This was the headline on Friday’s Straits Times. Sometimes, it really makes me wonder who our elected government really stands for. Seriously, Tuck Yew should be giving the transport operators a dressing down, and his first concern should be demanding them to get their act together. Has the minister forgot that in less than a year, SMRT has gotten itself onto the headlines for all the wrong reasons – 2 major breakdowns of the North-South Line (15th & 17th December 2011), 1 moderate breakdown of the Circle Line (25th October 2012), and also the honor of getting embroiled in Singapore’s first strike in 25 years? All of these have caused commuters great pains but instead of addressing it, Mr Lui spent no time in giving the transport operators the green light to file for fare increments! Indeed, while the transport operators may have any reservations about possible backlash from the public if they filed for a fare increment, it is clear they are now free to do so.
The first thing that came to my mind was, why is the public transport operators’ profitability Mr Lui’s primarily concern when he made no apologies to commuters for the impact on them caused by this so-called “illegal strike”? Why is it that commuters are warned that they should be expected to foot the bill for what clearly is a failure of SMRT – a private company – in containing a internal human resource issue? Would it be too much for me to ask all of ours ministers to officially declare whether they own any shares in any of the transport operators, and those who do should never be appointed to the transport minsitry since there is an obvious conflict of interest here?
Did Mr Lui forget that the government recently gave the two operators a massive subsidy of $1.1 billion through the Bus Services Enhancement Fund [BSEF] to procure of 550 buses? I recalled that the it was explained that the S$1.1 billion will also cover the operating costs of those vehicles over 10 years which I understood to include salaries for drivers. Did the government fail to budget for it properly just like the Youth Olympics and is now scrambling to plug the hole?
“But if we cannot raise bus fares, how will that impact your fellow workers? I am sure you will understand that it is not fair if they cannot get wage increases.”
– Lim Boon heng, July 2011
As far as I am concerned, the matter of wages is covered by the BSEF and that matter shouldn’t even be brought up for a really long time. And that’s not all, when the fares were revised not long after the May elections last year, the ex-PAP Chairman also said that the fare increments were meant to increase the wages of transport workers. But what about the rest of us? Who speaks out for our pay increment? I remembered this because when I did a search on Google, I was reminded that I wrote about it here. In other words, Singaporeans have already paid twice ostensibly to make the lives of bus drivers better. How many more times are we expected to pay for this? Mr Lui may have a short memory, and perhaps all of us would too if we made as much as him. To say that we are being fleeced is only being polite, because another f-word would have been more suitable.
Mr Cedric Foo, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport, said the pay hike ‘makes sense’ as the two companies are competing for the same talent pool.
When asked if the pay rise would mean increased fares, he said: “I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between drivers’ wages and bus fares.”
Even more interesting is that Cedric Foo has said that there is no direct link between drivers’ wages and bus fares. So at least for me, the well being of the transport workers is nothing more than a mere excuse. The truth is that fare increments are always justifiable because it keeps the transport operators profitable. And that’s not enough, their profits must increase every year. For e.g. SMRT’s profits increased from $89.5 million in FY2004 to $161 million in FY2011. This is an increase of 80% over 7 years, or an increase of 8.7% per annum. A friend said that investors will be footing the bill if commuters won’t. In my opinion investors can also invest elsewhere if they think the transport operators are not paying attractive enough dividends. After all, SMRT allegedly told some of its mainland Chinese [PRC] drivers they can go to SBS if they are unhappy with their pay. Anyway, SMRT and SBS Transit turned a profit of $119.9 million and $36.7 million respectively in the last financial year, I would find it hard to accept that the majority (the commuters) is expected to foot the bill so a minority (the shareholders / investors) can continue to make money. All the more so because nothing seems to be improving in spite of these obscene profits!
As the Workers’ Party has said, “Commuters should not be expected to pay higher fares, especially when service standards remain unsatisfactory, as they have been since the last fare hike.”. WP is being kind, because all of our MRT lines have suffered breakdowns within the past 18 months and that’s not only unsatisfactory but completely unacceptable! For the record, SBS Transits’ North-East Line (NEL) also suffered a major breakdown in March this year – exactly 4 months after SMRT’s first major breakdown. That must have been to SMRT’s relief had it not gone “one-up” against SBS Transit with a second breakdown of the Circle Line [CCL] about 2 months ago. (The first occurred back in 20th September 2011 – more than a year ago – due to “a faulty cable and tunnel leakage”.) For an almost brand new line, the CCL’s breakdown is simply unacceptable! That’s not forgetting the huge costs involved in replacing those cables and I ain’t surprised that commuters will be footing that bill as well!
The government said that is has “zero tolerance” for strikes. Yet, it is interesting that the government demonstrates great forbearance to all these failures, and even bend backwards to ensure the operators’ profitability. How about showing some “zero tolerance” for the breakdowns, and the deplorable service standards for a change? Surely, some problems in the SMRT did not just happen overnight. Shouldn’t we look into why a brand new line like the CCL is plagued by cable and leakage problems, when large parts of the old East-West and North-South lines are above ground and exposed to the elements? Wouldn’t investigations into the SMRT for possible criminal negligence and bringing those responsible to task be necessarily?
Frankly, the government should work on giving more concessions instead of raising fares. For e.g. The height limit for children getting free rides should be raised to 1.2m since children get better nutrition and grow tall faster these days. Polytechnic students should be given concession similar to their A level peers. The concessions senior citizens should also be increased even though they already enjoyed a concessionary rate for the full day. This is what the government should be doing for the people instead of worrying itself sick in ensuring the transport operators’ profitability.
Unfortunately, there’s a greater chance of the present government doing the right thing when I sleep earlier. But unfortunately, I would have to stay asleep.