Monday, July 31, 2006

Scourge of councils

Taxi Everywhere in Singapore? - has a Public Transport Council (PTC) in place of Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of the Free Markets. This is as much as an admission that Singapore's public transportation does not operate under any free market framework at all. It must take an 'authority', duly constituted by the government and empowered by Parliament, to regulate the public transport market in Singapore. Clearly, the invisible hand is too scary to 'manipulate' compared to a visible one.

Under newfound teeth due to the PTC Act of April 2006, it is now able to flex its muscles to get the public transport operators to ship up or be fined tens of thousands of dollars. On the face of it, this is good news for commuters, especially those that depend on the trains and buses everyday travelling to and from work. Surely now transport operators will be more careful that their buses and trains run on time, and that there will not be any breakdown in services - at least not as serious as the one that happened to SBS Transit's NEL subway line last Monday, 24 July 2006. Less waiting time and more predictable services will reduce the stress that workers already suffer from in the office.

But who really foots those multi-thousand dollar fines should the transport company be found wanting? You guessed right - the commuters. First, transport companies must now put in place a greater level of control and monitoring infrastructure to ensure that they do not slip up. That means more manpower, and probably more sophisticated software and hardware systems that may cost hundreds-of-thousands of dollars for a start, not counting long term maintenance costs. Second, the transport companies may have to increase redundancies (e.g. more idle buses and train cars) so that they can react and recover from emergencies quickly, as required by the PTC. Third, they will probably need to buy more insurance to buffer any huge expenses that might be imposed in the event that they do get fined, in spite of all the millions already spent. All these translates into higher operating costs which, ironically, our transport companies have often submitted to the PTC as a basis to justify increasing their fares. This is an expensive merry-go-round for consumers.

So, does penalising transport companies really benefit the commuters? I am rather doubtful. Unless disruptions to transport services is blatantly negligent, I think the PTC should just leave the transport companies alone. Singapore commuters are a rather spoilt lot. One major disruption in 4 years of NEL's operations is nothing to be alarmed about. Transport companies will take the lessons to heart and rectify the situation without prompting. To start imposing punitive fines here and there will only hurt the commuters' pockets in the long run.

While it is a good thing (in the absence of true competition and a free transport market) that the PTC now has greater powers, it should exercise its powers judiciously and not inadvertently hurt the commuters it is tasked to protect. The best and most effective power that disciplines still is free competition.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Tour de Singapore

Cycle Tour - the last week or so, several Today readers have written to express their views on road safety for cyclists on Singapore's roads. Not that Singapore's road are badly constructed with potholes all over the place. It isn't even because Singapore's roads are not well designed and well connected around the island. In fact, the government departments in charge of roads and parks have gone out of their way to build park connectors that will link all the public parks on the island so that one can cycle from park to park around the island with little disruption. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me, nobody has come up with a Park Connector Marathon for cyclers - a Tour de Singapore - yet. It would be very exciting for me and many cycling enthusiasts if this were to happen. It would be great exercise for cyclists and a fun day in the sun for spectators and family who, more often than not, are cooped up either in their apartments, their neighbourhood supermarkets, the malls or their offices for much of the day.

But the reality in Singapore for cyclists is that Singapore's roads are very dangerous. Over the past month or so, two cyclists have lost their lives on its roads due to motorists' negligence and rashness. I love cycling, but the last time I was on a bicylce must be, oh, 7 or 8 years ago. I used to take long and short cycling trips on my own when I lived in the Naval Base. It was a cycler's heaven because the vehicular traffic there was sparse, the land was huge and the roads were fantastic. I used to cycle from home to Sembawang Beach, just in front of Beaulieu House, which was then a deserted place. In fact, I pretty much cycled around the whole Naval Base before the family moved away.

