Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Well, its really a merry Christmas for taxi drivers in Singapore this festive season. And certainly a prosperous new year. I hate to take a Comfort cab nowadays, especially after 6pm EVERY day. From then till midnight, for all seven days of the week, the cabby will collect 1.25 times what the meter would read previously. That's pretty steep. So last Sunday evening after dinner at a restaurant, I opted to take the subway train home. As I was walking to the subway, I was looking out for a non-Comfort cab because their fares have (still) not increased. But alas, I reached the train station first. Well look at it from the bright side - walking helped to burn off some of the carbs that I had downed not too long ago, and I saved quite a bit of money as a cab would have had to criss-cross the island from the southern tip to the north-eastern tip where I stay. I wasn't sure if I would not vomit the food when I looked at the final fare on the meter.

Predictably, now that the largest taxi company on the island has increased its fares, all the rest will follow suite. Actually not WILL, they HAVE followed. And the quantum of increases is the same - that's Singapore's version of competition for you. Its rather twisted, really. More like collusion, and all with the blessings of the government, it appears. Its not the first time. The bus and train companies have practiced this twisted form of competition for some time now, with the blessings of the authorities which are helmed by leaders who are "educated" in prestigious Universities the world over at taxpayer's expense, no less. This is really a merry go-around that will sadden Santa Claus this merry season. Its not a season of giving, it is a  season of taking.

And the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS), the PUBLIC Transport Council (PTC) and the Government are not raising a ruckus. The CCS says to the effect that if you are not happy, sue them. Nope, they are not going to front this. The PTC is rather silent as if they are party to this. And the Government insists that they just want to stay on the sidelines as this is a commercial issue. Unfortunately, Singaporeans are not in the habit of initiating class actions suites. We are a long-suffering lot. Perhaps timid. Mostly apathetic. But they pour out their frustrations on social media so that the World knows that Singapore really is not heaven on earth.

To be fair the authorities trotted out some numbers, and with the cooperation of the broadcast media, demonstrated how much cheaper it still is to take a cab compared to cabs in Hong Kong and London. Give me a break. They should know better. An apple is very different from an orange, no? But maybe to them, apples and oranges are fruits, so the comparison is valid. Sheesh, you can't win. Or should I say the cabbies win. The cab operators win. The taxman (government) wins. And we the long-suffering consumers are the losers.

I really must get used to taking the bus and the train, not that those are without their own set of problems. Well, I'll TRY to be merry and look forward to the new year, though this December has brought more than its fair share of bad news, much of which are really avoidable.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The take-charge minister

This must be a first. The North-South and East-West lines of the MRT system has been halted totally, from 5.30 to 10 today, Sunday morning, 18th December 2011! It can only take the might of a government minister, Mr Lui Tuck Yew, the Transport Minister no less, to order this stoppage. Without a doubt this is to avoid a likely 4th break-down of the MRT system operated by the SMRT, if events of the past 3 days are any guide.

Yes,  I haven't heard of the SMRT system stopping operations for such a stretch of time. Fortunately, this is Sunday, a non-working day. However, people in the retail and services trade will still have to make their way to the shops to ensure that they open for business at 11am. Well, these people will have to take the bus, if they know or remember which buses to take, that is. And you can't call in "sick" because this is the last weekend before Christmas, and businesses need all "hands on deck". Employees can't take the first train out at 10 because it takes time to travel, and they literally will not be able to open the store on time.

That said, I must credit Mr Lui for taking over this problem so swiftly. You need ministerial muscle for this - to call time on one of the most important infrastructure on the island - to do what needs to be done, something that SMRT, to its discredit and shame, seem not to have nor been able to do. He has reportedly visited some train stations, checked the signs, the staff, the processes, etc. - something that really is not his job. Any lesser person wouldn't have done this. Just delegate someone to do the legwork. Monitor from the comfort of an operations control centre. Remember, the elections have been over more than half a year, when he was often seen on the trains. But now we know that it was not electioneering gimick. This guy is serious. Remember, he cut short his meeting in Cambodia to give this problem his personal attention. After all, the problem affects thousands of people everyday, and the businesses that rely on people moving around uninhibited. Mr Lui has got his priorities right, which is more than what I can say for the management of the SMRT. This enforced stoppage must really be a slap in the corporate face of the SMRT and especially its manageement, led incompetently by Ms. Saw Phaik Hwa.

Let's hope that with this due diligence check, we won't have another massive breakdown of the train system any time soon. People are entitled to a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

No Go

Singapore is looking like a third world country if the frequent breakdowns of its 'world-class' transport network is anything to go by. Yes, all of Singapore is pouring scorn on SMRT, the operator of the subway system, now that it has malfunctioned for the 3rd time within the space of a week! The first time was probably an accident. The second time just a fluke of nature. The 3rd time shows that whoever is in charge is sleeping on the job.

You couldn't ask for a more profitable business running Singapore's subway system. First of all, the government builds the infrastructure for the company. This comes to billions of dollars. Then the the government imposes heavy duties on owning and using a car so as to encourage more people to take public transport. The government, again, builds even more subway stations to to make it easier for people to get around on the subways. All the management of the SMRT just has to do is sit around and make sure that its trains run. No need for price and product promotion campaigns, No need for discount pricing. No need for expensive advertisements. No need to entice with a 'Singapore Girl' type branding exercise. Just sit back and see the money roll in, literary every second that the trains are in operation. Heck, you can spend more time at the golf course, or wherever you think best takes your mind off the mundane job of running the public transport rail network. The business won't stop and the money tap won't run dry.

Maybe this is why SMRT finds it so hard to recover from its problems. No, that's why problems keep coming up. Well, ok, both. And you know, we haven't had a lot of support from its CEO, Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, all these many years she has been on the seat, or in the golf course, wherever. She just manages to say the wrong things all the time that I wonder why she is still CEO. Its time for a change, and that change must start from the top. And you wonder why she is paid so much for doing so little. She is also the Chairman of the Risk Management Committee in SMRT. Clearly she is in the wrong job.

Perhaps before the year is out, it will happen. Only, we are not sure if the headline reads:

"SMRT CEO resigns", or

"SMRT CEO fired".

We commuters don't really care. We just want on-time and reliable service. Is that too much to ask?