In other words, the PTOs - even as they continue to reap millions in revenue and profits each year - are being given a free lunch. It is as sweet a deal as anyone can expect.
This is especially puzzling given the myriad of complaints from commuters and the lack of improvements in service. It does not help either when the public learn of news that the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of SMRT, Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, was consecutively the best-paid SMRT CEO ever for 2 years’ running, with generous bonuses dished out to her. Couple all these with the almost annual increase in fares and you can understand why the public has reacted with aghast at the government's latest announcement.
Minister of State for Finance and Transport, Mrs Josephine Teo, tried to explain the government’s position at a REACH forum on 22 February."Between funding this through a big increase in fares and the government coming in to inject into the system the resources to purchase these additional 550 buses, we thought it is a better thing to do (the latter),” she said.
It is unclear why the government feels it is better for it to inject the resources instead of the PTOs doing so themselves.
While one can argue whether it is the right thing for the government to do, perhaps there is an underlying premise to all this – that the issue of public transportation has become such a hot political potato for the PAP government that it is willing to bend over backwards to assuage public discontent. In trying to do so, however, the government could instead be subjecting itself to, in Alex’s words, a “messy affair” which raises fundamental questions of how the PTOs operate and how public funds are used.
That aside, could the PAP government also be spiraling downwards towards populist politics? It was a fear raised by Mr Philip Yeo last year, following the results of the General Election where the PAP lost a GRC and had its vote share cut by some 6 per cent. “After the last elections,” Mr Yeo said, “the ruling People’s Action Party realizes that it’s no longer infallible. My greatest fear now is that the government is terrified of the people. You cannot have a system where the people are pampered.”
Mr Yeo’s words could very well be applied to the PTOs too.
The opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), in presenting its Shadow Budget this week, also cautioned the government in “yielding to populist political instincts in policy making” which it said would be a “dangerous” approach to economic management.
Are we seeing signs of a PAP government afraid that not addressing various problems swiftly will lead to further erosion of popular support for it and thus is willing to ignore principles in trying to assuage public displeasure?
On the flip side of things, however, it is good that the government is responsive to public sentiments. The danger is that in wanting to respond favorably, the government may be putting on blindfolds and ignoring the pitfalls of populism.
When it comes to the PTOs, there are many questions which the government should address before pumping in billions of dollars into infrastructure and helping operators with running costs at taxpayers’ expense.
The issue of nationalising our public transport system was raised by the Workers’ Party in its election manifesto, and also at the REACH forum in February. Mrs Teo did not dismiss the idea but said that “this would require a detailed study.” So far, however, there has been no word from the government on whether such a study is being carried out or whether one will be in the near future.
In the meantime, the government is not winning over the commuting public with such a huge injection of resources. This is especially so when the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the breakdowns and failings of the train system late last year and early this year has not even completed and released its findings.
Hopefully, when Parliament sits to debate the Budget – from 28 February to 9 March – Members of Parliament will bring up the matter. Otherwise, the public’s faith in the management of the public transport system will take another hit – this time, thanks to the government itself.
The public, reeling from train failures and increases in fares, will feel that the PTOs are having their cake and eating it too – all free of charge, of course, courtesy of a suspiciously populist government.