Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dear Transport Minister

I take cognizance of your urging Singaporeans not to link politicize issue of bus fare hikes.

However, it goes without saying that any cost of living issue *is* a political issue. The populace votes for a party or candidate in the hope that their choice will help improve (or at least not reduce) their standard of living, which includes issues like security and safety, how much they earn, and have to spend.

I will grant that your point about transport fares and operators' costs going "full circle" makes sense. We get what we (tax payers or users) pay for.

But the suggestion by the unnamed Thomson Division resident is a valid one.

Allowing such transport fare increases once every 4 years is not unthinkable. I seriously doubt if our transport operators are operating on a hand-to-mouth basis (a scenario which applies to some of their users). Moreover, when costs are reduced (e.g. when fuel prices fall, more efficient buses are used, better route planning etc), we also don't see fares coming down. Obviously, there must be some surplus which operators enjoy.

Now, the unnamed Thomson Division resident has actually gone a step further to ask that the price increases (if any, presumably) be made *before* the general election.

I imagine that this would be a tough pill for the ruling PAP to swallow. It takes some chutzpah for a politician to increase prices, taxes etc (i.e. essentially screw them), and then ask voters for their support. (And I have earlier admitted that cost of living is a political issue).

A fairer solution would be to allow public transport fare increases on a fixed date only once every three years, say on 1 Oct. If there incredible circumstances (e.g. doubling or tripling of fuel prices) which really require intervention to save transport companies from going under, the government should step in with some help from our carefully guarded coffers. Fares for public transport should not be allowed to rise willy nilly.

This way, price hikes might sometimes happen before an election, and sometimes after. In any case, we would have somewhat divorced the issue from politics from bus fare hikes.

October 8, 2007 Monday
By Yeo Ghim Lay

Transport Minister Raymond Lim yesterday commented for the first time on the bus fare hike this month, urging Singaporeans not to politicise the issue.

Doing so would over time, cause the service standard to suffer, he said at a dialogue.

A resident of Thomson Division suggested that fares be reviewed every four years before the general election.

He was highlighting the latest bus fare hike of 1 to 2 cents on Oct 1, just a year after the last increase when fares of buses and trains were raised by 1 to 3 cents.

Replying, Mr Lim said if fares were frozen for four years, people tend to ask for it to be extended again.

Other countries' experiences have shown that when governments succumb to such pressure, service standards would deteriorate.

The reason: bus companies, unable to afford new buses, will have a shrinking fleet, resulting in overcrowding.

As the situation worsens, people will complain to the government, which will feel compelled to raise fares.

'But the people say: 'How can you raise the fare if the buses are so crowded, so lousy the service?'

'It goes one full circle,' said the minister.

So while, politically, the freezing of fares would be a popular move, that would not be a responsible thing to do, he added.

The resident had also asked why public transport companies like SBS and SMRT are publicly listed, resulting in them looking out for the interests of their shareholders, not commuters.

Mr Lim said experience elsewhere shows that if government were to take over, costs will still rise eventually. Fares then have to rise. But if commuters resist, fares have to
subsidised and this subsidy has to be borne by taxpayers. So, either the user or tax- payer pays, he noted.

The minister also defended the Public Transport Council (PTC), noting that its decision to disallow train fares to rise was ignored by people.

Arguing that fare charges was best left to the independent PTC, he said it was unfair to brand it pro-public transport operators.

'They are doing a very difficult job, (it is) very easy to say these things but they're already trying to take into account the public interest to ensure that at the end of the day, you have a public transport service that is good,' he said.

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