GERARD EE: “COMMUTERS’ ATTITUDES TO BLAME”
In the Sunday Times interview (25 may) with Gerard Ee, past Transport Council head, headlined, ‘Want better transport? Pay for it’, my gut response as a Singaporean is,
‘But, but we are already paying the highest salary worldwide for our transport minister, sold to us as part of the best (and most costly per capita) cabinet in the world but getting atrocious service, so how?’
The headline question appeals to our intuitive side. However having not just heard but experienced so much and for so long the constant refrain of ‘Pay-And-Pay’, we have conditioned ourselves to think counter-intuitively – whatever another member of the establishment spews these days… particularly as the next GE approaches.
In the last 2 months or so, the likes of Tommy Koh, Kishore M, Chan Heng Chee and, now, Gerard Ee appear as the voices of reason to push their perspectives on key issues that have been impacting the man-in-the-street. Should we be surprised if, going into the last lap before the next GE, the Straits Times continue to try to sway the narrative with more ‘neutral, reasoned opinions’ on healthcare, housing, education etc by non-govt elites? Do not these non-govt figures appear to be speaking from the same meritocratic (or ‘meritoguanxi’) heights – completely in touch with each other but far removed from the lives, needs and expectations of Mr Everyman?
So, please let me first get it off my chest before we examine Gerard Ee’s talking down or at us.
Change we must.
End PAP’s dominance or PAP’s dominance will end us.
IS IT A TRADE-OFF – OR A TICK-OFF?
Ee kicks off by framing the issue of travel time, comfort and cost for commuters as ‘a balancing act’. He helpfully suggests that it does not ‘really hurt that… few more seconds… or… three more trains…better to accept travel to and from work… takes a bit longer, but it’s affordable’. That’s really strange, considering that he is an accountant, expert with figures and statistics. A 10-second difference over 4 mil trips/day means nearly 300,000 man-days needlessly lost yearly! Peanuts? How does his take square with the govt’s view on ‘productivity’ and the adage, time is money? And to read him advocating a less demanding attitude even as he admits to commuter satisfaction slipping during his tenure?
But he goes further. It’s public transport, ‘so by that very nature, (buses, trains) are going to be crowded…not designed for comfort. If you treasure your comfort, you pay a premium’. In other words, it’s money talks first and foremost in the ‘transportation’ of people i.e. a business, not the ’public’ in public transport i.e. a public good. So, why call it Public Transport Council and not Public Transportation Council in the first place? Isn’t it scary that a man with such a view sat as head of PTC for a decade?
To flourish his credentials, that he is not speaking as a face-in-his-Merc, Ee continues, in London ‘you may have to walk four, five bus stops before finding one where the service you want stops.’ How reasonable, Mr Ee! But at least 2 reasons why it cuts little ice in Singapore’s context.
– One, London is a BIG CITY, Metro area of 8,382 sq km is almost 11X ours & population density of about 1,800 vs our 8,000/sq km. So, commuters correctly and reasonably understand that, particularly in the suburbs and outskirts of town, one has to walk a little more.
– Two, London’s average summer day temperature is 22Celsius with humidity in the mid 60’s compared to Singapore’s perennial 30Celsius and RH of 90%. Perhaps, when Chairman Ee walks more than 3 bus stops in Singapore he is probably out exercising and wants to sweat it out – by deliberate choice to de-stress, unlike us, to earn a day’s stress and wage with little choice.
Nonetheless, he continues. ‘If you treasure your time and…comfort, you pay a premium…If you value (that) even more, buy a car. And then ultimately, get a chauffeur.’ That sounds almost like the zenith of reason and reasonableness. The question is: as Chairman of the PTC, exactly who is your average commuter? Of course, it is not his remit to discuss COE prices. Still, how can we fault him for his reasonableness in ticking us off?
Why not apply that same rationale to, say, housing? How about healthcare? Education? Heck, why not to every facet of Mr Everyman’s life? After all, everyone knows that Pay-And-Pay gets you everything from the best cabinet in the world to the best life one can afford. Perhaps, the 60.1% Singaporeans agree to that basic tenet of the party they voted in. So, why even bother with the 39.9% whose expectations are misplaced?
Whilst he admits that things can always be improved, he also asks again rhetorically, ‘Are you willing to pay higher fares?’ If not, then ‘either adapt to the current situation or keep grumbling’. In other words, “The hard truth is you have elected a govt that lacked 20/20 foresight who has failed to ‘synchronise’ population growth with transport requirements, so gnash your teeth and bear it. What else can you do, sucker?”
Finally, the trade-off is inescapable because it’s that ‘one fixed pot of money (and)…how to slice it up’, between investing in a project (e.g. new airport terminal) that grows the economy or that takes away a few seconds of waiting time and less crowd in buses, trains. He asserts without proof or elaboration that higher taxes will drive away the rich who create all the jobs. Likewise, using our reserves is ‘out of the question’ as we need a strong SIN$. But he explains not why that same strong S$ has not helped us much inflation-wise. We see fixed asset-inflation running away and carrying along with it prices of all the imported stuff, presumably bought by businessmen paying cheaply and either making a killing or compensating for higher rents into the govt’s coffers.
GERARD EE’S ULTIMATE SOLUTION TO TRANSPORT WOES
“As for where the key to public transport satisfaction lay, Mr Ee did not mince his words. ‘Commuters changing their attitudes’”, Ee concludes.
It appears that ST has done a great job to uncover all that ails Singapore. Not unlike the PMET unemployment situation, it is the fault of Singaporeans who are ‘Pampered, Mediocre, Expensive and Timid’, so it is with the public transport issue. Singaporeans’ attitudes need changing according to none other than the Chairman of the PTC for 10 years.
I actually agree with Gerard Ee on the need for change. More so as I see the likes of him, once-respected elites apparently quite happy to be roped in to be apologists or to give credence to the govt’s preferred narrative on every conceivable shortcoming; to softly, softly influence citizens to take a position against those who see otherwise. Therefore, neither do I mince my words. This govt and the elite are sticking with their attitude of blaming citizens for their snafus instead of taking responsibility. I shudder to think another term with them as leaders with such a frame of mind in public service.
Let’s dig in with our attitude. Let’s change them instead.