Mount Singapore Traffic Police on Beemers

BY ANNE WONG
Jan 26, 2011

Fancy taxi surcharges, car certificates (a.k.a. COEs), bad driving… Anne Wong bemoans the state of Singapore’s roads – and the bureaucratic brains behind them.

I arrived in Hong Kong and almost immediately had a row with a taxi driver. He had pulled up at the Central Airport Express station stand, opened his door and then opened his trunk - and slammed it shut again. Meanwhile I was loading my two pieces of hand luggage into the back seat.

When I noticed that my duffle was still on the trolley and he'd resumed his seat, I asked why he did not help me with my duffle. His retort was that I'd told him not to load my bag.

They say travelling is stress, well I lit into him to relieve my stress and even found the right Cantonese words (minus the epithets) to say (loud enough for the people in the queue behind me to hear and smile) that he must be hard of hearing because I did not ask him not to load my duffle. So he reluctantly got out of the taxi and did so while I stood, waiting. After all, he might have been nuts enough to drive off with me and the hand luggage and leave my duffle!

Once he got back behind the wheel he asked where we were going, so I told him our destination - loudly - and asked if he could hear! He kept quiet, quite a feat for a HK taxi driver. Then he thought he'd get his own back by testing me. He asked, "which route". I snapped back, "Kennedy Road", hoping my Cantonese pronunciation of the name was correct. It established that I knew the way home and therefore was not a visitor.

We got home in one piece and he helped unload my duffle.

So, yes, not all the recalcitrant taxi "uncles" are located in Singapore! But there will be more of them in Singapore if the government gets its way and has more companies amassing bigger fleets.

This seems to be the way we go about solving problems nowadays – based on expediency and the line of least resistance. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but I suspect it will be yet another ill thought-out measure.

We'll just concoct another scheme to deal with the problems thrown up by the first!

But then we'll just concoct another scheme to deal with the problems thrown up by the first!

When taxis drivers complained they weren't making a decent living, prize-winning brains devised a convoluted set of surcharges to tack on to the fare for getting from A to B. Now if you want a taxi shortly before a surcharge kicks in, you wait around – or pay a fee to make a booking.

Is there a shortage of taxis or is there a shortage of taxi drivers wanting to do a decent day's work? I've heard it said that the taxi companies cannot find enough drivers. I've also heard of taxi drivers who ply their trade during the day, sub their vehicles out at night and drive their families around at weekends. Not a bad gig if you can get it. By not tackling the root and systemic problems of the "shortage" of taxis at certain times and in certain situations, we are just basing the new policies on the same unstable, shifting foundations. And painting ourselves into a corner with each new diabolical “brainchild” of scholarly minds.

 

US$58,000 car certificates (or COEs)

When the government wanted to control the number of vehicles on the roads, brilliant minds were put to work and came up with a scheme whereby every month car buyers make bids for certificates that will entitle them to buy a car.

Recently the highest bid was something in the region of US$58,000 – the successful bidders for this Open Category pay that amount for the right to buy and put a car on the roads for 10 years (before import duties, etc which tack more than 200% on the landed cost of the car).

Singapore is one of the most expensive places in the world to buy and own a car, if not the most expensive.

Needless to say, Singapore is one of the most expensive places in the world to buy and own a car, if not the most expensive.

Nowadays, we have several measures to regulate the number of new vehicles and to manage traffic, all of them lucrative. None of them has helped reduce car owners' financial obligations in scope or in monetary terms. Yet, going by the ever-rising COE bids, there is no reduction in the demand to put new vehicles on the roads.

Any sensible person would expect public transportation to be front and centre of our transport policies, yet we still lag behind demand (we have increased our population by leaps and bounds to about 5 million) when it comes to affordable, efficient public transport.

It's not that all Singaporeans have money to drop on cars; the problem is limited public transport and a climate that is not kind if you go by Shanks' pony or take Bus number 11 (in other words, walk).

So why all these big and little irritations? Have they to do with Lee Kuan Yew (MM or Minister Mentor) taking in the big picture rather than occupying himself with the minutiae of making things run?

It was interesting reading excerpts of a series of interviews with Lee Kuan Yew (MM or Minister Mentor). Among the things reported:

"While he was less in command of the specific details of domestic policies, he was more than familiar with their general thrust." (Straits Times; Jan 16, 2011)

We are reluctant to borrow and adapt what others do; we seem to insist on re-inventing the wheel and learning (one hopes) from the same mistakes others have made before us. The NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome is alive and well even though it might slow down progress.

 

Targeting bad drivers

However, there are many things Singapore can learn, adapt to our own use and even improve upon.

We could nip bad driving in the bud by imposing certain conditions on newly minted drivers.

 

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We honour our VIPs and VIP visitors with motorcycle outriders (they seem partial to the motorised convoys that one usually connects with US Presidents, the Pope, Royal Weddings, the third world and “tin pot” dictators), but do not deploy them to patrol our roads.

Is it because we don't have enough motorcycle policemen to do both adequately? Why can't we attract enough?

Back in the early 80s, I had a colleague who was once a motorcycle cop and if he could he would have continued to ride a TP bike in his uniform, such was the buzz and swagger attached to being a mounted cop in a crisp and smart uniform.

I suppose it is like comparing National Service in the old days (among other things: instructors who had seen action) and today (catered meals and virtually easy-care uniforms).

I have been admiring the mounts of the HK motorcycle cops; there are lots of opportunities to do so as they seem to be everywhere. And they ride very handsome machines.

If the SCDF have their sporting Red Rhinos to rush to fires, maybe the Traffic Police could provide equally nice toys for our TP boys?