The recent furore and controversy over the introduction of the “distance-based” fare structure is a perfect example of how a supposedly well-intentioned public policy has been promoted and disseminated carelessly and almost disingenuously. If it is true that nearly 70 percent of public transport commuters are now paying less after the variety of alterations and rebates, then the Ministry of Transport (MOT) and the Public Transport Council (PTC) most certainly need to take the blame for failing to educate the general populace about the pros and cons of the new structure accordingly.
The respective agencies and councils did undertake an extensive publicity campaign in a bid to facilitate a smooth transition from the previous fare structure; yet in the hopeful desire of simplifying the complex system, individuals were equating “distance fares” to “lower fares”. Quintessentially, the MOT and PTC had failed to convey the most important message: that those who made single-trips would now be cross-subsiding those who made transfers, particularly since the latter would be rendered more regular given the expansion of train lines and bus services. Especially for many elderly citizens who do not have the patience or ability to sieve through the details of the explanations from posters and websites, money talks. Having been subtly lulled into the belief that “distance-based” fares mean paying less for public transport regardless, it is not difficult to comprehend the uproar that erupted on-line and off-line.
Little has been done to counter the numerous comparisons done independently and published on the Internet; many of which utilise benchmarks that do not take into account the recession rebates, reduction in transfer penalties et cetera. In retrospect, the PTC’s decision to overwhelm Singaporeans with an assortment of statistics and supposed example-comparisons – with varied feedback – has not only confused many, but has also increased the credibility gap. Unhappiness with the quality of public transportation has certainly compounded the situation, leading to greater overall backlash.
Crisis-management now must be adopted with a two-pronged approach. First, the PTC has to move away from the convenient message of a fare reduction, and begin to be more transparent and all-rounded in its public education effort. Suspicions would only confound if plain figures are shoved down the throats of commuters, with the absurd expectation that they would look at the policy from the bureaucrats’ perspectives. Second, more help and rebates should be offered to the elderly and the needy. It seems logical that if senior citizens are generally paying more, and their limited mobility often restricts them to making single, short transport journeys, they should not be penalised to pay more; given that many have low incomes and struggle with the costs of living.
The 30 percent who have ended up paying more would not go down without a fight; if not enough is being done to mitigate and remedy and challenges, then public transport providers – together with the administration – could potentially struggle with the implementation of future public policies or changes.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.