THE award of the inaugural bus contract to London-based Tower Transit signals that foreign companies are more than welcome in Singapore if they can help raise local standards of nationwide services. In this sense, to be national is to avoid being nationalistic. Tower Transit, which had submitted the third-lowest bid, beat seven other firms, including incumbents SMRT and SBS Transit.
From a nationalistic point of view, one might argue the merits of supporting local firms providing essential services as these are rooted here. Public interest is served, however, by encouraging such firms to match or exceed the performance of global players. This would ensure Singaporeans are not short-changed and also spur local operators to raise their game to the level of the best in the marketplace.
The same logic which allows foreign firms to compete in Singapore without regard for their nationality should empower local firms to venture and thrive abroad without the protective buffer of the domestic Singapore market. ComfortDelGro, for example, could never have grown into one of the largest land transport companies in the world, with a global workforce and a commensurate shareholder base, had its corporate outlook been shaped and limited by Singapore's size. Today, it operates in seven countries and has a network of more than 46,000 vehicles, which include buses, taxis, trains and rental vehicles. It is an object lesson in how building a ramp of skills and capabilities can help companies to succeed.
The success of Singapore's transport workers, however, is not straightforward as they are not as mobile as companies, which possess the capital and knowledge to go overseas. Workers, therefore, deserve a helping hand to keep them in the industry, move from one employer to another without suffering wage stagnation and the dimunition of employment benefits, and continue to enjoy the benefits of training that equip them to thrive in a changing transport landscape. Tower Transit must be held to its word to offer more than 400 affected bus captains employment at current or better terms.
Ultimately, how both transport operators and their employees fare will depend on the degree of commuters' satisfaction with service. Public transport in Singapore is not only a matter of everyday necessity but also an index of national efficiency and a vital catalyst in efforts to reduce dependence on private transport.
Fresh ideas brought in by Tower Transit and others to boost bus service excellence would be most welcome. Bus rides should be predictable (via, say, the use of apps), safe, reliable, comfortable and affordable.