the black market. Neither of this is very reassuring and clearly not an improvement over the present system.”

Mrs Teo said there will also be a need to fix “some arbitrary price for COEs” given out under a balloting system. She said the price has to be high enough to deter speculators and yet not too high for people who would like to own cars. She added: “The member will agree that this is next to
impossible as any price that is lower than what people are willing to pay will attract speculators.” 

- “Balloting for COEs will reduce winning chances”, Channelnewsasia, 8 Feb 2013

Ok, let’s get it clear, I’m not here to say that my COE proposal is great and is the only way forward. It is just one of many suggestions that the Ministry of Transport has been getting (and ignoring). Every suggestion I’ve posted above from other parties is valid and workable in their own way.

What I want to say here though, is that we need to examine the underlying assumptions that people make when they analyse the COE system, versus the reality which imposes limits on what can be done.

Any policy to fix the COE has to be very lucid on some things first. (These are all based on common sense and logic, no rocket science involved):

1. There must be a fixed limit to the number of vehicles in Singapore.

Why do people still think about a “growth rate” for vehicles in Singapore? The Transport Minister still wants to maintain a growth rate of 0.5%.

Excuse me, how much land is there in SG and how many vehicles can be tolerated? The finite nature of land means that there must be a finite number of four-wheeled vehicles. I was joking with a friend – one way to double to number of possible vehicles is to ban cars altogether so the roads can only be occupied by motorcycles and bicycles.

So let’s not talk about growth of the car population – let’s talk about a finite cap, which I believe we may have already busted due to the frequency of jams we see here, even during off-peak hours. Even with more road improvements, the jams will still occur – you can’t possibly widen every expressway by another lane and not see bottlenecks at each major exit point or on arterial roads.

What this also means is that there can only be a fixed number of certificates. Every cert that is scrapped goes back to the pool like today, but the pool must no longer grow. Projection of the wrong growth rates in the 2000s led to the oversupply today. The sky-high prices we are seeing now is not a natural function of the original COE system – it is gaming of the system by premium car dealers.

2. The current COE system is causing social discord and class division

Resentment of the PAP government is at an all time high for a variety of reasons. One of them is the perception that Singapore has become a “playground for the rich”, leaving the rest of the people out in the cold.

Our COE system has created a car population like no other in the world – cars often scrapped before their 10th year, BMW and Mercedes Benz are the top two selling cars in SG, we probably have the highest percentage of supercars on the roads, and so on.

Disclaimer: Now I happen to ride the Ferrari of motorcycle brands - a Ducati – so maybe I’m not the best guy to decry “class divide!”. But let’s do the sums - my Ducati Monster retails for $32K SGD including insurance and COE(as of today), while the car COE is currently at $92.9K SGD. A BMW 3-series sedan is currently going for $216K, so my Ducati may seem like an affordable scooter next to what BMW owners are forking out. And our Class 2 “scooters” can out-accelerate any car you can afford ;)

I also own a Corolla Altis which has a $4.6K COE, purchased at the system’s lowest point in 2009. If the current COE system continues, I have no intention of buying a new car when this car’s COE expires in 2019, I have better things to do with $200K.

I’m cool with not owning a car especially when my kids would be teenagers by 2019, but I can’t speak for others. So yes, the current COE does deter people from buying cars due to affordability.

But if we spent our whole lives looking at spreadsheets and doing the sums, it’s a truly sad life to lead. In a society where only the really rich or those who lack financial prudence, can drive a car, you have to think of the societal consequences. Will people construct their lives around renting a hunk of metal and wheels at illogical prices?

It’s not as if public transport is a good alternative.

The Govt has been desperately trying to persuade people that its white paper projection of 6.9 million people in 2030 SG is a worst case scenario, but I’m more worried about the next ten years.

The infrastructural problems that the Govt says will be fixed by 2030 will definitely continue in the next few years. Just this morning, a fire broke out at the Newton MRT train platform causing northbound trains to be suspended for nearly three hours.

Every other week we hear of some SMRT breakdown, until we are tired of hearing what the Transport Minister has to say on their efficient recovery plans. Nobody really cares what you say if you’ve missed work, an important meeting, or even a school exam.

