Lui Tuck Yew: 'A secondhand car makes very good sense'

Mr Lui Tuck Yew was appointed Transport Minister after the 2011 General Election, immediately placing him in one of the hottest political seats. Now, after two and a half years on the job, he talks to Robin Chan about wanting to buy a second-hand car, his tough upbringing – and the controversial changes to the COE system.

Q: One of your biggest challenges is getting people to swap their cars for public transport. Now that you travel by car, would it be hard for you to make the transition?

If just home to work to home, that is possible. I (took public transport to work) for a number of years. Now, in MOT, no. I can go to MOT (by train) as it is next to the MRT station. But if I have to go for a Cabinet meeting, and from (there) do a house visit, it is not so easy. 

You might say these are excuses. But the truth is I cannot see myself solely using public transport on a day-to-day basis. So I understand when people say it is hard to give up a car. If I am a salesman it is so much more productive (with a car). Or for those with a family - they do have a genuine need. So in the Category A and B (changes), I want to make sure the social equity element that was originally part of the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system continues. Because in recent years it has been crowded out by BMWs, Mercedes-Benzs, that have camped in Cat A. 

We want to shift that some, so those who really need a vehicle are not crowded out completely. But to say everyone, every household (will be able to own a car), I do not think we will be able to have that.

Q: So how often do you actually take public transport nowadays?

I tend to spend more time sitting at bus stops and standing at MRT stations rather than just taking public transport. If I take a bus, I know how crowded that particular bus is, but I am more interested in seeing how the buses are over the one-hour period. Occasionally, of course, and sometimes during weekends and holidays, I still take the trains.

Q: What car do you drive?

I drive a Nissan Prairie. It is a 9 plus year old MPV.

Q: Why did you choose that car?

Oh this was 2004. I had a Nissan Sunny before. At that time, in 2004, the kids were 12 and eight and obviously growing a bit bigger and with the in laws and wife, I said I need a car that can take six people. And I've kept it since.

Q: So it will be time to change soon. You will be entering in a high COE market?

Looks like it. Of course I can extend it for another 10 years. I don't think I will do that. I will lose the PARF ((preferential additional registration fee) and all that. I'm not so sure it will last me for another 10 years. I will have to look around. I don't preclude a secondhand car.

Q: You would really consider a secondhand car?

It depends on the price. It depends on how the market will possibly move next year with all these changes. So it's hard to say. But the depreciation (of a new car) is fastest in the first two years. So if you are not those who hanker after driving a new car, but actually a reliable car, a two to three year old secondhand car makes very good sense.

Q: What are you thoughts on private transport? You are implementing new rules to the certificate of entitlement (COE), using engine power to differentiate mass-market cars from luxury models. But some have wondered why you didn€™t use open market value (OMV) or carbon-emissions instead.

Of course with private transport, there is the perennial issue of cars, COEs and so on. By and large Singaporeans understand the constraints that we are under, the constraints of land, that really we are almost devoting as much land today to roads as we are to housing people - 12 per cent to roads versus 14 per cent to housing.

Therefore when you want more cars and more roads, you are really putting flats closer together, less greenery, and it becomes a very different environment altogether.

People understand that. They also understand, from our dialogues and feedback we get from them, that the government is working on the public transport side to make sure it is a good alternative, that it is something they can go for.

There is a group that would want an increase in supplies of COEs and want it now.

But people do recognise that there is a growth rate, and the supply is going to be pre-determined by the number who are going to scrap their cars.

We made the tweaks to Category A and B Open Market Value (OMV). I think when you explain it to people, the majority would accept that basically OMV is something that is subject to quite a bit of fluctuation. Where you report the car from, whether you have fitted it with certain fittings, and even currency, whether the yen fluctuates.

In any case, we tell them, after what we have done, 90 per cent of the cars that remain in Cat A, would be under $20,000 OMV. So rather than use a pure OMV indicator, what we have done is use a good proxy, we think, but one that is more stable and easier to implement. So the net end result is largely the same.

Generally people understand that. They want to see what direction the COE prices are going, for which nobody really knows. We all have our speculation and I am not going to add to the speculation as to where it will go both before and after February, but I think people can work it out for themselves.

There is a group that would like us to do more for the environment. What we are trying to do is use the (Carbon Emissions-Based Vehicle Scheme) CEVS as one tool. We said we are going to run it for two years, and it will end next year. Before the end of the two years we will review the system, how to enhance it, how to incentivise people better, both plus and minus towards certain behaviours.

And already after nine to 10 months, we are seeing a change. We have given out data on buying behaviour and how that has shifted somewhat.

