84% oppose bus fare hikes for higher driver wages: Y! Poll

A SMRT bus leaves the Admiralty West prison after taking Chinese bus drivers there. Singapore will deport 29 mainland Chinese bus drivers and prosecute five others for taking part in the city-state's first strike since the 1980s, the government says

Would you pay more in bus fares so that transport operators can pay their bus drivers higher salaries?

An overwhelming 84 per cent of more than 3,000 Yahoo! Singapore readers who participated in its poll on the topic said they would not, believing that transport companies should absorb the resulting increase in costs.

A significant majority of more than 120 comments posted on Yahoo! Singapore’s Facebook page also clamoured for bus operators SMRT and SBS Transit to restructure their organisations, or cut the pay of their senior executives in order to compensate the increase in their bus drivers’ salaries.

“Cut management bonuses and shareholders’ dividends,” wrote Facebook user Mark Chan. “Why should a small minority benefit at the expense of the public and the hundreds of drivers who perform an essential public service?”

Agreeing with Chan, user Eugene Cheong added, “They should review, remove ‘redundancy’ and restructure internally to achieve savings, rather than conveniently letting the public bear the cost. That is not right.”

Still others pointed out that the provision of public transport should not yield the levels of profit that SBS Transit and SMRT currently enjoy. The former earned a full-year net profit of S$235.6 million last year, while the latter’s was S$119.9 million.

Talk of raising bus fares was triggered close to the end of last week when transport minister Lui Tuck Yew hinted at the possibility in his first comments in the wake of the SMRT bus drivers’ strike that took place at the end of last month.

In the two-day strike, which the government deemed illegal, more than 180 drivers from China refused to work, citing a disparity in salary systems between themselves and other foreign drivers. Five of them were charged for their involvement in the strike, 29 were dismissed and deported, and about 150 drivers were warned by the police.

Affirming the need for bus drivers’ salaries to rise in general, Lui said that there is a “significant mismatch” between fare increments and fuel and wage costs, and that the next public transport fare review will need to factor this in.

Commenting on this on Facebook, user Lucas Loh wrote, “This (the strike) is probably an opportunity they will pounce upon to raise fares. Forever raising regardless of strike or no strike... public transport is the most basic thing for all of us and must be kept affordable for everyone.”

While just 4 per cent of respondents adopted the opposing stance, saying it would only be fair for fares to rise in order for salaries to do so, 11 per cent of respondents said the salaries of bus drivers did not need to be raised at all, almost three times the number who agreed with a fare increment.

Opposition parties challenge suggestion to raise bus fares

Meanwhile, over the weekend, opposition political parties spoke up against the possibility of raising bus fares to increase drivers’ salaries.

In a statement, the Workers’ Party (WP) said it was premature of Minister Lui to suggest it, saying that such decisions “should be made only after a period of review and adequate debate”, taking public interest and the fact that public transport is an essential public good into consideration.

“The government should not assume nor suggest that this cost increase (of higher salaries) must automatically be borne by commuters,” the party said, noting that despite its $1.1 billion subsidy to the operators earlier this year, coupled with their above-median-level returns on equity for their shareholders, bus fares had still increased eightfold since 12 years ago.

“Commuters should not be expected to pay higher fares... the government and public transport operators must put the public interest before shareholders’ interests,” it added.

The Singapore Democratic Party backed the WP up in its statement on Sunday as well, calling such a move “reprehensible and unacceptable”.

“If public transport is an essential service like the police or firefighters, then it cannot at the same time be a profit-making enterprise. The government cannot have it both ways,” said its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan.

Echoing the views of both parties, Reform Party secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam said in a statement that the current public transport system is negatively impacting commuters.

“Singaporeans seem to be getting the worst of both worlds: a private system with shareholders who benefit from government subsidies and where the operators do not face a sufficient spur from competition to increase efficiency,” he wrote.

The party also issued a further call for more competition to be allowed in the public transport sector, alongside a public inquiry into improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of Singapore’s public transport system.

Added Jeyaretnam, “The newfound assertiveness of PRC workers may be an indication that the era of cheap labour outflows from China may be coming to an end as their workforce population is forecast to peak and then start to decline in the next few years.”

Speaking to Yahoo! Singapore, the Singapore People’s Party added its view that the cost of public transport in Singapore is socialised, while the profits from it are privatised.

“The public transport companies in Singapore have tended to rely on public funding whenever they are incapable of getting their act together, yet their profits go only to their shareholders,” it said in a statement on Monday night.

Calling on the government to clarify whether the increase in bus fares is for the sole purpose of increasing bus drivers’ salaries, should it happen, it said that would be “unacceptable given this state of affairs”.

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