Saturday, December 29, 2007

Transportation to nowhere

Many years ago, a classmate of mine arrived in class late. When asked, he told our teacher the the bus was late. The class roared and our teacher made the point that the bus is never late. We can only blame ourselves for being late. Granted there is some wisdom in what our teacher said. But it would seem that the logic of his wisdom has been suffering ever since.

Last evening, at 8pm, I was at the bus stop just across from Giant, Tampines, waiting for a bus service 27 to Sengkang, where I lived. For a while, there was no public bus in sight although many cars and private buses were whizzing past non-stop. My wife remarked that there could be a traffic jam that was stopping the public buses from reaching us. I didn't think it was logical as any traffic jam would also have stopped all the other vehicles. I didn't argue because I sensed that she was getting irritated waiting so long for a bus.

When a 27 bus did arrive, it was simple packed to the brim. People who had been waiting for a long time with us for the bus simply crowded around its entrance, trying board. Eventually another couple quit trying to board as there wasn't any standing room left. My wife and I looked at each other and also decided to wait, fingers crossed, for the next No. 27. No. 168 was more regular but it wasn't right for us. My wife said that there is a service 34 which goes to Punggol, and that we might take that detour to reach Sengkang. In the event, we never saw a service 34 the whole time (about 30 minutes) we waited at the bus stop.

When the next 27 came along, it was similarly packed so we resigned ourselves to waiting again. By this time, we were already debating whether we should take the free bus service from IKEA Tampines even though it only ran in hourly intervals. We had already waited for half a hour and by the law of averages, we should have been on our way in that free bus. But we persisted for a Service No. 34 or No. 27. It seems that our trust in SBSTransit is as steadfast as ever - there wasn't much of an alternative, anyway. Not so a Malay family of 3 adults and 4 children. They decided to take a taxi, but repeated attempts to flag one down proved futile. We wondered why taxis would not stop? Surely cruising around on 30% more expensive diesel is not going to add to one's livelihood? But that's another issue.

The 3rd 27 came and, again, it was crowded, but had standing room. So we, including that Malay family and their shopping packages in tow, packed ourselves in, unwilling to wait any longer. Fortunately, the ride home wasn't that far, but we wondered why it took us so long to arrive at our destination (40 minutes) when the journey proper (excluding waiting time) should have taken no more than 10 minutes by public transport. Our wait time was thus 30 minutes, way beyond the effective service level promised by the bus company. I say effective SL because an un-boardable bus that comes by within the promised time interval is of no service to commuters.

This is but one example of why our public bus services remain a dis-service. I can rattle off a number of other service nos. that I take regularly that exhibit the same problems. For all the can-do spirit that is Singapore, this is one aspect of the Singapore system that CANNOT do. Truly, this is a systemic failure in our public bus transportation system, bus lanes and the like notwithstanding. Senior Civil Servants got a huge raise just recently. I wonder if the Transport Minister's pay rise should not be held back until he can see satisfactory resolution to this matter? Irregular bus services, lateness, etc., is nothing new at all. It has been the bane of public bus commuters for umpteen years. Or should we treat the Transport Minister like the taxi-driver? Whether the driver has performed well or poorly in the service, he still gets the same quantum from the fare increases. How can we see improvements if we persist in rewarding both the good and the bad equally?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Council needs Counselling

Singapore's Public Transport Council (PTC) is a very queer body. Its website explains that it was

"...established in 1987 as an independent body to approve and regulate bus services, public transport fares and ticket payment services."

Indeed, over the years, it has just been doing that - approving or disapproving applications for transport fare increases. It has never had to consider applications for decreasing fares, for the obvious reasons that public transport companies need to increase their shareholder value. No public transport company will volunteer to decrease fares so long as there are enough commuters using their transportation services. So I was surprised when I read a report in today's Today (26 Dec 07, page 4) on the PTC disapproving SMRT's proposal to provide public transport to a cluster of private houses in the Yio Chu Kang area because, and this really takes the cake, it reckons that SMRT is NOT charging a premium rate for what it (i.e. PTC) considers a premium service. SMRT had planned to charge S$1.30 but the PTC considers that fare too low, that it should be between $2 and $3! It reckons that the public, whom it is supposed to serve, should pay more rather than less! I never...

