We Need A Reformist, Not An Apologist As Transport Minister


By: B. Goode

So Lui Tuck Yew has called it a day.

It is hard to believe that a former navy chief and a rear-admiral to boot would surrender just like that. So chances are, he has been asked to leave simply because he is a liability to the ruling PAP. You cannot find a more dislikeable person in the cabinet.

But lets give credit where credit is due.

He has done quiet a remarkable job considering the fact that he inherited an almost archaic rail system at least as far as the NS-EW lines are concerned. He managed to get government fundings for maintenance, extra buses and trains. He managed to move forward the construction of parallel lines such as the Thomson Line. And it is true, as he has claimed, the the MRT system is getting increasingly more efficient.

What he failed to do was to manage the commuters’ expectation.

It didn’t help that when he first started as the Minister of Transport, he decided to embark on an almost comical PR campaign of getting himself photographed looking comfortable in an MRT train and bus during peak hours. Those who have taken public transportation during peak hours quickly called his bluff.

And it didn’t help either that after each rail incident, he’d go out of his way to apologise and make excuses for the transport operators.

And of course this culminated in his famous `sustainable’ speech where in the aftermath of public’s outrage at the fare increase despite plummeting fuel prices, he defended the decision by saying that the transport companies must remain sustainable. But a few months after that, the SMRT CEO got paid the highest bonus on record.

Sustainable my foot.

We don’t need an apologist. What we need is a true reformer. Someone who could turn the public transport model on its head, shake it all up and convince the government that a change is needed.

Profit-maximisation will not work when it involves a basic necessity such as public transport. It is due to this incessent drive to maximize profit that has caused the transport operators to neglect maintenance and replacement works. The worst part was that a huge chunk of the profits went to the pockets of shareholders and for the bonuses of the management.

Why not consider nationalising the public transport system?

Or, if that proves to be too defeatist, why not at least re-instate the bus services that run parallel to the MRT lines? These buses can at least take some load off the trains but most importantly, allow the MRT system to be shut-down earlier, say at 10pm every weekday nights. This will allow more time for maintenence works to be done on the tracks.

The argument against this is that, running parallel bus services would incur more costs without any real gains because they would just be taking commuters who would otherwise be taking the trains.

And herein lies the problem. Profit-maximisation entails for the trains to run for as long as possible, packing in as many people as possible, and cutting down on maintenance and capex as low as possible.

And the result is the very problem that we have with the MRT system right now.

The transport ministry needs someone who can convince the notoriously money-minded government that as far as public transport is concerned, making money should take a backseat to a reliable, comfortable and safe system.

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