The end result is an unhappy populace forced to live with a problematic public transport system, while the rich who buy new cars still get stuck in jams (but at least in air-conditioned comfort with some muzak). If the PAP hasn’t figured it out by now, the public transport system will cost many many votes in 2016′s General Elections, because the system favors the rich.

Yes, the COE system generates great revenue for the Govt, but is the ruling party ready for the cost of votes? You can promise lift upgradings, more kindergartens, but what people really want is a satisfactory means of getting to work to drive this country’s relentless pursuit of Gross Domestic Product.

3. Balloting requires a radical locus of control

To everyone who says that a balloting system will lead to a black market, you’re not thinking hard enough of what this proposal would require in terms of control.

If you tie the COE to a person’s identity card, do you think he can sell his identity so easily? We have such an advanced ERP system that can detect every car by their in-car unit and cashcard, I don’t see how difficult it is to include tracking of an inserted IC when the car goes under a gantry.

There will always be a few who will try to break the system and go sell their identity/right of ownership on the black market, but let’s remember, Singapore is a really, really small place and the level of control possible is like no other country on earth. The Land Transport Authority spends too much time trying to catch people who modify their cars with loud but harmless mods, and can instead divert their resources to doing random spot checks on cars if such a system is implemented.

At this point, someone will shout: “This proposal is communist!” Or socialist. Whatever.

For those not aware of history, communism is always the dirty word thrown about when people don’t like an idea that seeks to distribute resources randomly or equally. Communism as a political concept has failed, we all know that. But when your kid doesn’t get into school because he failed the random ballot, is the system “communist”? If you don’t get a Baby Bonus because you are childless, is the system “communist”?

Stop using words because of their political baggage and impact. Use words which speak logic and sense.

The fundamental issue with the COE is how to distribute them. This is one thing the various proposals don’t seek to consider. It can boil down to one simple question:

How many expensive vehicles should we have vs cheaper sedans?

At this point, people will probably get stuck. I can imagine the policymakers arguing: Do we cater to the rich, or do we seek to make the masses happy? Do we seek revenue or do we seek political votes of the heartlander? Maybe 50-50 lah!

I bring you back to the original principle of a vehicle quota system:

There can only be a finite number of cars, no matter the population of Singapore.

This is where all the alternative COE proposals, including mine, will run into the wall for a long time. The one factor that stops the conversation from moving forward is the stubborn assumption that distribution can be managed by market forces (ie. who has the money can own one).

But, but, what happens, say in some hypothetical scenario, there are 500,000 rich people in Singapore but there is only enough space for 300,000 cars? Forget what the poor thinks, the rich will revolt.

The problem never ends until people recognize that a quota is really meant to limit the number, not to make people happy. The current COE system - where I haven’t heard the LTA state a theoretical limit in car population – has an inbuilt time-bomb because there may come a day when even if you can afford a car, the roads are all gridlocked to the point where there isn’t any pleasure in driving anymore. So all your precious COE money has gone to waste.

4. So who decides who really needs a car?

This is where people get really upset. You mean my family of two shouldn’t be prioritized to have a car?!? You mean the million dollars I contribute in taxes means nothing?

To argue about who is more needy will take forever. Someone needs to put their foot down and instead of dealing with a thousand permutations, just lay down a few criteria. Some suggestions for people to qualify before they can even go ballot for a COE:

  • Entrepreneurs who deal in goods and services (why, this may spur the entrepreneurship we always bemoan that is lacking)
  • Families with at least three kids. (This will work better than any Baby Bonus, I always believe so)
  • Families with one disabled parent or special needs child. (Will the aged deliberately cripple themselves to own a car? Not too many, I hope).
  • Each registered company with at least 10 employees is entitled to one goods vehicle. (subject to constant onsite audits. SOHOs have no way to workaround this)

And keep it at just a few criteria - everyone else go take public transport, since its purported to be “world-class”. Don’t even release the remainder into the market for free auction. And police the car owners to the maximum until their COE expires.

One can imagine the outrage of people who don’t qualify to begin with. But will people understand the fairness of such a system?

But like I said, if you don’t put strict criteria, everyone will believe they deserve a car. No, my friend, a car can no longer be within reach of everyone because our roads are bursting and so is the population.

A painful solution is needed, but one that does not create societal problems or a wealth divide.