I don't/can't do that anymore where I live now because it is surrounded by cyclist unfriendly large roads with a constant flow of traffic. Knowing Singapore motorists, it will be suicidal to share the road with them. And I hate cycling on the footpath because, well, they are footpaths, not cycling paths. There are quite a number of cyclists around Sengkang though, but they cycle for utilitarian purposes - such as going to the mall, going to work and going to school. They park in or around Compass Point (often indiscriminately, I must say) where they alight to catch either the MRT trains or the Buses to wherever they are going. Of course I see children on their bicycles at the huge Sengkang Sculpture Park, but it isn't built for serious cyclers.

I don't see the situation improving any time soon for cyclists like me, so I am resigned to another ten years of cycling inactivity, or till my legs give way due to old age...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reverse gear

Cost of Transportation - hour surcharge, surcharge for taking a taxi at Changi Airport and Singapore Expo (and God knows where else), midnight surcharge, ERP surcharges, taxi booking surcharge, and God knows what else will be invented. Now Singapore is not only known as a Fine city, it will also gain a reputation as a Surcharge city, going by the half a million tourists expected every year.

Let's not consider foreign guests. For some time now, whenever I travel on a taxi, I can never be sure that whatever I see on the taxi meter at the end of a trip is what I should pay the cabby. So, except for familiar routes I take at familiar times, I almost always have to ask the taxi driver how much I owe him, for fear of embarrassing myself for being ignorant of such simple thing as surcharges.

So when Nelson Quah, a Today reader, suggested to do away from all surcharges (except the Changi Airport one - I wonder why?), I couldn't agree more. Instead, taxi companies should adjust their fares to a level that encourages cabbies to pick one and all at all times of the day anywhere on this island. It should take a leaf out of the government's approach to GST and COEs - no exceptions, in order to keep the administration of these taxes straightforward and easy to implement. People then know exactly the cost they will incur for their actions. This will help commuters make rational decisions which will enable the market to reach equlibrium and cut off all the complaints that is now almost an issue throughout the year, and especially after the General Elections, at example of which is mr brown.

But this will probably not happen soon, as we seem to have a oligopoly situation in taxi services right now. Big businesses will not want to jeopardise their 'shareholder value' - at least not when their is no real competitor in this market. Ditto for bus services. As SMRT raises its transport fares, don't bet against SBS Transit not doing the same.

There are very few things that Singapore would fail at doing. It a country 'that works', as they say. But as far as market competition in the transport sector leading to competitive prices, it has failed abjectly. A world-class transportation it may become, but at uncompetitive prices.

Sunday, July 23, 2006


Free enterprise - me be frank. People who obtained free National Day Parade (NDP) tickets should be free to sell them. There is nothing wrong about it and should they turn a profit from it, that's their gain through their enterprise. Sure, some would say that it is a riskless enterprise, but then, some enterprises are riskless, though not long lasting nor self-propagating in the long run. A person is duly rewarded when he is quick enough to identify an opportunity, learns how to use a service such as eBay and takes the necessary action to cash in on the opportunity. Do you think learning how to use eBay is costless? The time and trouble learning to use eBay should be rewarded.

Sure, some would still begrudge such blatant profiteering. Many would see this as socially irresponsible, selfish and ethically questionable. But we queue up to buy that TV going for a special promotion of $1 at Courts, we pick up free giveaways just because we were at that special event at the Mall that day, and we win a car just because it was our day, so why not give somebody a chance to attend the final NDP to be held at the National Stadium? If there is a willing buyer and a willing seller, who is to make a value judgement that that transation is immoral? After all, isn't the current buzzword one of being entrepreneurial? Some people would rather pay somebody else to secure those tickets, thereby saving himself a lot of hassle putting in an application and getting 'lucky' in the process. Luck and inconvenience can be bought. So the money exchanged is not so much for the ticket per se, but for the convenience and certainty, which is directly proportional to the quantum of money offered.

I know that this opinion is not going to be popular among many, but I think it is reasonable. So go ahead, trade in your NDP ticket, while you can, before the powers that be decide to put a stop to such entrepreurial spirit.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Gagging haggling tagging

Gagging Freedom - much has changed with the news media organisations in Singapore, which is dominated by SPH and Mediacorp. SPH owns has the largest print publications on the island, with the Straits Times as its anchor paper. Mediacorp owns the free Today tabloid and the broadcast media, including Channel News Asia. In spite of the growth in the news media in the past few years, one thing remains the same - no news article can be critical of the Singapore government, after discounting those that it sanctions.