Today already one out of two households own a car, and I don't think any major city even comes close to this.

If you want to go even further in that direction, it means you either have gridlock, jams, very high usage charges, or you have a lot more roads, you lose your greenery and the environment becomes not what we are used to.

So we make those trade-offs, put a lot more emphasis on our transport system, work on the taxis, because we have come up with availability, we are going to step it up further next year, we are going to do more for car sharing, so that when you do need personalised transport, you have options like taxis, car sharing, rather than say that we must all own our own cars.

Q: Will there be a tipping point where there is a big swing that really moves the needle from people using cars to public transport?

It is probably a gradual move. For the people who are used to driving, it is not so easy to win them (over). It is very hard, for a variety of reasons, including for myself now. So it is not so easy to mandate, and say all of you use public transport.

You can take very draconian measures and say minus 2 per cent COE growth (each year to reduce the number of cars). But that would be crazy. It is not that I am against cars, but (the number of cars) shouldn't grow well above the growth in road capacity. And road capacity going forward is really about 0.5 per cent. Hence we say, that is what it is.

Q: Professor Kishore Mahbubani wrote a piece about Singapore becoming a city of electric cars. What do you think of that idea?

The difficulty is in going to make that infrastructure available, convincing people of the reliability and performance of the car. There will be a group that says unless the infrastructure is there I am not so confident in the performance I am not prepared to shift. And if there is no shift how can you justify the infrastructure? Because for it to be possible you need every other parking lot to have a charging station. And you may need to charge it at your place of work as well. The infrastructure part is not so easy to overcome.

Our position today is actually we are technologically neutral, so we have moved away from the clean vehicles scheme of the past. I am going to look at you based on carbon emissions. 

Certainly if you have conventional cars that can be very clean, we ought to incentivise them rather than only a particular technology.

And we need to remind people at the end of the day, at peak hours, even the dirtiest bus is cleaner than the cleanest car, on a per head basis, because the bus will be taking 100 people. 

So those who say let's put a lot of emphasis, financial resources, I would say, well spare a thought for all the other things we need to do, especially in public transport. And that is where I am concentrating the bulk of the effort more than anything else.

Q: Some people want the MOT to be bolder in its vision and really go green.

At the end of the day, we have to come down to the practicalities as well. How do we pay for it? So let's say for example, the easiest would be for those who operate fleets of vehicles, so let's say taxis, because many of them will go back to a particular place to refuel. So taxi companies, if by a certain day I want all your vehicles to be electric, you have to provide all the infrastructure. But are the commuters ready to pay higher fares? So when it comes down to ultimately what are you prepared to pay for it, are people ready to do so?

Q: You have served two and half years as Transport Minister, how has that been?

Interesting, challenging too. What we are doing with transport boils down to better connectivity.

Hence, if you want better connectivity, delivering a better service, making it more convenient for people to get on the MRT network, you do need the infrastructure.

So build lines, make sure the stations are nearer to the homes of people, so our goals are, instead of measuring how many kilometres and the number of stations, it is how near are the stations to where people live?

By 2030, we hope 80 per cent will be within a 10 minute walk of an MRT station. You can walk, cycle, or take a feeder if you want to. But I give you options. Because that first mile and last mile is what takes the longest.

The second part is better service. Part of better service is something that is more reliable than what we have today.

For trains, have fewer breakdowns, run on time and when you don't have breakdowns, generally some speed restrictions here and there, but by and large people know that within so many minutes I can get to my destination.

For buses, there is also this thing about better reliability. Not because buses breakdown but because you do want buses to come with some certain regularity.

We announced that previously we are going to implement a quality incentive framework towards the end of the year on a pilot number of services. We will see how we can incentivise bus drivers to put in a lot more effort to do this.

And of course, we must make sure we implement the long term plans speedily, because overall, it will contribute to a more inclusive and more liveable community. And with an ageing population we really need to be mindful of the transport system as well.

Q: What is a typical meal at home like?

On a weekday, it is normally rice and some dishes. Nothing so fancy. But during the weekends I help my wife to cook. We enjoy cooking together.

It is a lot of one-pot type of meals. So glutinous rice, olive rice with an omelette and otak, or we fry noodles. When we are more energetic, we make our own pasta and do a pasta meal. It takes a bit more work, but we enjoy working on it together. It is actually not so easy for one person to work the pasta machine. It is a great difference in texture between fresh pasta and the dry stuff that you get.

Q: How long have you been cooking for?

I knew how to cook when I was very, very young. When I was six years old, my mother, who was alive then, would bring my brothers to swim, and I would be at home and put the rice in the pot and get it to cook.