Frankly, whether the fare is too low is no business of the PTC. The public transport company takes the risk, not the PTC. That it is willing to charge a fare lower than what the PTC reckons (by a yardstick that confounds me) is 'correct' is of no concern to the PTC at all. SMRT, the public transport company in question, stands to lose anyway if it does not charge enough to at least recoup its investment, if not turn a profit. If it reckons, after doing its feasibility study, that $1.30 is the right fare to charge, who is the PTC to say that that fare is too low? And on what basis is it classifying this as a premium service? Because the tranport service is catering to private house dwellers? And those that live in these houses MUST pay more? What if the service was meant for a poorer neighbourhoods not well served by existing public transport? Would this service be called basic service? Would S$1.30 be too much by PTC's reckoning? I see where the PTC is getting its (flawed) logic from. It is just like the government not reducing the HDB executive apartment owners' tax burden through subsidies on conservancy charges which it does for 3-5 roomers because it reckons that the former can afford to pay more. This more word is appearing once too often nowadays, and to think that the government may be one of the culprits...

Now I understand why the public is not better served by niche transport services - not because of the monopolistic SBSTransit nor even SMRT - but because of the PTC. Sheesh, if that is what the PTC is about, it is time that it re-examines its role as a regulator of public transport. It is now putting up barriers to providers who are willing to take the risk in providing niche transport services where it sees a demand, and thereby serve the public better. And all this while I thought that the PTC was on the public transport commuters' side.

Well, one positive thing that came out of this is that it shows that the MP, Ms Lee Bee Wah, is
serving her constituents well, which is more than I can say for the PTC. That she has, as a ruling party MP, had to overcome so many barriers and spend so much time getting this through, one wonders what chance there is for an opposition MP to do good for its residents vis-avis the PTC (or, for that matter, any government body).

Monday, December 24, 2007

You don't get no respect

Lawyers don't get no respect. Towards the end of the Bee Movie from Dreamworks SKG, a mosquito turned up to join the Bee hero in his new-found, though not an unfamiliar, profession. Without a hint of irony, it said:

"I was already a bloodsucking parasite. All I needed was a briefcase."

Ouch! Lawyers, they get maligned mightily, even from a tiny mosquito. The words here are tiny too!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Round and round the park

Growing up in the Naval Base gave me sprawling grounds to wander around and explore the neighbourhood relatively unimpeded. This was because, being a 'protected area', there weren't too many vehicles on the roads and even fewer impediments to cycling. This is where I developed my love for cycling. Looking back, I never owned a bicycle for my size in those years. My dad's bicycle was so heavy for a young lad like me then that I could only touch and admire it. It was just too heavy to even wheel out of its parking bay. But there was another bicycle available - a hand-me-down, lighter though no smaller than my dad's. We weren't so well off that I could demand a bicycle for my size, so I learnt to ride that bicycle meant really for a grown adult.

At first, I couldn't mount the seat as my legs were too short to reach the pedals seated, so I did the next best thing - I stood while I cycled. That involved putting one of my legs through the triangular frame of the bicycle on the pedal on the other side of the bicycle and the other one on this side of the bicycle. I learnt to balance on the bicycle thus when I first started cycling. Eventually, my legs grew longer as I grew and I was able to mount the seat and cycle. Kids today are so fortunate. Not only do their bicycles fit their sizes, they come in all styles and colours. I developed a love for cycling in those teenage years though that never extended to anything competitive. I just loved the pleasure it gave me as I could go places much further from my house, although always within the confines of the Base. You can imagine how big the Naval Base was!

After I moved out of the Naval Base, I cycled less because roads were busier with vehicles and I would be the last person to challenge them for space on the roads. When I moved to Pasir Ris, I had greater opportunity to do a bit more cycling. Pasir Ris is known as the bicycle town not for nothing. When I moved again to the North-East in Sengkang, I stopped cycling altogether.

Now, I am tempted to resume my cycling because of the Eastern Park Connector Network, which joins several parks in the eastern part of the island into a seamless route for cyclists only. The problem is - I had given away my bicycle and there just aren't any space in my present house to take even one bicycle. Renting would seem the most obvious thing to do, but when I saw in the papers that Carrefour was selling Aleoca bicycles for as little as S$56 a pop, I am sorely tempted.

