Enter the PM

My apologies. After the General Election, I’d wanted to be more objective in my views. But the topic of public transport, and seeing how the PTOs are asking for even higher fares and the PM coming out to support this, just makes my blood curl. 

So, here’re my thoughts on the matter.

Channelnewsasia, on what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said about public transport:

“Our interest is not to help the transport companies make big profits. There is no reason for us to do that. We want good service, we want affordable service. But we have to allow the transport companies to break even and make reasonable profits so that they can provide this good service,” he said.

Mr Lee added that service standards will also be improved. And that includes issues like waiting time, overcrowding, the frequency of the train services at peak hours.

He said that the government will also make sure, through the PTC, that when the fares are raised they are reasonable and justifiable.

Every year, when the public transport operators (PTO) submit their applications for “fare adjustments” – (read: fare increase) – we are given assurances that service standards, waiting time and overcrowding will be improved, and train and bus frequencies will be enhanced.

They are the same promises we hear every year.

Yet, as every commuter will know, these have not improved. In fact, things have been getting from bad to worse. What is even more laughable is to hear the Prime Minister himself, no less, come out in defence of the PTOs this time. I guess no one believes his ministers or the PTOs anymore. Hence, enter the PM himself.

Well, the consolation is that the PM is aware of the problems.

But of course commuters look for more than just consolation – and rightly so. The problems with our public transport system have been around for years. Lets not forget this. Not days or weeks or months. Years. And each time complaints are made about the system, we are told to see things in perspective. Just yesterday, we were told by the PM to “relax”.

At some point, we have to question if we have the right people in charge. And by this I mean the entire slew of officials who are suppose to be looking into and solving the problems – the CEOs of the PTOs, the Public Transport Council (PTC), the Land Transport Authority (LTA), and yes the Prime Minister himself.

Lets take the example of Jurong East MRT station.

Since at least 2009 (or even earlier) commuters have had to endure not only packed trains but also the packed station. The crowds were at the platforms, the trains and even the escalators. Initially, the authorities seemed oblivious or ignorant about this. Thankfully, after netizens started posting pictures and reports online, the authorities woke up from their hubristic slumber and started to realize the potential safety problems. They decided to do something about this finally.

So on 27 May, right after the General Election, a new platform was opened. (Channelnewsasia) Ostentatiously it was suppose to provide relief to the crowded station and to ease bottlenecks and improve waiting time.

But guess what?

Some genius decided that the new “platform will only open in the mornings.”

Chew Hock Yong, Chief Executive of LTA said: “In the morning, people are constrained by working hours whereas in the evening peak (times), people go home at different time, different hours.”

So, the new platform will only be opened in the evening peak hours come December when more new trains are delivered, said LTA.

Bravo.

The result?

This (picture taken on 20 July 2011):

The travelling public is rightly aghast that the PTOs are asking for fares to be increased, in spite of sights like the above one at our train stations.

And to hear the PM coming out to defend and support the PTOs’ request is just outrageous.

While various parties have made suggestions to improve the system, I would argue that at the end of the day, it all boils down to human traffic, no matter how much improvement we make to the infrastructure. And when we talk about human traffic, it necessarily points to the government’s immigration and foreign workers policies.

I have written an article about this for Yahoo Singapore News. So, I won’t elaborate it here. (You can read the article here.)

But the point is this: PM Lee should tell Singaporeans what his long term strategy is for economic growth. Are we continuing with our dependency on foreign workers and foreign talents? If we are, then our solutions to the problems like those we face in public transport must accordingly take a long term view as well. Our immigration and FT policies directly contribute to problems like those in public transport.

Otherwise, each year we will be asked to pay higher fares and be made promises about improvements.

Promises and assurances which ring hollow and indeed are condescending.

I think, like the strain on the public transport infrastructure we currently face, there will come a time when we reach the breaking point.

And I am not just referring to the transport system.

It is time for Singaporeans to tell the authorities: Solve the problems or else get out.

And for the PM to speak up in defence of the PTOs shows how much he knows about what is going on – or how much he is aware of Singaporeans’ anger.

In other words, he sounds like a PM who is completely out of touch.

And you know what, Mr Prime Minister, you should not worry about the PTOs not making enough money. They have been doing real fine all these years. So fine that the SMRT, for example, is able to make their CEO the highest-paid CEO it has ever employed – to the tune of S$1.85 million last year.

On the contrary, you should be more empathetic and use your energy to speak up for the less fortunate, such as the disabled who have been asking – for 12 years – for concessions when using public transport.

Yet, not a word from you in support for the disabled.

When are you going to hear their pleas?

The disabled at Speakers' Corner in 2009 calling for concessions
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