26 May 2014

"Daddy where is your car & who are all these poor people?"

From a realist point of view, public policy is never really about discovering via best methods, optimal outcomes for the public at large, but what fits the planner's ideology.

We put a spotlight on Singapore's transport policy to identify the ideologya set of commonsensical assumptions so commonsensical their existence is not denied but unacknowledged—through which the Public Transport Council's (PTC) modelling of the transport system and its pricing and funding calculations are mediated.

In his Straits Times op-ed of 25 May 2014, PTC chairman (2005-2014) Gerard Ee defends the PAP government's current orthodoxy regarding transport fares: i.e. it is right that PTC-approved annual transport fare increases have nothing to do with service standards, and if the public wants better service standards, it ought to pay a premium over the annual fare increases.

That the chairman of the PTC thinks this way is not cause for consternation. He is after all no economist or a transport analyst or expert. He heads a council that is mandated to approve fare hikes by Singapore's bus and train monopolist, and not a research institute for transport policy studies.

But look: the chairman of the PTC lives in a bizarro universe where it is unrealistic for commuters to expect actual quality of service improvements in the face of state-guaranteed transport fare increases. In the reality where we live, it is unrealistic for monopolistic transport operators to enjoy state-guaranteed transport fare increases while failing to prevent near-guaranteed service deterioration every year.

This tells you something about the world-view, the ideology, the ontology of the crafters of Singapore's transport policy and the messenger they've tasked to convey their views to the public via an op-ed piece in yesterday's Straits Times.

And if you read his op-ed piece, it turns out Gerard Ee insists that the annual fare increases have been all about the bus and train monopolies investing in infrastructure. Clearly, Gerard Ee lives in a bizarro universe where the monumental series of train breakdowns of 2012-2014 weren't caused by the train monopolist failing to invest in infrastructure and maintenance for a decade.

Still, that's not a cause for consternation.

What's a real cause for consternation is Gerard Ee's vision of public transport:
"If you treasure your time and comfort, you pay a premium
—there are premium services. If you value your time and comfort even more, buy a car. And then ultimately, get a chauffeur."


In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee's words betray the ideology lurking behind the dry, values-free tables and numbers that prop up current transport policy implementation. In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee talks about public transport in terms of personal wealth. In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee ties transport service—the idea of getting there in time and in comfortwith personal wealth.

In just 2 sentences, Gerard Ee whitewashes the very public failures of Singapore's transport policy: the inability of highly profitable monopolists to get people anywhere on time, and the chronic overcrowding and overloading of public transport infrastructure.

In just 2 sentences, one may infer that in the minds of Singapore's policy planners, public transport is a program for the poor, and a poor program because the poor can't afford better service and shouldn't be spoiled by good programs.

This patronising, elitist mindset is not too different from that of one Anton Casey, who riled half of Singapore with his allegedly offensive joke about public transport being for poor people.

And this narrative of the undeserving poor, the paths which cannot be taken for reasons too esoteric for the public to appreciate, is an ongoing habit of Gerard Ee. He has in the past publicly rejected outright lower transport fares for the elderly (while wearing his other hat as chairman for an active aging body), and concessions for polytechnic students (while wearing his PTC hat).

His successor, former judge Richard Magnus, is no better. Like Ee, he is no transport expert. For 2014, Magnus has excluded the poorest 20% from the PTC's transport fare calculations because they should be able to pay for public transport after taking into account the subsidies and handouts they get elsewhere. It is our opinion that this methodology necessarily makes transport more expensive than it would be if fare increases had to take into account the ability of the poorest 20% to pay for it.

Once you identify the ideological root of Singapore's public transport policies, you may begin to also understand the ideological blinkers behind the PTC's blanket refusal to consider several suggestions for fare subsidies and the government's automatic dismissal of several transport reform suggestions.

This is a pity, not only for Gerard Ee's credibility—public transport policy is beginning to turn, and his public pronouncements of "thou shalt not go there" will be forever remembered and measured against these reversals—but also for the fact that the son of Ee Peng Liang, the "father of charity in Singapore", seems to see public transport as a program for the poor, and a poor program.