I strongly believe that having a outstanding public transport system is essential. It is an effective way to elevate the quality of lives of many Singaporeans. A high quality public transport system will help to reduce the impact of the large income gap and reduce the demand for cars. I have written many times about our public transport system - the quality of service is not there and the privatization of bus and train services will limit what the govt can do to improve it. Private operators have to answer to shareholders and company decisions will be dominated by the need to make profits. When they build up a cash pile, they rather give it out as dividends than to upgrade their services. The current model means that operators are motivated to just meet the minimum service quality requirements of the PTC (Public Transport Council) to avoid fines and maximize profits for shareholders.
I truly appreciate the efforts of our current transport minister, Liu Tuck Yew, who used the public transport system personally to experience for himself the quality of service during the peak hours of operation. It is also refreshing that unlike other ministers in the past, he did not deny the problems faced by our public transport system using selective statistics to demonstrate that the system is "world class". Liu was on top of the situation when he quickly took charge when the SMRT trains broke down.
Given the services have already privatized, it was unclear to me how Liu would be able to improve the quality of service. The Workers Party suggested that the govt should undo the privatization - something really messy and costly in the short term as the govt would have to pay the shareholders and take over the entire operation.
Liu has decided to make a very bold and controversial move to sink in $1B for SBS Transit for the purchase new buses. This move has sparked concerns among Singaporeans[Link] because the govt is giving money to a privatized profit oriented company and it is not clear if they will just end up helping the company to enhance its profits as the company can now save some of its own money that it would have had to spend to meet the minimum standards. The current model has left the govt with limited options and poor choices. That is the hazard and disadvantage of "privatizing" something that is "public". Now Liu has to try to "squeeze" as much as possible from SBS Transit and the last thing he wants is the the effects of move to show up on the company's bottom line but not in quality of service. The bus company also has difficulty getting drivers...[Link] not just buses. The bus company will not be able to spend a billion of its own money on new buses because will not be able justify such a move to shareholders. The next step for Liu and the PTC is to push up the minimum service standard and get SBS Transit to play ball.
This whole episode shows the constraints and limitations the govt faces when it tries to upgrade a public transport system it now no longer controls. The system has been falling short as demand increases and we are still very far from a happy situation - short waiting time, enough empty seats and direct bus routes. These days I'm happy be able to squeeze up a bus. I very often have to stand on the stairs at the entrance - did it 5 times this week. During peak hours, our buses and MRT are not suitable for old folks and pregnant women. Unfortunately, in Singapore, the old folks have to work until they are at an advanced age and they often have to depend on the public transport system to take them to work.