Could answer to transport woes lie in immigration policy?

Elena Torrijos

Public transport operators' request for fare hikes has fueled debate on the issue. (Yahoo!)

By Andrew Loh

Singapore's public transport operators (PTO) have submitted their applications for what is euphemistically termed a "fare adjustment". It is an annual ritual, some say formality, where the Public Transport Council (PTC) waves its wand and invariably approves the fare hikes.

Commuters, unsurprisingly, are aghast that the PTOs are asking to raise fares. In the past few years the standard of service on our trains and buses have been widely criticised. The commuting public is also wary that the PTC will turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to its complaints.

The uproar, as in previous years, has thrown up once again questions about the roles of the PTOs in providing a public good, and whether the very nature of these entities should be reinvented in order to keep fares down and retain or improve efficiency, productivity and service standards.

The opposition Workers' Party has called for public transport to be nationalised. The transport minister has dismissed this and warned that this would lead to higher fares and lower productivity and efficiency of the PTOs. A former People's Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament, Mr Chan Soo Sen, suggests the PTOs be turned into co-operatives, something like the NTUC.

While debates about alternative models for the PTOs continue, along with anger over their seemingly insatiable appetite for ever-higher profits, perhaps ultimately the solution to the transport woes lies somewhere else -- in our immigration policy and our economic growth model.

Immigration policy has strained infrastructure

Presently, the two have led to an increase in our population, which has also led to strains on our infrastructure, including our transport system. At the end of the day, a utility like the public transport system has limited physical capacity. You can only build so many lines and have trains operate at certain optimal frequency.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said on Wednesday that the trains are already running "at the limit our signalling equipment currently allows during peak hours." He added that the authorities are "examining how much further to shorten the intervals between trains during off-peak period." Even so, there will be a limit to how frequently trains can operate during off-peak hours as well.

No matter how we tweak the system, at the end of the day it is about numbers, human traffic. According to the 2010 Census, Singapore's population stood at 5.076 million. Also in 2010, Singapore saw a total of 11.6 million tourists visiting the tiny island -- about 967,000 per month.

So, on average, at any given month, there are supposedly more than 6 million people on the island. Is it any wonder then that our transport system is straining?

What if we have a resident population of 6.5 million, as some feel the Government is working towards? That means another 1.5 million people. How horrendous that will be for the transport system, not to mention the consequences on other infrastructure as well.

It is quite obvious that unless we build more lines or increase the frequency of the trains to beyond the limit the system is able to handle, we will continue to have to endure the current problems. And if Singapore continues with its immigration and foreign workers policies, while also chasing ever-increasing tourist numbers, the problems can only get worse.

More clarity from the government needed

So, really, the solution to the public transport woes, and indeed in other areas as well (such as healthcare, cost of living, housing, etc), lies in our long term economic policies. Where is Singapore headed in this aspect? Are we going to continue with the present policies of imbibing foreigners, whether as new citizens, permanent residents, guest workers, or tourists, to fuel the engine of economic growth?

There has been no word on this from the Prime Minister or the ruling People's Action Party Government.

If we are going to adopt the present policies going forward, then we need to take a longer term view of problem solving, instead of piecemeal ones. In fact, the government should be open about its plans and allow Singaporeans to have a thorough debate on them. Criticisms have been made that the government had "quietly" let in the 2 million foreigners in the last few years without any consultation with or disclosure to Singaporeans.

Until we know where we are headed, and what our economic policies are going to focus on, we will always be just stabbing in the dark in trying to solve the immediate problems we face.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will deliver his annual National Day Rally speech sometime in August. Perhaps then we will have a better idea of where this boat is headed, economically.

Until then, I am afraid that all these ideas and talk of solving some of our most pressing problems will come to naught and we will be bumping aimlessly in a sea of confusion and uncertainty.

Andrew is the co-founder of a socio-political website and writes frequently on issues which are close to his heart, particularly those affecting the less fortunate and on Singapore politics.