It is said that Singaporeans are becoming more discerning, and are increasingly unwilling to accept this status quo. Because of the mr brown case, some Singaporeans have even gone so far as to boycott the Today newspaper, nevermind that it is free of charge. But can the news and people's views ever be denied to Singaporeans? The simple answer to that is: 'No'.

I make Yahoo my homepage, and through My Yahoo and RSS, I can and am pulling a lot of specific news sources into my custom pages in My Yahoo. One of those categories I have is about Singapore. Everyday, I review these pages and lo and behold, I find news articles from Yahoo Singapore and some foreign media publishing sometimes probing news stories about Singapore. Some of these articles may never pass muster in the Singapore Press, but they are freely and readily available to any Singaporean who has an Internet connection. So why does the government still gag the local media? It is not as if by doing so, it stanches the tide of critical commentary. If nothing, it increases it from offshore news sources, many of which appear on the internet. Mr Lee Boon Yang says the government is not too concerned about blogs as it considers them as chatter, but surely, they cannot ignore the internet-based foreign press? The fact is that the government cannot shut anyone of them down.

An internet generation - the i-generation, is growing up in Singapore, thanks to the government's strong push for all its children to become computer literate, and indeed, internet-savvy, before they leave school. Gagging the local media will no longer do, because when people's appetite for news stories that are not coated with sugary flavours cannot be satisfied locally, the internet is just a click away. Surely the Singapore government should know that its restrictive press policies, as right as it may sound, is an exercise in futility?

Instead of 'keeping people in line', it is driving more people to hate the government's way of filtering news. Ultimately, and logically, the opposition will grow, but this time, the opposition must thank the government for lending them such a big and helpful hand.

Monday, July 10, 2006

News in the dock

Censorship -, there was a strong rebuttal to mr brown's regualar Friday opinion column published on 30th June 2006 in the Today newspaper. The rebuttal came out the following Monday, on the 3rd of July 2006. This rebuttal, from non other than the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, refutes some of mr brown's opinions about Singaporeans being 'fed up with Progress'. In his inimical way, mr brown took a cynical look at how the people in Singapore could be poorer in spite of the generous monetary gifts from the government of the past year. Then, on the following Friday, 7 July 2006, I noticed that Today did not carry mr brown's column. I thought maybe mr brown, aka Mr Lee Kin Mun, must be on a mid-year vacation with his family, like what many Singaporeans do nowadays, including myself, so he didn't write a column for that week.

Today, I read on Yahoo News, dated Sunday, 9 July 2006, the following:

Supporters of a Singaporean blogger have gathered at a busy subway station for a silent protest at the suspension of his weekly newspaper column after the government criticised his latest satirical piece about high living costs.

That weekly column is mr brown's column in the Today newspaper. In this same report, Mediacorp, the publisher of Today, has confirmed that it has suspended mr brown's column, but did not offer any reason for doing so, preferring to leave people to speculate on the likely reason.

Putting 2 and 2 together (although I admit that I have flunked my Maths before), this is what I speculate to be the case:

  1. mr brown first ruffles some official feathers through his Bak Chor Mee podcast
  2. mr brown then irritates some officials through his cynical piece on progress in Singapore
  3. Some government official rebutes those opinion in the same media
  4. The publisher develops cold feet and/or caves-in to stakeholder interests and pulls its most popular column off the printing presses (Did somebody add more ice to the cold feet?). Sounds awfully familiar when SPH ruled the print media.

At the end of the day, although we are dealing with the news media here, NOBODY is the wiser as to what really happened. Well, so much for press freedom and integrity in Singapore. Which is why any award that the local press media receives must be no more than an exercise in flattery. What else can there be?

