Public transport: No. 1 in the world?


Singapore can have the best public transport system in the world if it is prepared to act boldly.

BIG Idea No. 2 is a no-brainer: Make Singapore’s public transportation No. 1 in the world. Why is it a no-brainer? Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur as well as Bangkok and Manila face the danger of more or less permanent gridlock with massive traffic jams. I pray and hope it will not happen, but I am also prepared to take bets it will. But even if our neighbours strangle their cities in this way, their countries will continue.

Singapore does not have this option. If our city strangles itself to death with massive traffic jams, both the city and country will collapse. Good public transportation is therefore not an option. In Singapore it is a critical necessity.

Unrealised potential

FORTUNATELY, we have all the ingredients in place to create the world’s best public transportation system: money, meritocracy and motivation (the three Ms). We are one of the richest countries in the world in terms of financial reserves. We can pay for the best system. We also have one of the best civil services, if not the best, in the world. I know this well as several leading global scholars have asked me why Singapore does so well in public administration.

Few other governments in the world can match the quality of minds we have in our Administrative Service. And we also have the motivation. For us, good public transportation is a matter of life and death.

With all these assets in place, it was truly shocking to read in The Straits Times on Feb 13 that Singapore’s MRT system is average in the world in terms of system breakdowns.

According to Christopher Tan, senior transport correspondent for The Straits Times, “breakdowns on the 125-year-old, 340km, 24-hour New York City subway average one every 260,000km operated. Singapore’s 25-year-old, 180km network breaks down once every 120,000km”.

When I told a Harvard professor this fact, he was astounded. He asked me: “Should I be proud of New York or worried for Singapore?”

What happened? How did we go from being almost No. 1 in the world in MRT systems to falling behind ancient systems like that of New York?

What mistakes did we make? How did it go so badly wrong? And what can we do now to reverse this negative slide and move towards making Singapore truly No. 1 in the world in public transportation?

A 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found that Singapore’s public transport systems ranked behind those of Toronto, London, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Please let me stress one point here. I am not an expert on public transportation. I do not have enough data or information to explain what went wrong. All this requires a massive study.

However as an amateur analyst of Singapore’s public policies, I believe that I can point out three challenges Singapore will have to overcome to succeed in its goal of becoming No. 1. All three challenges begin with the letter C.

Critical mistakes

THE first challenge is conceptual. Public transportation is a public good, not a private good. However, when Singapore was at the height of its infatuation with the Reagan-Thatcher intellectual revolution, we believed that the private sector was better at delivering some public goods than the public sector. This may explain several critical mistakes.

My friends in the civil service have told me one of the biggest mistakes we made was to privatise the Public Works Department (PWD) and sell it off. In so doing, we lost both the engineering expertise and a storehouse of wisdom about the maintenance of public works. I hope that some day somebody will try to recreate the old PWD we used to have.

We may have also made a mistake in privatising the MRT system, handing over the operation to private companies rather than government departments.

In theory, private companies are more efficient than government departments in delivering services. Since they are concerned about the bottom line, they cut costs well.

However, private companies do not factor in “externalities”.

Hence when the private companies cut down on the maintenance of our MRT tracks to cut costs, they did not factor in the “cost” to the Government’s credibility when the system began to break down frequently. It will literally, not metaphorically, cost the Government billions of dollars to recover this lost credibility.

This explains why the Government has provided SMRT with $500 million to improve the maintenance of the MRT tracks. This, in turn, creates public confusion as taxpayers ask why their money should help the bottom line of private companies. There is a simple solution. We should consider making the Ministry of Finance the sole shareholder of all our public transport companies, just as it is the sole shareholder of many government-linked companies.

Fresh approach needed

THE second challenge is the culture of conservatism. Having invested billions of dollars in an extensive train and bus system, we have worked under the assumption that we can only “tinker” with an established system and not start from scratch.