I look forward to cruising the Eastern Park Connector and re-discovering my love for cycling.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Plague of the lawyers

What is it with lawyers nowadays? They seem to be skipping town one too many times with somebody else's money, obviously prepared to live elsewhere for the rest of their lives. When you think about it, making a home elsewhere outside of this tiny island of ours is not necessarily a bad proposition. With at LEAST a couple of hundred big ones in their bank accounts - they are set for life, especially in countries where the prices of houses and cars are more 'sane'. Of course, they will have the 'noose' hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives, and they can thenceforth only see Changi Airport's T3 (what a marvellous T3 it is!) from the inside only when and if they are passing through. Otherwise, there is nothing to miss in Singapore - not the taxi services, not the bus services, not even the no-nonsense government.

But that's not the only thing about lawyers nowadays. They are also bad for health. It appears that defendants, once they have engaged a lawyer, begin to report a thousand and one ailments stretching back to when they were one year old. Not only that, some of these defendants' psychiatrists, psychologists and anyone in between, will swear by their qualifications that these poor defendants have some kind of psychosis that makes whatever they may have been accused of doing excusable and therefore pardonable.

Lawyers are so good at uncovering such ailments that they put all trained doctors to shame. For example, there is that 68 year-old taxi driver who was discovered to have been suffering from nose cancer, diabetes, chronic heart problems and awaiting open-heart surgery. And these amazing discoveries were made AFTER the taxi driver engaged a lawyer to defend him. The reader who pointed this out in a letter to Today asked a pertinent question: "If he was so sick, how come he was still driving a taxi?" But that's not the only example. Mdm Vialli's alleged exorcism problems are almost all attributed to a deterioration of the body. The only effect it had on the spirit was to make it stronger so that she could fight for the pot of cash that both lawyer and client hope to find at the end of the tunnel.

I often wonder if lawyers have no sense of shame in bringing to the attention of the learned bench such blatant fiction in order to get their clients off the hook. I could have become a lawyer except my mother told me a long long time ago that she didn't like lawyers because they have to stoop so low in order to perform their jobs. Up until recently, I still regretted not having become a lawyer, but those thoughts are getting dimmer and dimmer...

p.s. which is not to say that ALL lawyers are crooks. There are many decent ones, but the pot is easily tainted with just a couple of bad ones. Ironically, the person I admire the most is a lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln. He was an honest bloke.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Maelstrom of Madness

When you are young, you think you will live forever. That is the prerogative of youth. It is that time in one's life where, without the 'bonds' of responsibility, one has to try anything and everything that life makes possible, including getting drunk and driving someone else's car. Singapore has seen a steady increase in the number of drink-drivers over the past year. Even when the penalty has risen steeply (custodial sentence + fine + ban from driving), drink-driving - a consequence of heavy drinking remains a high priority in the lives of some of our youth. The worst thing is that many so-called celebrities (heck they are only TV celebs on a tiny island, no big deal) are guilty of drink driving. Christopher Lee and Benedict Goh are recent examples. These people have a strong influence over many starry-eyed youths.

I cannot understand why the young drink so hard. If it is for pleasure, it must surely be convoluted pleasure. Is it because of the stress of living or the influence of buddies and society as a whole? Even worst, I cannot understand some youth's love of hard liquor. Isn't Tiger Beer ok? But then I am a teetotaller, so I am a bit dumb this side of drinking. But there is this crazy man who would rather risk life than throw away the bottle.

The young can do what they want. I will be the last to judge them. The youth can drink-drive and smash somebody else's car or fence or tree. I cannot care less. But when they pose a hazard on the roads, that's when I put my foot down. Drink-drivers are a menace to peaceful and law-abiding road users, which includes you and I. You can never trust the traffic lights anymore because drink-drivers cannot be trusted to obey any traffic rules. So walking on the streets and using the roads as a drink-free driver are becoming hazardous activities. Sure our streets are relatively safe in comparison to many similar cities, but there is always danger lurking from drink-drown irresponsible drivers who speed like the devil and think they can live forever. Yeah, forever in hell when they cause someone else's death. I don't care if these drivers want an early date with hell, but they should not seek innocent bystanders to accompany them on this final destination.

