At a dialogue with residents of MacPherson on Sunday, Transport Minister Raymond Lim responded to questions about transport fares in the midst of an economic downturn.
A resident, in the best English he could muster, said he hoped there would be “no any increase in transport fare” next year. The Minister’s response?
“You want it to be free, do you want the GST to go up to 8.5% to run a completely free bus and train system?”
I don’t think completely free public transport was on the minds of any Singaporean. We all know that nothing is free in this country, even if we’ve paid for it in taxes. Why was the Minister talking down to Singaporeans like that by using such hyperbole?
In response to another resident’s question whether the transport companies were making “a lot of profits”, he said:
“We don’t want the companies to be making excessive profits, but that’s different from saying that they cannot make profits at all.”
Again, hyperbole. Is everyone clamouring for public transport companies to make zero profits? In fact, their balance sheets are far, far from zero.
In response to further requests for transport subsidies, he said:
“There are only two persons who pay when it comes to public transport fares. One, I use – I pay. Or two, I use – you help me subsidise my ride. What happens when you subsidise my rides? That means the taxpayers are now paying.”
“My” rides? Does the Minister really take public transport?
Actually I see nothing wrong with the “I use, you help me subsidise” model. “I” being wealthy taxpayers, and “you” being the working class commuters who are struggling to pay for their transport to their $700 per month cleaning job.
And finally, when a resident questioned why when oil prices have fallen to about US$33 a barrel from a high of US$147 in July, bus and MRT fares haven’t seen a similar drop, the Minister reasoned that “public transport fares are not directly linked to oil prices”, but to a basket of other “national factors”.
Technically he is correct — they are not directly linked. The Public Transport Council’s “maximum fare adjustment” is proportional to inflation (the Consumer Price Index), wage increases and inversely proportional to the profitability of the public transport operators.
But two of those three factors are linked very closely to oil prices. In fact, the public transport operators said so themselves, as highlighted by another TOC article.
A Straits Times reader, maynardjohn, responded:
Nobody claims the relationship between oil prices and fare prices is 1:1. Neither is there a demand that the correlation be linear. Hence an increase of 40% in oil price is fully compatible with an increase of 0.7% in fare price (the latter being a rather arbitrary function of operator’s profit). By the same token, the commuters fully expect that a substantial fall in the oil price to translate into a reduction in fare price.
Unsurprisingly, reactions to the Minister’s statements provoked a rather unhappy reaction from Singaporeans. The Online Citizen’s quote of his remark provoked over 60 angry responses in just 12 hours.
Even the Straits Times article on his remarks evoked an unusually negative reaction from Straits Times subscribers. The comments thread had three pages of comments — all of them negative.
Perhaps the Minister did not realise that he was on national television, and thought he was just speaking to a group of elderly grassroots supporters who couldn’t even understand him, let alone talk back to him.
Here’s the clip from Channel News Asia: