It is one thing for the Government to track your every move. It is another thing for them to charge you money for it.
Today, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that it has awarded a $556 million tender to NCS and MHI Engine System to build Singapore’s next-generation electronic road-pricing (ERP) system. One which will have islandwide coverage and the ability to charge for distance travelled, and is slated to launch in 2020.
According to an oddly amateurish Powerpoint slide from LTA (above, you’d think this is a $50 school project), the new system based on a combination of GPS and cellular technologies. The LTA has some good benefits to talk about:
- It’ll alert you of toll roads and charges before you reach them.
- Provide real-time traffic information.
- Coupon-less streetside parking.
- Automatic payment for off-peak drivers.
- And it’ll be able to bill you for your distance travelled.
I know, there must be some of you cheering for this wonderful technology that will now let you avoid the daily Pan-Island Expressway car accident, stop tearing little holes in paper coupons, avoid all the hassle of being an off-peak driver and… that’s not bad right?
I do try to be an optimist.
Maybe we will really be a car-lite country with this. Perhaps we will have cycling lanes on every street. MRT trains which do not break down. Buses which come on time and do not come together in a bunch. Taxis which are affordable and have easy-to-understand surcharges.
Maybe. But probably not by 2020.
And by that year, I wonder if we will stop having babies and keep our elderly folks at home so we do not have to ferry them around to family events.
Or if couriers and other logistics folks can just send packages by drones since they will be penalized for getting about this small island to serve businesses.
In terms of technological achievements, this is probably something to give each other a pat on the back about. No doubt, Singapore has great broadband speeds and now we are about to turn into Gattaca in just four years. Hurrah!
I know this system has been years in the making. It has been the decades-long dream of our technocrat rulers to truly control the roads and the hunks of metals that crowd them today.
Along the way of preventing gridlock and jams, why not make good revenue for the country’s needs?
After all the current ERP system earns about $150M annually, and the Certificate of Entitlement system about $5B. The logic has always been – if we make it expensive enough, people will stop driving.
That logic has worked for car ownership – especially with the effective move to make it mandatory to fork out 50% cash downpayment for new cars – a decision from the Ministry of Finance, not LTA.
But that logic has not really worked for car usage.
Most of the time, whether or not you charge a person $1 more for entering town at 6.35pm versus a mere five minutes earlier, people have been conditioned to just dole out the money dutifully. So many ERP gantries have been built, it is not uncommon for drivers to drive under three gantries or more every morning.
People need to get to work, go for social gatherings, send babies to infant care and so on. What difference will a satellite-powered, distance-based charging system make to me, you ask? Is this not progress? Aren’t we Numero Uno again in the world?
How about the utter loss of your privacy and the added insult of being billed for it? Billed not just for the distance travelled, but for the construction of the state machinery used to invade your personal space.
Of course, I’m not the philandering sort, so I do not worry about my wife knowing where I am at any point of time. I’m either at work or having porridge at Tiong Bahru.
But I am not keen to have an unknown government official who can click a mouse and pinpoint where my car is in real-time, for whatever reason. With a few days of recording travel patterns, anyone can be profiled in terms of the places they tend to visit, their shopping habits, the food centers they frequent… etc etc.
Essentially, this is big data of the biggest scale you have ever seen in this small country. What will the data be used for? I have no idea, but I did not sign up for this (nor vote for it).
Another little discussed fact in today’s news, is that if the system is accurate enough – it can measure your car’s speed in real-time. So, will we be penalized every time we travel 70kmh on an empty 60kmh road (that’s way too slow for today’s vehicles, guys!)? KACHING.
Look, I can’t fight “progress” and neither can you. The defence by policymakers will always be that Singapore is small and needs to find unique solutions and so on. I do appreciate the fact we do not have Jakarta-style traffic jams. This whole matter will probably go through some pointless debate in Parliament and still be rolled out anyway.
What you can do is to understand the state of things we are in and how you should think about your place in this country (quite literally now).
Over the past two decades, we have been conditioned like frogs in slowly boiling water to accept that cars are for rich people, MRT trains are not meant to be reliable, ERP charges can be randomly adjusted in five minute intervals (because surely, we cannot know better about traffic flow), bicycles are not meant to be on the roads and more of such public transport “truths”.
Today, people speak of $100K cars as being affordable, and $6,000 COE for motorcycles as inevitable. If you do something silly long enough, it becomes the norm. After all, everyone else is doing it.
Do keep thinking, and asking in coming weeks and years – what the politicians and transport policymakers say about your privacy concerns, your transport needs and your rights as a citizen.
Ask what is wrong with our current transport measures such that we need to fork out big money for a newfangled system, further straining those who do need private transport but are not bankers, lawyers or well-paid civil servants.
Perhaps I am just being negative and a stick-in-the-mud. Perhaps in 2025, I will look back and wonder how I could have imagined life without being in the safe Panopticon gaze of my trusted rulers, from way up in the atmosphere. Perhaps lah.
I often enjoy long solitary rides around the island on my motorcycle during quiet hours. I guess I will have to do more of that before 2020.
Update 26 Feb 2016:
Some readers have pointed out that we have lost our privacy long ago due to mobile phones and other devices which can triangulate our position. Of course, I am a user of mobile technology too. But here are some questions for you to chew on with regards to the new GPS system.
- With distance-based charging, who decides how much to charge whom? For what real purpose? Look at how the COE and ERP systems have evolved from original noble goals of congestion control to the current revenue levels.
- Do you have a say in how this country is run?
- Do you have young children or elderly family members that need private transport because sometimes, public transport does not serve your particular needs? Do you run a business which requires transportation and how will this affect your revenue and bottomline?
Please, don’t harp on the obvious arguments about privacy and technology. Go deeper and understand historical developments to question your future and your rights. More importantly, remember everything you read in the press has been heavily filtered through the public relations sieve. Never take things at face value.