Monday, October 08, 2007

Private Business

Public transport has always been a hot potatoe on this little island of ours. With artificially sky-high car prices (and the taxes that come with it), many are disgruntled when the next best alternative is a public transport service that does not quite live up to the high standards that the traveling public demands of it. And why does the traveling pubic have such high demands? It is because the privately owned public transport companies raise their fares every year, with the blessings of the government, in spite of making 'record breaking' profits year after year.

Under such circumstances, can you blame the public for complaining? Singapore is probably the only country in the world where government officers, the civil servants, the people employed to serve the people - in this case the Transport Minister himself no less, speaks FOR these private transport operators on why transport fares have to be increased annually. While the Transport Minister should rightly be concerned if the service level of the public transport operators can be sustained year after year, it is certainly not his place to defend fare price increases, nor dictate, nor prescribe how and why that can and must be done on behalf of these private, listed companies. If these transport companies need to raise fares, let them justify it. Let them convince the paying public how those increases can translate to better services, or at least why it is that they cannot absorb costs increases any more. Public Utilities companies never had to have their price increases for electricity justified by public servants. The price of oil goes up and it comes down, and the tariffs are adjusted accordingly. That is fair and reasonable. Similarly, the public can understand if the transport fares have to be increased because of the rising cost of oil, but they cannot understand why the same transport fares cannot be decreased when oil prices fall. That's the difference between our public transport companies and our public Utilities companies.

If the the public transport companies cannot provide the service at the prevailing rates, let somebody else who can do it. Yes, this may result in some routes being under-serviced at first, and we may have duplicated services in other area, but if it leads to better service to the public at a sustainable rate in the long run, why not?

The government harps on letting the market decide on certain things, such as health services, so that the true cost of providing these services can be known. It is proud of not subsidising public transport, but does not let the market decide how best to allocate resources to provide the best outcome to the paying customer based on demand and supply. To this, the government always argues that by moderating fare increases, it is helping the public get sustained quality service (read 'new buses'). The fact that the public keeps complaining demonstrates the lie in that argument.

I take public transport everyday, so I can understand what the complaints are all about. For the civil servants who do not take public transport, I can also understand when they don't understand what the complaints are all about. But what takes the cake is that those who do not understand almost always speaks up for the profitable privately owned and operated public transport companies. Who will speak up for the long-suffering man in the street when those elected to do so do not?

Singapore is known for many 'bests' - best airline in the world, best airport, best medical services in the region, best Maths students in the world. It is also probably the best place to operate a public transport company because:

1. Monopoly is assured by the government;
2. Fare increases are blessed by the government;
3. Government officials routinely defend fare increases for free (no under table money, I hope);
4. Profit is assured, sometimes at obscene amounts. (If there is a sure thing on the stock market, this is it)

Heck, if what the Transport Minister implies is true, that annual fare increases benefits BOTH commuters and the transport operators, why are we wasting time arguing about this issue year in and year out?

The obvious answer to that is that the Transport Minister has got his sums wrong - and his heart with the wrong party.

p.s. Actually, I had nothing to comment about this year's fare increases of 1/2 cents. I thought the PTC's decision, under Mr Gerard Ee, was reasonable. The Transport Minister's comments must have touched a raw nerve.


Anonymous said...

What do you poor peasants expect from the Gahment?

Temasek is the major shareholder of the public transport companies in Singapore. Gahment 100% owns Temasek.

Auntie Ho Ching is the wife of PM and hence it is the duty of the Transport Minister to enlighten the poor peasants on the benefits of this exercise.

Amnesia said...

By the time the next election arrives, the 66.6% would have forgotten all about the price hikes..

Anonymous said...

Well, that is true, but we will not soon forget that the Transport Minister does not speak up for us, the common folks, but for the big corporations.