Governance of a City-State
Thinking Straight About Transport

By Devadas Krishnadas


The COE system was first introduced to control demand for private vehicles and to serve the larger goal of keeping traffic flow efficient. With land becoming increasingly scarce, adjustments to vehicle-related taxes need to be seen in the context of the larger challenge of land scarcity. This challenge is made more difficult by a more demanding travelling public and greater cynicism over the structure and performance of public transport. How should this challenge be met and the difficulties moderated?


First, the government could use the COE system to push multiple policy objectives while at the same time simplifying the system. Rather than merely control demand, it could create one category for low carbon emission vehicles such as electric and hybrid car, and those with CNG-fuelled engines. The flow of available quota could be biased towards this category. If we allow a certain minimum volume of private vehicles, amplify the benefits by requiring them to be more climate-friendly.

All other vehicles, regardless of engine capacity, could be treated as a single class with the applicable quota progressively reduced over time. If the rich bid high resulting in expensive cars crowding out cheaper cars, the premium paid by them could go to subsidising public transport.

More Cents, Fewer Dollars

Second, the government could incentivise the shift of travel load towards public transport by ensuring reliability, capacity and distribution. In addition, it should make travel more affordable for frequent travellers and more comfortable for all travellers.

Affordability could be improved by introducing monthly and sector pass schemes as an option for regular travellers. Such schemes reward those who travel frequently with discounted fares. Schemes such as these have been successful in public transport systems in major cities such as London.

Aesthetically, more effort could be made to green all stations to reduce the harshness of the industrial design. Psychological studies have shown that greenery can reduce stress, something which has risen for the travellers in recent years. It also has the added benefit of reducing ambient temperature.

Think Big and Bold

Third, the traffic population and flow challenge could also involve radical re-thinking in urban planning. The CBD could be zoned for public transport only. Large park-and-ride spaces could be provided at nodes on the perimeter of the CBD for those who wish to mix their travel modes. Short commuter lines could be provided between these park-and-ride spaces and the CBD to supplement the main trunk bus or rail lines.

The government could also significantly upgrade its planning intentions for the distribution of commercial offices. Currently the plans call for the addition of a handful of small commercial areas in the suburbs. However, it needs to consider a more ambitious plan for a second full-fledged CBD in the north-west to create a balancing polarity for human traffic flow with the existing CBD in the south. There would be proximity to and spill-over effects from the future growth in the Iskandar economic region and the eventual high-speed rail link to Kuala Lumpur.

Maintaining Trust

Fourth, it is important to review the concept of public transport to reconcile misconceptions and reduce public angst. This angst has not been helped by signals from Mr Desmond Kwek, CEO of SMRT, that public operators are finding the current model “unsustainable”, thus raising the unpopular spectre of further injections of public monies into operations of these publicly listed corporations.

In the mind of the layman, public transport implies services funded by tax revenue for his or her transport needs without a profit motive. However, our model is a private operator model with a profit motive. This can irritate the layman who feels that he is being taken for a ride in more ways than one. However, what he misses is that as the government is a significant shareholder in the private operators, all citizens are thus also beneficiaries, albeit in a convoluted way, of any profits.

The government transport plan will be completed only in 2030. Between now and then, optically, bearing in mind potential disruption from construction and continued pressure from population, the layman will conclude that things are getting worse rather than better. It is vital that the government maintains the trust of the public in its management of such national yet “bread and butter” issues as public transport.

Determining the Future Structure of Public Transport

There are three options to pacify the natural concerns of the travelling citizen.

One option would be to use the regulatory mechanism to ensure higher standards and efficiency from public operators. This is the current mode, where the hope is that if these standards are achieved, the public, being satisfied with the experience of travel on public transport, will be less concerned with industry structure.

A second option would be to nationalise public transport. This would resolve entirely the seeming inconsistency in the mind of the layman. However, before doing so it must be demonstrable that significant public benefit would be derived. It is not clear that this would be the case. Indeed, the commitment of large sums of scarce public monies to nationalise publicly listed operators will come at a huge opportunity costs and impose considerable fiscal pressure on the public purse. Despite the attractive simplicity of the nationalisation option, it is very possible that it may prove a very expensive red herring.

A third option would be consolidation. It is timely to review the assumed benefits of privatisation and competition. If adjustments to the status quo are insufficient, a remedy and nationalisation too radical, then consolidation should be studied as the third alternative to the status quo. It may bring operating efficiencies, simplified decision processes and benefits from economies of scale.

Principle Matters

Muddied together with public concern on the structure of public transport is the public interest in boosting social safety nets. However, these are not questions of industry structure or infrastructure but of social safety net policy. Government communications needs to encourage the public to understand that any policy choice in the transport fee space cannot be treated in isolation. This is a general principle of governance rather than just as an issue in transport.

Systems Thinking

Land and transport management have to be seen as a system and it must be generally accepted that systemic change is difficult and takes time.

On the one hand, the government must have the will to make trade-offs and boldness of vision to deal with challenges at the systemic level.

On the other hand, the public needs to manage expectations, adapt to a heavier reliance on public transport and accept that the attendant costs to improvements which must be financed, even if partly, through public revenue.

These are the realities of the post-modernisation of Singapore as we enter into the second half-century of independence. To make it all work we need to change our minds before we change our infrastructure. The first may prove the harder of the two unavoidable adjustments.


Devadas Krishnadas is the Founder and Director of Future-Moves. He is the Editor of IPS Commons.

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