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Need to balance laws with individual responsibility

The final business of yesterday's Parliament sitting highlighted the necessity, and also the limits, of changes to regulations to deal with new technologies and trends such as the rising popularity and use of personal mobility devices.

MPs were debating the Active Mobility Bill - new legislation that will enable the setting up of a framework to regulate the use of devices such as e-scooters, skateboards and hoverboards.

The use of such devices has been on the rise here, and the Government views this as a positive step as the country transits towards becoming less reliant on cars.

But there have also been accidents involving those who use these devices, and reports of recklessness and inconsiderate behaviour on walkways.

And so for 21/2 hours, MPs debated proposed regulations that include speed limits, where people will be allowed to use these mobility devices, and penalties when rules are breached.

Over the years, there has been growing sentiment in some quarters that the Government should intervene less in the different aspects of lives of Singaporeans. Yet, whenever something goes awry, there will unfailingly be a chorus of calls from the public for something to be made illegal, or for the authorities to clamp down on devices or practices.

They welcomed the legislation, but several also pointed out that having the right regulation was only one part of the equation to ensure a safe environment for pedestrians, cyclists and users of other mobility devices.

Equally important is the role that people themselves play in being sensible and responsible when zipping around on their set of wheels.

As Mr Melvin Yong (Tanjong Pagar GRC) put it: "Legislation is only a first step towards creating public awareness on what is right and wrong, with legal penalties serving to deter reckless behaviour. The responsibility of creating safer roads and pathways lies with every individual."

Senior Minister of State for Transport Josephine Teo, who responded to MPs during the debate on the legislation, also reiterated at several points that the ultimate aim is to shape a culture of gracious and considerate sharing of public paths among all users.

"While cultural norms take time to develop, we can support their formation through appropriate rules and enforcement," she told the House.

In other words, a sound regulatory framework is not an end in itself.

It exists to deter bad behaviour by defining and penalising what is beyond the pale, at least until good habits become the norm.

This is also needed to reduce the inevitable friction that emerges when people have to change the way they use and share public spaces like pathways.

Perhaps there will come a time when such laws are no longer needed and the Government does not need to step in to regulate the cycling or scooter-riding habits of Singaporeans.

Over the years, there has been growing sentiment in some quarters that the Government should intervene less in the different aspects of lives of Singaporeans.

Yet, whenever something goes awry, there will unfailingly be a chorus of calls from the public for something to be made illegal, or for the authorities to clamp down on devices or practices.

Some of these calls prompted the review of the law. And reflecting such sentiments, several MPs felt the proposals in the Bill did not go far enough to regulate the use of mobility devices.

Some wanted it made compulsory for users of such devices to buy insurance, while one suggested a minimum age for users.

While the instinct to safeguard the well-being of citizens is understandable, it may also dilute a long-term aim of the Bill - that of fostering a society where courtesy, care and the responsible sharing of public spaces becomes the norm.

This may sound like an overly optimistic goal. But cities such as Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Tokyo - examples that Mrs Teo cited - show that it is an achievable aim.

The potential positive impact of individual action also surfaced during a particular exchange during Question Time.

Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin spoke about the issue of suicide among the elderly when responding to Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan, who asked about suicide rates among this group.

The number of suicides in this age group has increased from 95 in 2010 to 126 in 2014.

Minister Tan outlined various ways that the Government is dealing with the matter, such as through programmes to encourage seniors to be socially active and setting up hotlines for those who wish to seek help.

While these initiatives are important, he said "the most critical role played would be by the individuals, families and the community".

"Individuals should take personal responsibility and practise self-awareness so that they seek help early when feeling overwhelmed and emotionally distressed."

Likewise, family members, colleagues, friends and neighbours can also help pick up signs of distress, give emotional support and offer assistance.

"Without these steps, even the best support programmes will be rendered ineffective," he added.

Indeed, sometimes a top-down government approach - however well intentioned and thoughtful - cannot have the same effect as the personal touch of a loved one.

In the end, the efforts by the Government can only go so far.

Individual responsibility remains the stronger, and perhaps more vital, component of ensuring a safe and pleasant living environment.

Whether at home, or when out on public pathways, people will have to increasingly take charge of their well-being and recognise that shared space means precisely that - shared.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Need to balance laws with individual responsibility'. Print Edition | Subscribe