So I am right after all. Mr Lee, aka mr brown, is on vacation, though when he will return (to Today), if ever, is not certain. But I am sure that other publications will gladly take up his column where he left off - so long as it is not printed in Singapore. His loyal and appreciative readers will still flock to his humourous musings of life in Singapore.

p.s. Contrary to what the Press Secretary writes in her rebuttal to mr brown's column last week, mr brown is not hiding behind an anonymous name. mr brown is just his pen name. I would venture to say that practically the entire newspaper reading public in Singapore and everyone else wired to the internet gossip circuit knows that mr brown is a Singaporean by the name of Lee Kin Mun. His picture is also readily available from the internet. He maintains a very public blog, complete with pictures and all, at From what I have heard, mr brown has also been invited to some government schools to give talks. Surely, the Press Secretary can know all about this man with the resources at her disposal?

Either the Press Secretary is not reading the newspapers, or she thinks that Singaporeans are not well informed and cannot judge for themselves what is right or wrong or what is in-between. That's really the problem, isn't it?

p.p.s. So who is epilogos? After this incident, he/she has no wish to reveal himself/herself. Anonymity is preferred. This is how it will continue to be in Singapore. It is so sad. Call me a coward, but be honest yourself to say that there is not some morsel of truth in what is written everyday by Singapore bloggers about life in Singapore.

See also:
Dr Balakrishnan's take on the issue
Inter Press Service News Agency Joins in the debate

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Death, Taxes and Taxi

Battling Inflation - is certain in life, they say, except death and taxes. Well, in Singapore, there's one more - Taxi fare increases. As many have expected, the prices of many essential items are going up. Some are naughty enough to link this chronologically to the last General Elections. Well, there is another reason for these prices increases (including electricity tariffs), and that is the increase in the price of oil. Still, many people will be unhappy about the increases in tranportation costs, though I venture that they are less unhappy when electricity tariffs are increased.

One of the things about increases in electricity tariffs that raises relatively less negative public feedback is that these tariffs are peg to the actual price of oil. When oil becomes cheaper, the price of electricity actually falls. But when was the last time you can recall the prices of transportation have fallen when oil becomes cheaper? I will hazard to say, on everyone's behalf, that it has never happened at all in the last 30 years. And that is why, as has always been the case, that most commuters will be unhappy, except the editorial staff of the Straits Times, i.e.

A few days ago, the editors of the ST ventured that raising the price of taxi fares is a good thing. They argue that this will make the cost of travelling on taxis significantly higher than other mass public transport such as the buses and trains. This will in turn discourage the long queues for taxis and lessen the pressure on taxi services. In this way, complaints against non-existent taxis, long waits for taxis and similar irks expressed by many commuters will naturally decrease. This will be good for tourists, who now have less people to compete with them. I was horrified that these editors, most of whom probably own private transport, could be so mean. But on further reflection, they may have a point. I wrote in the past how I was irritated when people jump the queue by whipping up their handphones to book a taxi, preferring to pay the surcharge over waiting. So there are people who are willing to pay more than what taxi companies are charging now.

On the other hand, the cost of transport in this tiny island, ironically, is very expensive. Owning a car can set you back S$60,000 at least, and even that is limited to 10 years, after which you need to pay more money to continue owning a car. So for many, the taxi is the next best thing without breaking an arm and a leg. Anyone insisting on increasing this costs to the commuter will naturally meet with a lot of opposition. In Singapore, business strategy is simple - follow thy neighbour. Price competition in Singapore is an anarchronism. But as anybody studying economics will know, upward price movements have unintended but certain consequences - it will lead to other price increases. This is known as the price acceleration phenomenon in inflationary situations.

So while nothing new is happening under the Singapore Sun, all of us have to brace ourselves for a recession a few years hence, when increasing costs will inevitably lead to another round of recession.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Singing a different tune

Singing a different tune - all talk to the contrary, the PAP has yet to make any real change in it domestic policies regarding lift upgrading works. Opposition MP, Mr Chiam See Tong reportedly asked for $80m, which was part of the the promised package of benefits that the PAP candidate for Potong Pasir, Mr Sitoh Yipin, said he would deliver if he won. Well, he lost, but still, a significant 44% of the electorate in Potong Pasir voted for him. That's almost 1 in 2 people who desire the PAP's package.

