September 2014

Should Public Transport in Singapore be used for private purposes?

1st Place - Guo Mei Qi

The controversy over the ACS(I) Chartered Trains is essentially a battle between the haves and have-nots on our little island that is known to the outside world for our exercise of pseudo-democracy. Fondly known as the “little red dot” to most if not all Singaporeans, the country takes pride in its economic vibrancy and seemingly harmonious society. While there has been no blood spills in the last few chapters of the national history (with the exception of the 2013 Little India Riot that shocked the region), one wonders if the lack of dissent represents real peace and social stability or signals that the public lacks a functional feedback system where their voices could be heard. How is a society, with its rapid demographic changes and one of the highest Gini coefficient values in Asia, able to maintain such long period of social harmony without causing any unhappiness among its people? The 2013 Little India Riot seems to be hinting to us that the society is in fact, surging with misunderstandings and dislike for each other underneath the peaceful surface. The people are constantly looking for a right opportunity to channel their anger at the authority and “enemies”, and the ACS(I) Chartered Trains controversy offers exactly an outlet for them to target the “filthy rich” of the country. Netizens all over the country fought to share their two cents worth on this topic and unsurprisingly, majority of the comments centered around their deep down unhappiness with the allocation of economic resources which seems to privilege the rich at the poor’s expense rather than at the controversy itself.

 

In light of this, I felt that all three parties that were involved – ACS(I), SMRT and LTA were unfortunately trapped in a situation where they did not even deserve in the first place. The public is clearly making use of the controversy to vent their frustration at something bigger, something that is not within their control. There are primarily two issues at stake here. First of all, there is the legal fight between the SMRT and LTA on whether SMRT should have alerted the authority prior to their decision of offering the chartered train service. This however, is a relatively easy and clear cut debate given that it has already been written down on black and white that all private usage of the public transportation requires approval from the national transport regulatory body. SMRT is clearly at fault this time round for failing to adhere to the rules that have been put in place. The argument made forward by SMRT that there has been previous recorded cases where LTA did not impose a sanction on them is considerably weak in my eyes. Allow me to justify this using the following example. Every commuter in the train should have known that there is a fine imposed on people who eat and drink in the train. The MRT staff, however, rarely police the regulation and depends mostly on people’s own integrity. Is a commuter, finally caught by MRT staff for eating in the train, able to argue his way through by stating that he or she should be spared from the fine simply because he was not caught in the other incidences? Bringing the same logic back to the ACS(I) controversy, SMRT is legally at fault in this case and should therefore bear the consequences of breaking the rule. The controversy is however, more complicated because the public is not focusing on this issue.

 

What the public is concerned about is the second issue in the controversy that mainly revolved around SMRT and ACS(I). By offering a public transportation system for the usage of a private institution, SMRT, a licensed oligopoly by the state, is sending a signal to the public that common resources are available at the disposal of the rich as long as they could afford it. It is fundamentally altering the nature of the common resources into a private good. To the people who could afford no other modes of transportation but the public transport, it seems that the rich are depriving them of even their only option left. This sentiment trigger all the unhappiness that people has towards the unequal allocation of resources under the capitalist economy that seems to favour the rich. This social consequence is something that ACS(I) and SMRT did not anticipate when the deal was sealed.

 

In my opinion, the LTA (or the government, I would say) made a relatively smart move by joining into the messy game. As LTA enters the scene, the focus begins to shift from the social debate to the legal debate. In this way, the controversy would be capped within the transportation sector and not become a point of tension among the people, which the government would then have a hard time dealing with. This serves to prolong the seemingly harmonious nature of our society. The desired outcome is really to stop the public from discussing the issue any further by ending the controversy as fast as possible through an intervention from the government. This, I believe, is the reason why LTA has suddenly stepped in to deal with the incident, even with its an old habit of not intervening in the past cases. The political agenda behind the intervention explains LTA’s lack of inconsistency in dealing with private usage of the public transportation system.

 

With these issues identified and explained, I guess that my standpoint is clear. The use of public transportation for private consumption seems to be beneficial to all – SMRT gets to keep the profits, ACS(I) is able to charter its students to the destination on time and LTA needs not worry about the traffic congestion that may be caused. However, the damage that could be potentially inflicted to the society in whole is beyond the control of all three parties and could fundamentally pose a threat to the stability of the country. Given that the top priority of the nation is to maintain “harmony” among different factions of the population (regardless of religion, race and class), the use public transportation for private usage should be discouraged to avoid any potential tension and dispute again. With all talks silenced and peace restored, the society would return to the original state of “equilibrium” and “harmony” as desired by the government.