But for a moment of pleasure and bravado, a life of grief can result. The most grievous is not death, but total permanent disability, which one must live with for the rest of his life - and I am not talking about the drink-driver but the innocent bystander caught in the maelstrom of madness occasioned by the devils in the bottle.

If the statistics get any worse, drink-drivers should be locked up longer and thus prevented from being a threat to society. Therein they will see their youth pass away - trapped behind bars instead of the bottle. This is by far the preferred state, if that is what they want. Otherwise, stay away from the bottle - especially during this year end.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

You Pay More

Well, the inevitable has become reality, new increased taxi fares have been announced by the largest operator on the island. It is a steep increase but not un-manageable if one is an occasional taxi passenger like myself. Where I live, the subway is more convenient. It is for those occasions where the subway or the bus is too inconvenient (and there are not many occasions) or I am too tired that I take the cab.

But the way that the fares have been increased, with more surcharges, is more of the same. The operators are not really thinking long term. My initial thought on learning about the new surcharge was: "Let's wait and see what distortions the new surcharge will create". Humans have demonstrated that they needn't behave the way that policy makers think humans should behave by instituting a certain rule. Certainly, there are the docile ones who probably will toe the line, the law abiding ones who will find no other way but to obey. But there are cunning ones who will find a way to circumvent the new rules to their advantage and the really nasty ones who will work things to their advantage through illegal means.

The "I can control you" approach is past its 'use by date'. We should be looking at ways in which taxi drivers will drive their own business towards a service oriented approach. Sadly, taxi operators and policy makers think that money and not service comes first. I know, it is easier said than done, but I do not detect any effort by the policy makers to think any other way right now. I hope that the train operators will react quickly enough and not wait for the complaints to start rolling in before they take action.

My main worry now is the additional pressure this will put on the bus and rail services. More people will now choose to use the bus and subway. Already, I have noticed that the subway trains are bursting at the seams with a drastic increase in passenger volume. When once I could board a train and find a place to at least stand comfortably, it is a squeeze now, not unlike the subway situation in Beijing, Hong Kong and S Korea. At rush hour in the tunnel between SBSTransit's NE Line and SMRT's East-West Line, you can see people marching like an army, five abreast one way. I often thought what if there was a stampede? It could be fatal. With potentially more people taking this mode of transport, this can only become worse.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A tipping we should go

Since I am on the subject, and fare increases have been announced by the biggest operator in town - Comfort Delgro cabs - I like to offer a suggestion. As taxi operators are going to do the metre adjustments in their cabs, why not at the same time remove all surcharges. Many have already made this suggestion and I think it is time we consider alternatives to surcharges.

In place of these surcharges, we should bring back a very service oriented practice - tipping. We should make tipping a regular practice because this rewards the honest, hardworking, friendly and efficient cab driver and 'punishes' the slothful and dishonest ones. For example, if some taxi driver could pick me up in the dead of night and bring me home comfortably and quickly, I will give the driver a big tip. If the driver helps me with the heavy luggage I have, I will show my appreciation over and above what the cab metre suggests that I pay. This is my expression of approval and the premium that I have placed on the taxi driver's service - no need for this surcharge and that surcharge. Anything forced is bound to be resented and any incentive to express generosity goes out the window with it.

I have tipped taxi drivers before, even within the current surcharge-driven regime, but I would consider doing it more often if the understanding between the taxi driver and myself is one of mutual trust and respect with a service-oriented mindset. By all means, continue to run the metre, but let the passenger decide if a reward over and above what is obligatory is deserved. I would say that good taxi drivers may end up taking home more. Best of all, the taxi operator is out of the picture entirely. A good workmen deserves his reward, the bad one deserves only the barest minimum. With the current regime, the good and and bad receive the same rewards. Where is the incentive to excel in this service business?

The government abolished tipping many many years ago because it was felt that the variation in the quantum given wasn't fair. That may have been the right thing to do then, but bringing back this practice should be given serious consideration. When you think about it, the varying quantum in tips is exactly the factor that should drive service providers to give of their best. This is the best and most sustainable practice in the long run without having to invent more and more surcharges that serve only to distort the market, change travel patterns, and disrupt the family hours. Policy makers seem to have no idea how these surcharges are affecting the national birth rates.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gim Kopi

Last evening, I was at the Singapore General Hospital due to an emergency in the family. Eventually, I stayed up to 11pm before I left. The taxi seemed the only way home, which is located at the north-east of the island. I was just too tired to manage walking out to the MRT since the free internal bus service had stopped its services for the day.