Mr Chiam has now asked for this sum of money for upgrading the facilities in his constituency. It was no surprise that the government, which is majority ruled by the PAP, said no, although in most likelihood, the money has already been set aside. In doing so, it said no to the 44% of Potong Pasir residents that supported the PAP candidate. In doing so, it also practiced what it derides the opposition of doing: show up only during election time to offer sweeteners in order to make themselves known and heard. For now, Potong Pasir is Mr Chiam's problem. To be fair to the PAP, they have been working the ground all these years, but to no avail. The latest denial of the funds shows that the PAP is still clueless about how to win back the Potong Pasir Constituency and its people. It is still sticking to its old policy of Winner Takes All - i.e. the responsibility to look after and provide for the constituency out of the constituents' and the MP's own pockets, never mind that these same people pay taxes to the PAP government.

The government is certainly not for the people in Potong Pasir. Potong Pasir might as well be another country, for all that the PAP cares (or don't care). I wouldn't be surprised if the government were to announce tomorrow that all Potong Pasir registered cars will have to pay toll on all the roads outside of the constituency. This is not impossible, given the sophistication of the ERP system that is already in place.

I had hope to see the PAP government sing a more just and equitable tune. It looks like it will take a long time coming, if it comes at all.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Taxis taxis where are you

Singapore Taxis - foreigners gush that Singapore's transport system is one of the best in the world. To them, it simply works. But to some other foreigners who have lived or worked in Singapore, the taxi service leaves much to be desired. This was highlighted in some newspapers reports recently.

To the locals, this is nothing new. We have been living day-in and day-out with the frustration and vagaries of our taxi services, particularly during peak hours, in the mornings between 8.30 and 9.30 and in the evenings between 4.30 and 8.30. This gets worst if you try to wait for a taxi downtown, in the business districts in Singapore. In spite of these, Singaporeans also know that the handphone can work miracles. The moment you secure a taxi, it miraculously shows up in a matter of minutes when previously, you'd be fortunate to even see an 'empty' taxi in half an hour. It is an open secret that taxi drivers prefer to pick up passengers through bookings rather than cruising, particularly nowadays, with the soaring prices of petrol. Interestingly, even Taxi Booking lines are now difficult to get through, which has exacerbated the problem of securing taxis even when commuters are willing to pay a premium.

I have never really understood why taxis never turn up when you most need them, and why they line up at empty taxi stands at certain times of the day. It is frustrating and ironic. However, I cannot begrudge a cab driver from wanting to earn more out of the vocation. All of us do that in our own ways in our own jobs. With the economy doing well and people earning more money, there is a distinct tendency for people, facing a long queue at a taxi stand, to whip up their handphones to do the obvious. Suddenly, roaming taxis do not come by anymore, or at least, the interval between their arrivals becomes longer and longer. But then, you wonder why the queue is so long in the first place. A case of chicken and egg, I guess.

I am always piqued when people book for taxis while standing in a taxi queue, particularly those behind me. They 'spoil the market' by agreeing to pay more, and thus increasing the average cost of taking a taxi for all the rest of us in the queue, since waiting longer is also costly. This makes me appreciate that time during the last recession when few people booked taxis, for obvious reasons. Then it was easier, and cheaper, fairer, and more pleasant to queue up for one.

I don't see these problems with taxis going away soon. Locals have lived with it for a long long time. Foreigners are beginning to appreciate that not all is well in paradise. The only likely solution is not to work within the established norm, but for some bright spark to invent an alternative way of ferrying people that is just as convenient, fast and comfortable as a taxi is nowadays, sans the waiting, that is. Buying a car in Singapore is not an option, unless you are willing to be tettered to even more bank loans. Any takers?