I was once stuck in a train on the Circle Line for 15 minutes before a technical problem was rectified. The train was very stuffy and passengers were very frustrated ...and that was for a 15 minute delay so when you have a people stuck in a train for a hour without air conditioning and lights, you can expect people to be very angry with what happened.
You can't blame the people on the train for being angry but I feel much of the anger for SMRT's CEO Saw Piak Hwa is misdirected. Ultimately as CEO of SMRT, the buck stops with her but that does not mean she has been negligent or did not do her job well. The problems were caused by misalignment of the rails and an inquiry is being conducted to determine all the facts. The actual cause may be failure to check the rails because experts did not recommend SMRT to do so or checks were done but the technicians did not do a good job or it is really something that cannot be foreseen even with the best technical knowledge. However, Saw is presumed by many on the Internet and the general public to have done something wrong.
There was unhappiness with Ms Saw even before this latest incident and much of this is unjustified. People blame her for crowded trains, unpleasant rides and many don't like her for getting a high salary of several million for running a public transport system. You cannot blame Saw for the crowded trains because she does not control our foreign influx and when the trains became crowded it is not within the SMRT resources to invest in new lines or completely revamp the system. Only the govt can build new lines and Ms Saw is answerable to share holders she can't just throw in every penny to replace trains, and rebuild stations because SMRT is a listed company and bottom line is everything. SMRT did improve the signalling system to increase frequency and that upgrade cost $1B. I don't blame her for her pay because such high executive compensation is now common place among listed company CEOs and Saw is not an exception.
"SMRT must make this right...." - Minister Liu, Straits Times headlines, 17 Dec 2011
Singaporeans are unhappy with the whole transport system and Saw Piak Hwa, the well paid CEO of SMRT has become an easy target for their anger. She is not in charge of the transport system, Minister Liu is but I don't suggest you direct your anger at Minister Liu because he has been on the job for a few months and inherited the whole system with all its problems from Raymond Lim who inherited it from Mah Bow Tan....and so on. Raymond Lim and Mah are no longer ministers. There are so many issues that cause Singaporeans to be unhappy about transport that I doubt Minister Liu can fix them all. Our transport system may never get back to a state that Singaporeans find it satisfactory. When did our transport problems begin? ....Once you understand how it begins, you will have some idea how it can be fixed.
In Singapore we have the most expensive cars in the world due to the COE. We have the highest cost of using cars due to ERP, road tax and petrol tax. In many countries, a person working as a cashier in a supermarket can own a car so transport is not in issue but in Singapore a many professionals/degree holders do not drive due to the cost. But since Singapore is small and population density is high people can accept that not everyone can own a car. However, the distribution of COEs purely on the basis of the ability of people to pay mismatch the needs of people with this limited resource, cars. A lower middle class father with a real need for a car, say someone with children and parents with medical conditions (difficulty walking cannot take bus), is priced out by the teenage son of a millionaire who doesn't really need the car. Our income gap which is the largest in the developed world amplifies the mismatch. The alternative to owning a car is taking taxis that is why people are up in arms when fares are increased because it has become a necessity for some people. When people complained that it was hard to get taxis during peak hours the taxi companies increased peak hour charges to price poorer people out during peak hours. When traffic becomes heavy, ERP charges are increased to price 'poorer' drivers out - these mechanisms are fine if our income gap is not so big and we can compete more equally to pay to get scarce resources based on our needs. But that is not the case for Singapore and people are torn apart by their needs and ability to pay. The thing that can save us all from the unhappy outcome of this system is a good public transport system. That is why many cities without COEs have not fallen apart ....a COE-less system forces the govt to make the public transport system so good that people prefer not to drive their cars...with a quota system in place, the govt has less incentive to create public system that is good enough to compete with car ownership.
Our public transport system has been privatised and the tradeoff between operating profits and passenger comfort comes into play. What public transport companies like SMRT and SBS try to do is adhere to minimum standards and maximise profit margins. So the incentive for CEO Saw is to do no more than the minimum in terms of service quality because she won't lose any customers as a monopoly . The elimination of new long haul bus services which the transport ministry plans to force more people into a "spoke and hub" system in which the MRT forms the hub and short haul buses the spoke can only worsen the system. More direct long haul buses that connect major worker centers to major housing estates can relieve the congestion in our MRT system.
Our entire transport system is now in a very unsatisfactory state with middle class families struggling very hard to own and use a car that they really need and ordinary Singaporeans unhappy with the crowded public system and poor people completely priced out of taxis and cars when they urgently need them.
The Worker's Party suggests re-nationalising the bus and MRT so that more resources can put into them and the need for generate profit is taken away. This may sound like a bold drastic solution but I believe that the govt should go even further. Good public transport is essential to lift up the quality of life of the majority of people in Singapore and reduce the demand for cars limited by road capacity Worker's Party suggests to operate this system on a cost recovery basis - I would go even further to suggest that the govt should make the system as good as possible even if it means that they incur some operating losses in the form of subsidies to students, senior citizens and poor. After all the govt sinks in billions into defense without cost recovery.... and rightfully so for the long term security of the nation even though there are no direct and immediate threats. Similarly, we should think in terms of the gain in the quality of life of Singaporeans when we invest and operate our public transport system - it will help to alleviate some of deleterious effects of our large income gap and strengthen our social compact. In that sense spending on public transport system is part of security as one of our pillars of defense - social defense - depend very much on the cohesiveness of our society.
If people feel that is system is designed for the rich and their needs are not met when the time comes, the man behind the weapons, asked to serve his country, may have one less reason to die for his society ....