Fortunately the queue wasn't very long, I was the third in line. The place was very quiet and I didn't see many taxis around. I began to worry. What if my wait took me over the hour? Then I would need to pay 1.5 times the usual amount. Somehow, in the quiet of the night, with no taxi in sight, your imagination becomes more vivid. Then a taxi whiz pass. Its 'For Hire' lights were not on, but I looked closely and saw no one in the cab except the driver. Oh well...

Then two women joined the queue just behind me, followed by several others who didn't join the queue. I had a sense of dread. Don't tell me these people are going to spoil my wait and beat the queue by booking for a cab? Whenever people did that, taxis just don't show up at all! I surmise that taxi drivers would be alerted to 'booking' business and would thus have no incentive whatsoever to drive up to any taxi queue until and unless called upon. Fortunately, these people 'cleared out' in private cars that came by to pick them up.

Still no sign of a cab. Then I notice the same cab I had seen whiz by before whiz by again - still with no passenger on board. This time, the two women behind me also noticed this. One of them said, rather sarcastically, that the driver is probably going for his Kopi fix before he would pick up any passenger at midnight. Well, it seemed to me that if that were true, he had been drinking his kopi in his car for a while. I thought this cruising around would have stopped with the skyrocketing price of petrol. It seemed that, whether deserved or not, local taxi drivers have gained a notoreity about 'disappearing just before midnight to reappear miraculously at the stroke of the hour. I just didn't want to believe this would happen to me last night, but the cynicism of these women was telling.

This is nothing new. It's been happening for a long long time. Its just that it almost happened to me last night. No wonder that Singaporeans NEED to own a car, probably for occasions like these. Something has gone very wrong in the way cabbies and taxi operators provide their services. I dare say these errant behaviour can be traced back to the people who set the policies and police the transport industry on this island. It is all a sad state of affairs. In Beijing or Shanghai, I wouldn't have this problem. That this has persisted for so long without a resolution to the problem is a crime.

If this is what a world-class transportation system is shaping up to be, I would rather have none of it. Just give me an honest, hardworking cabby and we can toss the world-class thing out the window.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Just dessert

Somebody, likely not a civil servant, complained in the press about the generous bonuses that all civil servants will get at the end of this year - 2 months, to be exact. For those who are better performers, another 0.5 to 0.8-month payout is due in March next year - provided the civil servant remains employed as a civil servant. This question always comes up when tax payers wonder, quite reasonably, why their money must be given to people who may not have done anything spectacular except oil the established machinery. I used to be the questioner, but now that I am on 'this side' of the government, I try to convince myself that I have done enough to deserve this bit of taxpayers' money. One of these reasons must be that as a 'civil servant', I am underpaid, compared to my contemporaries in the commercial sector. However, the question is a valid one and guardians of the people's money should sit up and think.

Like the Singapore Air Force's now infamous act of destroying tonnes of perfectly edible vegetables last week. In the process of testing out some paints for its aerobatic displays, it released tiny spores of it into the air, tainting ready-to-harvest vegetables in a farm nearby. The farmers are asking for compensation - a reasonable demand - but who do you think will foot the bill? Well, its a no-brainer. The footer of the bill is you and I - the taxpayers. In this case, should the bonus quantum be reduced for the perpetrators of this careless act - assuming that full-time Air Force personnel enjoy the same bonus benefits of the civil servants? This would be the right thing to do, but will it in fact be done?

Unfortunately, I am not close enough to the higher echelons of the military to be able to influence nor answer that. Suffice to say that the complainant has a point.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Spiraling Misery

Taxi drivers are asking for an increase in taxi fares. This is nothing new, except that this time around, more commuters may be sympathetic to that request. In the past, whenever public transport providers asked for an increase in fares, they didn't really have a good reason except to say that they are entitled to a raise just like everybody else. Yeah, and I suppose that beggars are entitled to a raise too, in line with that ridiculous line of reasoning. They, or their supporters, who are MPs and government officials, seriously damaged the public transport providers' cause by appearing to be greedy. That is why, in my books, any call for fare increases have mostly been suspect.