This is a very dangerous and conservative assumption. If we work under this assumption, we will be reluctant to look for structural defects in our current system and be equally reluctant to explore bold and radical moves. If we are going to succeed in our goal of becoming No. 1 in the world in public transportation, we have to consider radical as well as conservative approaches.

Here is one radical suggestion: Organise a global competition to encourage universities, think- tanks and global companies all over the world to put forward a new blueprint for Singapore’s public transportation system.

There is a lot of expertise out there. A $10 million prize would be sufficient to attract a whole slew of new blueprints. And $10 million would be a small sum to spend considering the billions we have to put in to deal with systemic flaws. The winners of this global competition could be announced when we celebrate our 50th anniversary next year.

Social experiments

THE third C challenge we face is “comprehensiveness”. Public transportation can work well only if its planning is well integrated into existing urban planning policies. Each limb of our national planning must support other limbs. Let me cite a few examples.

First, we have to deal with the “car” problem. As I explained in my previous column, despite the many disincentives put in place to discourage car ownership and use, we have actually created an ecosystem which makes it more rational to drive a car than to take public transport. We now have to create a new ecosystem that discourages car ownership and use.

For a start, we should encourage new road experiments to change behaviour. In the year 2015, as part of our 50th anniversary celebration, we should exempt all taxis from paying Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) charges for one year. The goal of this social experiment is to see whether Singaporeans will make the rational decision to leave their cars at home and take taxis into the Central Business District to save on ERP charges.

At the same time, we will also discover whether this leads to a surge in the supply of taxis in the CBD. This increase in supply of taxis in the CBD could, over time, increase demand and use of taxis in the CBD.

I don’t know whether this will happen. Nobody knows whether it will happen. This is why we have to try out bold experiments. The financial cost of giving taxis exemption from ERP charges will be peanuts compared to the benefits we will get if people leave their cars at home.

A downtown HDB estate?

SECONDLY, we should consider the merits of building a massive HDB estate downtown. A lot of land will be freed up when the Marina Bay Golf Course lease ends. Why not build a big HDB estate there? The obvious response will be that the land is too expensive. But the land will not be as expensive as the land in Manhattan.

In October 2011, I visited Manhattan in my capacity as chairman of the nominating committee of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize (New York subsequently won the prize in 2012). On this visit, the surprising thing I learnt was that Manhattan had a policy to ensure that it did not create an environment where only millionaires and billionaires could afford to live.

Hence, even though the mayor of New York City then was a billionaire, Mr Michael Bloomberg, his administration worked hard to set aside land in this expensive midtown and downtown area for workers to live.

Mayor Bloomberg’s New Housing Market Place Plan was designed to build and preserve 165,000 income-restricted units by June this year for 500,000 New Yorkers. It was the largest municipal affordable housing plan in American history.

To some extent, this is what we did when we built the Pinnacle in Tanjong Pagar. We should now replicate the Pinnacle experiment in our new CBD.

It is true that Singapore citizens who live in this CBD public housing will get a subsidy. However, if they use less public transportation to commute into the CBD, they will not be using the subsidies that are being given to every user of public transport. We will also enhance the social harmony of Singapore by giving less well-off Singaporeans a stake in the CBD.

The third social experiment we can try is to build shoe-box garages next to every MRT station.

The idea would be to allow us to walk out of an MRT station and rent a two-seater air-conditioned electric vehicle to take us across the last mile of our journey (and back).

Clearly, our hot and humid weather makes it difficult to walk the last mile to our destination. Hence we have to create ingenious solutions to encourage people to avoid driving and take public transport. And soon we may have driver-less vehicles which will be able to do this job too.

There are many ways we can make Singapore’s public transportation No. 1 in the world. If there is one country in the world that has the means and motivation to achieve this goal, it is Singapore.

So why don’t we just get started?

The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He is the author of The Great Convergence: Asia, The West, And The Logic Of One World, which has been long-listed for the 2014 Lionel Gelber Prize, described by The Economist as “the world’s most important award for non-fiction”.