Mong Palatino

Blogging about the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific since 2004


@mongster is a Manila-based activist, former Philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of Asia-Pacific affairs.

Singapore may be a global city known for its superior quality of living and efficient public services. But its mass transport system isn’t something to be envied.

The overcrowding on buses and trains is the visible manifestation of the city’s transport mess, and the main transport operators SMRT (train service) and SBS (bus transit) have acknowledged that there’s a problem. However, their proposed solution of raising fares has angered commuters.

In response to the petition of the SMRT and SBS for a fare hike, the opposition Workers’ Party has proposed the creation of a ‘not-for-profit National Transport Corporation,’ which would aim to provide ‘safe, affordable, accessible, efficient and reliable universal public transportation services, on the basis of cost and depreciation recovery.’

They blame the lack of genuine market competition in the transport industry for the apparent absence of interest of SMRT and SBS to innovate, raise standards, improve productivity, and keep prices low. Gerald Giam, a member of parliament from the Workers’ Party, has questioned the government’s decision to allow a public utility to be ‘and operated by what are effectively private monopolists earning monopoly rents.’

Giam added that nationalizing the transport sector ‘wouldn’t necessarily mean higher subsidies or a loss-making endeavour. If competently run, the National Transport Corporation could reduce costs associated with the duplication of functions and roles.’

Despite the country having one of the most open economies in the world, the Singaporean government is actually subsidizing several public services like schools, hospitals, clinics and housing. Therefore, the idea of infusing public funds into the transport sector to improve its operations isn’t unusual, even for Singapore.

But Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew immediately dismissed the proposal of the Workers’ Party by praising the benefits of allowing the private sector to manage the transport sector. He also warned against the ‘downsides’ of nationalization, which would mean, among other bad things, more taxes and higher costs in the long run.

Mr Lui, however, recognizes the need to raise the quality of service provided by both the SMRT and SBS. In particular, he wants the two transport operators to immediately address the overcrowding on buses and trains by improving the frequency and reliability of their services. He also assures the public that the government will thoroughly review the petition of SMRT and SBS for a fare increase.

Mr Lui has vowed to alleviate the hardships experienced daily by Singapore passengers, especially after riding the trains several times. In fact, he posted his ordeal on Facebook, writing: ‘I have experienced the discomfort and frustrations that commuters faced because of the congestion and the sometimes unreliable service and I share your desire to see improvements to our public transport.’

It’s true that nationalization isn’t a guarantee in solving Singapore’s transport woes, but it certainly is a better alternative to the current set-up, where private corporations are allowed to amass huge profits while the riding public is left to suffer from poor service.

Written for The Diplomat

Abhisit’s Farewell

In his televised farewell speech on August, former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva summarized the key achievements of his administration which, according to him, could help newly proclaimed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in building a more stable and progressive Thailand. But Abhisit also indirectly admitted his shortcomings when he outlined the immediate challenges that his successor should address.

It’s to Abhisit’s credit that the feared post-election violence didn’t materialize in a deeply divided society like Thailand, largely because of his gracious acceptance of defeat in last month’s general elections. He may have his share of faults as a leader, but at least he was successful in overseeing an orderly transition of power that turned out to be his last great act as a statesman. Also, the peaceful turnover could prove immensely helpful in stabilizing Thai politics by restoring public confidence in the electoral process and democratic institutions.

It’s quite interesting that Abhisit chose to highlight in his speech what he called the ‘stable and sound financial standing’ of Thailand because the rising economic difficulties experienced by ordinary Thais was actually one of the reasons cited by analysts for his poll defeat. In fact, Yingluck garnered popular support during the campaign period when she promised to double the country’s minimum wage. But Abhisit seemed firm in setting the record straight about the correctness and effectiveness of his economic policies.

He proudly reported that: ‘When I first came into office, I used to say that our economic situation was like a “house on fire”. Now, we have put out this fire, made progress in looking after people living in the house and also made our house stronger.’

To bolster his claims, he cited the country’s foreign reserves, which are now the 13th largest in the world, the reduced debt-to-GDP ratio, the low unemployment rate, and the stable Oil Fund that protects consumers from fluctuating oil prices.

Abhisit acknowledged his failure to provide a comprehensive social welfare system, but he explained that his government originally planned to complete the programme in 2016. He also said the disparities in Thai society were a structural problem. He emphasized, though, that social assistance is now being implemented through the offering of free education and free healthcare for the poor and the provision of care for the disabled and the elderly.

On the other hand, Abhisit was candid enough to mention some of the problems he will pass to his successor, like the strained relations with Cambodia over a border dispute, the continuing violence and insurgency in Southern Thailand and bitter political conflicts that need to be resolved through judicial processes. He particularly advised new members of parliament to help tackle the drug menace.

Abhisit’s speech was brief, but it amply summed up his successes and failures as a leader, including his unfulfilled dreams for Thailand. It was also noteworthy for the issues that Abhisit refused to mention, like the violent protest crackdown last year, attack on media freedom and other civil liberties, and corruption in the bureaucracy.

Abhisit is now a private citizen, but we shouldn’t disregard the prospect of a political comeback – especially since he was recently re-elected as leader of the Democrat Party.

Written for The Diplomat

One Response to “Singapore’s Transport Woes”

  1. Referring to the problem in the south part of Thailand..It’s not entirely related to religious differences, or radical groups of Muslims residing in the area. Though there has been an increase of radical ideologies infiltrating the lower south predominately via Malay radicals (that cross the Thai-Malay border), this doesn’t seem to completely explain everything that has caused the southern region to transform into a war zone. Most likely, the problem equally relates to socioeconomic, legal, and historical factors which are unique to this region. I’ve read a bit about these alternative reasons by various writers and journalists. Some historians, political analysts, and Thailand lawyers also believe that separatist factions are involved; as the region was formerly not part of Siam (Thailand). In addition, there have also been deliberate attacks on suspected radicals, including an attack on a mosque believed to be housing one radical Muslim leader (a Muslim cleric apparently).

    No Fear Freedom

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