Unlike the past, working hard at your job and earning big dollars shouldn’t be the passport to car ownership. Even country clubs have a cap on the number of members they can have.

Meritocracy has no place in a car quota system. Just like how it’s tough to say whether an SAF general deserves a car versus a Cabinet minister versus a fresh vegetable supplier.

So don’t confuse equalitarian with communism, and don’t confuse wealth-based systems with meritocracy. When it boils down to it, nobody really needs a car in a country 50km across in length. But just like the idea that everyone should own a flat, we’ve grown up being brainwashed that we must own a car to show that we’ve made it in society. I argue that it is those who haven’t made it (the disabled, the disenfranchised, the struggling entrepreneur) who need all the transport help they can get.

The COE was created in 1990 when the population was small (3m, vs today’s 5.3m), when there was no heavy influx of foreigners and their wealth, and there was no Internet for people to share ideas and debate public policy.

If we can’t recognize the root of the problem, we can’t solve it. And I say the root of the COE problem is that we can’t think of a solution that doesn’t involve money and taxing the people to their wits’ end. We spend all our time thinking about money and that affects the way we look at issues. Sometimes we need to step back and stomp on all our assumptions before we can move forward again.

PS: Like I said, I don’t have the perfect solution. There are definitely some holes in my logic above that I can’t pinpoint because I’m just human. I just have ideals and common logic applied to them. If you wish to comment below, be constructive and be respectful to each other please. I will moderate all comments like I would a car quota system.  

The COE system has broken down

Note: There are many comments coming in, but here’s my rule – if you can’t leave your real name and email address, I will delete the comment. I’m tired of people hiding behind pseudonyms and not having the courage to speak up as their real selves. Using your FB account (that shows your real name) to comment will work too.

Since the 2011 General Elections, the Government has been actively dealing with the various societal and infrastructural issues facing Singaporeans. Be it the fertility rate, housing prices or public transport, there have been much discussion and policy changes.

But the Government remains strangely stubborn on the issue of the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) for vehicles. Despite multiple calls from the public to revamp the nearly 23-year-old system, the consistent response from the Ministry of Transport is that there will be no changes apart from tweaking vehicle quotas.

It is puzzling to most citizens why this sacred cow remains resilient to policy change. It is neither fool-proof nor has it benefited the wider society in the past two decades.

Poor management of the system formula and vehicle quotas led to an explosion in the vehicle population in the last decade. The current state of COE prices have just about decimated the market for affordable family sedans, angering the heartlander population as it seems only the wealthy deserve to have cars. The roads today are still susceptible to massive jams (even during off peak hours) despite the COE and ERP systems in place, exacerbated by a strained public transport network.

It is clear that the COE system needs an overhaul to serve the people, and not be beholden to an obsolete concept from a different era.

The Government needs to abolish old assumptions and policymakers need to realize this has become a hot political issue that has reached a boiling point within the electorate.

Why not consider the following principles in designing a vehicle quota system?

1) Distribution of certificates must be fair and equitable.

To control a vehicle population merely requires a restriction in the number of certificates, not an infinitely increasing price. No matter the price, there is always someone who can afford it, but is that a fair system given the increasing wealth divide in Singapore?

Balloting has been suggested frequently by citizens to level the playing field between the rich and poor, yet this call is ignored by the Government each time.

For those who fear a black market situation, that can be easily dealt with through strict ownership laws and enforcement. Who would dare to trade in balloted COEs if he risks a $200,000 fine or six-month jail term? Singapore’s a “fine” city, right?

2) Car ownership should be driven by needs, not wants.

Balloting can also be prioritized for families who really require private transport.

I have observed how the disabled and elderly face difficulty in getting around with their family members, especially on rainy days when one can never get a taxi. We desire to be an inclusive society, but the ones who are truly dependent on private transport are often shut out. The roads have been prioritized for those who can drive big and flashy continental cars instead.

Also, has the Government ever considered improving the fertility rate simply by giving priority of car ownership to parents with three or more children? If people want to aspire to the 5Cs, especially that of a car, let them achieve the 6th C of having more children first.

Any rational Singaporean will tell you that we can only have a limited number of cars on this island and that we do need a system of control.

However, the COE system’s massive flaws have been apparent for decades, and not fixing them will only lead to greater societal discord and political fallout in the near future.

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