Then she passed away, so we had to learn to look after ourselves, including doing the marketing and all that. I was the youngest. So it was three boys and then my dad.

Q: What was growing up like that for you?

A lot of freedom. My dad was working. My brothers are four years older than me, they are twins, and never had time for the younger brother, so they lived life, very independent, lots of freedom.

It has actually made me realise how lucky I was, because it is a very thin line between going the straight and narrow path and falling by the wayside.

I could have mixed with the wrong crowd and could have been influenced by the wrong people and all that. The neighbourhood that I was living in wasn't the best of neighbourhoods. This was the old Tiong Bahru. You learn to rough it out, you learn to survive in different environments, you pick up some of those life skills.

But I was also fortunate to be in a good school, primary school, secondary school and so on. So that kind of counteracted some of these influences. (He attended Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) and then Cambridge University)

Therefore you do understand why is it that some of these people here could just fall off, mix with bad company, take up smoking, forget their studies altogether and just go astray.

Q: What helped you keep on the right path?

When I was in secondary school, lower secondary, in particular, I wasn't doing that well. By the time I got to Sec 3, I was in the third of three science classes.

People assume that we always go to the best classes and it is all straightforward. Not quite the case. And then one day I just decided that I ought to be doing better than this. I really ought to take it a bit more seriously. You get scolded by the teachers, for not bringing your books, not doing your work.

Q: You were like that?

I was a bit of a troublemaker. We all were. You know boys of that age, we egg on each other. Maybe after a while some of that scolding and some of the caring from the teachers helped. I decided I ought to be working harder than this. It was not easy.

I still remember my Sec 4 mid-year exams, I looked at the maths paper, additional maths, and I said goodness gracious, I'm in big trouble. I ended up with a C6. Today you would say it is disastrous.

Then I was in a better class, good friends with some of the classmates, they helped me along, we studied together, and I got influenced by the right people who were very hardworking, so it helped.

That's one of the things I've learned: when you do well, it is not because you are smart, came from a good family, it is really teachers, the environment, having good classmates, having people encouraging you along the way. There is more than innate and individual abilities.

Q: Did that have an influence on you wanting to join politics?

No. Having joined politics the growing up experience was helpful. I'm not saying that those who have it smooth all the way can't understand the difficulties of those who have academic difficulties, or other kinds of difficulties, because that would be absolutely wrong.

But for me, I suppose I can identify with those who may not have both their parents with them, or who at some point in their life would find difficulty with their work, with their lessons, with other sorts of problems. Then when I was in JC, I was already a Christian, I took it more seriously, and that really had an influence on my life too.

Q: Given your background, what did you think of what former civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow said about Cabinet ministers being elitist?

He has already corrected himself. He recognised too that what he said was probably not fair and I think if he had stuck to it, it would not have been fair.

There is a difference between being elite and being elitist. One is really a mindset. You don't have to be elite to be elitist because you just think you are better than everyone else.

Yes you can attend whatever schools and can come through whatever system, but you have to be able to see things from another person's perspective, see it through their lenses, wear their shoes. We can all do that, regardless of whether you are from an elite school or non-elite school.

Elitism is really an attitude where we think we are superior to somebody else, we have the solutions and we needn't listen to anybody else. If we have that, we will be in big trouble.

Ultimately we do have to decide, but it doesn't mean we have the best knowledge. We can still pay people the respect of listening to them, explaining it to them where possible, and then making a decision that will hopefully be the best decision for everyone involved.

Q: As Transport Minister, you have been in one of the hottest seats, and received a lot of criticism from public. How do you deal with that?

First of all, you've got to be able to categorise the criticism.

There is some that is quite destructive, very personal, and some of that you ought to just put aside and not pay too much attention to it. But the others, more in line with feedback than direct criticisms, we should pay attention and see how we can improve.

The second thing is to remember to have a thick skin and tender heart, and not a thin skin and a hard heart. Because if we have a thin skin and a hard heart, then we are probably not quite suitable to do what we need to do. But a thick skin and a tender heart, that is something I try to constantly remind myself of.

Q: Has politics been what you expected it to be?

Well I've been in politics for the last seven and a half years. Why am I still in politics?

The simplest way to express would be to maybe borrow from a quote. There is a couplet from (Charles) Dickens I remember well and I let it percolate in my mind.

The first line: it is a far far better thing to do, than I've ever done. And I think that describes my last seven and a half years in politics. The second line actually says: it is a far far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Of course they were talking about a different rest, the rest you find at the end of life's journey, but to me it is still valid, because the rest that I seek, is, I hope infused with abiding satisfaction of having filled the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run. That is the rest that I seek.