2nd Place - Nicholas Tan

Essential public services have, traditionally, been the concern of a sovereign government, embedded as part of its duty towards the citizenry. Implicit in this is the republican view whereby the state has duties that are reciprocal towards its people, who give up their unfettered freedom in order to have access to goods and services that can enable them to live properly, unhindered by conditions that can be ameliorated by the hand of the government. In this light, there can be no reasonably valid justification for the usage of public transport for private ends, if the public interest is not enhanced or, worse still, ends up being compromised. That such an idea is even entertained can be attributed to the privatization of public transport services in Singapore, or countries with similar systems such as the United Kingdom.

 

Privatization of essential services in Singapore is not a new phenomenon: the telecommunications industry was opened up for competition in the 1990s; electricity and water were also deregulated and placed in the same category as privately provided goods, subject to government regulation. In doing so, the government was more focused on equity and efficiency, aligned with its vision enshrined within the motto, then, of ‘Public Service 21’. Against this backdrop, public transport services also came into private provision for similar purposes. While we may feel much towards the diversion of some telecommunications or public utilities output towards private ends but, instead, feel more critically about subletting public transport for similar purposes, this difference is not one that is a matter of kind: it is a matter of degree. Put in other words, there will be a tipping point whereby once the potential for inconvenience is realized by the citizenry, allowing public utilities or telecommunications to be sold privately will also face the same backlash that is seen in the debate today, regarding the use of SMRT trains by Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) (ACS(I)).

 

Generally, I believe that using public services to drive the private interests of enterprises entrusted to provide these services is unacceptable. Being first concerned with equity and efficiency, these enterprises must work towards ensuring services provided are of a high enough standard, can be relied on, and have good reason for impelling themselves to then consider private usage of public essential services. As it stands, we are not at all close to realizing equity and efficiency. No further evidence need be provided than to examine the cause that evinced the topic: train services in Singapore. Breakdowns have been recurrent, and the end seems not in sight – not even with promises to enhance existing infrastructure. This is highly salient, in light of the fact that such an issue is of the public interest. Being an essential service, it is necessary to the conduct of life as it is in our society today. To be ‘schizophrenic’ and promise that train services are undisrupted by this usage for private ends is to say, in other words, that things are normal. So the people are naturally entitled to be disturbed by such an assurance of ‘normality’, as it indicates that not enough is being done for the public interest. The controversy over the matter, I feel, is more revolved about this than with the fact that an independent school was actually able to book such services.

 

But this view is not hardline – I think there is room for negotiation, inasmuch as there are good motives driving such decisions. More substantively, this means that public services can be provided for private ends, if profit is not the primary motive but that of the public’s benefit. In the case of ACS(I)’s usage of SMRT rail services, I see no fundamental problem at all, should the justification have been that the alternative – the hiring of buses – would have produced an outcome that is more undesirable to the public than what was actually done. Since this was taken to be the move’s consideration, there is therefore nothing wrong with this instance of private use of public services. But this will set a precedent for the future, and clear lines must be drawn. The greatest arbiter in this case must be the sovereign, or representatives of it. In this case, regulatory authorities must come to the fore to ascertain that, indeed, the public interest is safeguarded and private use of public services does not become a case of selfish intentions making mischief.

 

At the end of the day, public service providers must ask themselves: are their decisions fair to the public? For the public was and still is the primary concern of the state. And assent of the state must be given, before we flippantly make discretionary decisions that have ramifications on the public interest. Insofar as the people are a part of the state, due diligence and discernment must be exercised before we decide to embark on such ‘adventures’ of our own.

3rd Place - Fong Xin Hui

According to the definition by Oxford Dictionary, public transport are the “buses, trains, and other forms of transport that are available to the public, charge set fares, and run on fixed routes”. While its name explicitly suggests that the purpose of public transport should be for the public, this does not mean that public transport should not, and cannot, be used for private purposes. Although allowing this might, to a certain extent, compromise the public interests of the commuters who require these services because their usual routine is disrupted, the onus instead should be on the transport operator to ensure that it can fulfill its primary purpose first before acceding to these private requests. After all, when a private request to book public transport services cannot be fulfilled, the side making this private request would ultimately still have to find alternative means of transport, which in other words, also translates to the idea that this disruption is merely being passed on to another subsection of the public to bear. The economists term this the “opportunity cost”. Thus, it is vital that a cost-benefit analysis is done to ensure that the minimal of the two is affected. In addition, it would be sound too, to assume that a rational public transport operator will only accept such requests if they know they have sufficient preparation time to make alternative arrangements, perhaps such as putting up notices well before the actual day to inform daily commuters about it. After all, the public generally sees the effectiveness of public transport operators and that of the incumbent government as one. That being said, one must acknowledge the role of the public in accepting such practices too, especially since public transport belongs to the public per se. As such, this implies that if the public understands and accepts such practices of using public transport for private purposes as a societal norm, then this matter should never be discussed from the perspective as a “right or wrong” issue, not to mention a “should or should not” one, but rather more of whether they “can or cannot” handle this additional private request.