But ok, this time around, it is clear to everyone except that those that do not leave their houses, that the cost of petrol has indeed increased significantly that the commuting public should bear part of the increase. The only problem is when the price of petrol comes down, as it must someday, will the fares decrease in tandem? I would be extremely naive to state that it will. Let me be blunt - it won't decrease because these operators will come up with a thousand and one ridiculous reasons to explain why fares cannot come down in spite of lower prices of petrol. They will start by saying that adjusting the metres on their cabs will be extremely costly, as if it doesn't cost as much to tune them upwards to charge higher fares.

So with this in mind, I'd say that any fare increase in response to increases in direct costs is fair. But don't tell me that the taxi fares in Singapore are relatively low compared to Hong Kong, London and Tokyo. Anyone who does that deserves to be sent to these cities to live on their present salary, including certain government officials who are fond of these types of comparisons and 'logic'.

There can be no sense of 'victory' this time around. Everyone will end up paying more as the multiplier effect of costs increases kick in. So friends, Singaporeans, countrymen, lets ride this inflationary wave together and let not one of us push the wave higher by ballooning the increases through our selfish wants - like those people who rent out apartments and rooms.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lelong! Lelong!

At about 1.30pm , I was waiting in line for a taxi. One came by and the driver asked the couple in front of me where they were headed. He then refused to pick them up, which worked in my favour as my destination was more 'acceptable'. Later, in the taxi, the driver explained that he was refusing to pick up passengers who were headed for Singapore Expo because it was jammed packed with people and cars. He had been down there twice that late morning and had been caught in the vehicular jam. He said that even the Traffic Police had been called in to control traffic flow.

Now why are there so many people and cars in Singapore Expo that Sunday? I guess it must be people who were thronging SITEX, the computer and electronics exhibition, to pick up bargains - and there were many to be had. I suppose it also had to do with the fact that this was the last such exhibition of the year and many might have gone Christmas shopping. Another reason is the good bonuses that people are expecting this December. Civil servants, people working in government have been promised at least two months' worth.

Fortunately for me, I had already gone on Saturday, and even then, the place was packed. The entire sprawling parking lot was filled with cars - a rare sight indeed! And it took longer than usual for the buses to navigate the roads to the bus stop in front of the exhibition centre too. I know because I took the bus. And it took a half an hour before I could board the taxi from Singapore Expo in spite of the constant flow of taxis in the queue. The organisers of SITEX this year have struck the jackport, and many shoppers too - what with $899 Samsung 32" LCD TVs, $902 Core2 PC with 400GB HDD and 2 GB RAM (no monitor though) and you won't believe the crowd that was there for the S$598 Eee PC from ASUS. A dedicated tent was erected to hold the crowds interested in this product. You'd be forgiven if you thought this UMPC was for free.

Going by the rules, the taxi driver was violating the rules by picking and choosing his destination, but I can understand why after he explained that he wasn't going into that area a THIRD time.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Gone to the dogs

The country has been talking dogs, some for, some against and, I suppose, many cannot be bothered. I fell into the 3rd category, until yesterday, when, upon stepping into the lift in my apartment block, I noticed dog shit on the floor of the lift. It didn't smell or anything, probably because it had been there some time. The lift user just had to be careful not to step on it.

I was angry. Now who was that irresponsible owner who didn't bother to clean up after the dog? I have nothing against dogs. I once saw an Alsatian in the lift with its owner. In spite of its size, it look timidly at me. There was everything to like about that marvellous creature, which was half the size of its owner. It was on a leash, but it was not muzzled. I thought that was the law. In any case, it didn't bother me. They are man's best friend, and they should be allowed some freedom instead of being leashed and muzzled all the time.

But not every person is like me and not everyone dog owner is irresponsible. I must clarify that I do not own a dog, or for that matter, any other non-human creature. Some feel intimidated by these creatures. At the end of the day, it isn't the dogs that we should have issue with (except those are are openly aggressive), it is the owners who do not know how best to take their pets in hand. To these owners I say, 'give up your pets' because you do not know how to love your pets enough.