Time to demote some gods from the altar

Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew has told Singaporeans that regular temporary closures of the metro system will be the new norm. Shutdowns will occur on weekends for maintenance and reconstruction.

As Singapore’s metro system ages, such work will become inescapable.

Lui has promised that careful planning will go into these planned shutdowns, yet something tells me they are going to go about it with tunnel vision (double entendre intended). They are likely to focus mainly on providing signs and bridging shuttle bus services to move passengers through the disrupted sections. Your typical Sunday outing will soon look like this:

You will get annoyed. Nobody likes to make a five-segment journey, even if you have been notified in advance.

The government will say that passenger load is lower during weekends and the inconvenience will thus not be too great. Firstly, I do not know whether they have seen how crowded the trains are, especially on Sunday evenings (packed till 11 p.m.) , and secondly, anytime mode-switching is required, there is going to be confusion (since not everyone will be fully informed) and path conflict as people rush to and from boarding points. The complex language landscape we have (Singapore largely operates on six or seven languages) will further confound the problem.

I am not going to say that temporary closures should not happen. Experience in other cities shows us they are essential. Nor am I saying that bridging services aren’t part of the solution: they certainly must be. However, I am cautioning against an over-reliance on bridging services because it is user-unfriendly, and will still not be able to cope with heavy passenger loads.

Yet I am pessimistic, because a more holistic solution is hard for the government to promote since it runs up against vested interests and the government’s own profit-driven ideology. This is explained below.

I argue that a more holistic solution is needed, but what is that?

Let me begin by describing the transport knowledge map in a typical person’s mind. It looks like the diagram below. He is aware of the route of his local feeder bus, and partly aware of the routes of the trunk services that pass through his locality – if one doesn’t, there will be family members who do.

When a metro disruption occurs, even if it is a planned one, huge parts of the city become hard to reach. This is especially when the guiding philosophy for bus route planning through the last few decades has been to avoid duplication of bus routes and MRT routes. In the diagram below, the pale blue parts of the train network are those that have become largely inaccessible once there is a shutdown, planned or otherwise.

It would be much less disruptive if in normal times, the typical Singaporean has, and has become familiar with, trunk bus routes that pass through his locality. Particularly useful would be to have bus routes that would take him to largely the same places that the metro goes to. In the diagram below, the lighter green represent the additional bus routes that give the commuter better choices.

The presence of bus alternatives in turn reduces the load on bridging shuttle buses at the points of disruption, creating spillover benefits for other commuters who have no choice but to use the MRT and its bridging services despite a shutdown.

The problem with this scenario is that our transport planners would immediately throw up their arms in horror, saying that the additional bus routes will sap profitability from the entire transport system. While the additional routes may prove useful during disruptions, in normal times, by duplicating (at least in part) the metro network, they will cannibalise each other.

This is where I think our obsession with profitability and the high utilisation it demands, works against us. Just as reliance on just-in-time manufacturing meant ripples of disruption to supply chains post-Sendai tsunami (March 2011) and post-Thai floods (second half 2011), so likewise, we need to put some value to built-in redundancy.

As an aside, let me also suggest that the most natural way to obtain such redundancy, yet balanced with reasonable attention to cost and profitability, would be to have different companies run bus and train services. Let the bus company judge  how much to duplicate the train routes, and therefore compete for the same traffic. The worst outcome would be for the same company to run both the train and bus routes through the same corridor. The result will tend to be a determination to maintain high load levels on the train by cutting away bus services. This may increase the company’s profitability, but it also increases social vulnerability.

* * * * *

Redundancy and parallel systems should not be seen as wasteful, but if provided for in moderation, is valuable insurance.

Speaking more generally, the need to take down the gods of high utilisation and profitability from our collective altar applies in many other areas too.

Various measures have indicated for example, that Singaporeans work among the longest hours (see for instance, this report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics). This must surely have had deleterious effects on our social and family lives. Our low birthrate may be another unintended consequence. Certainly the low participation in charity endeavours and civil society (activities that give society much resilience and ballast — witness again the response of Japanese society post-tsunami) is related to our lack of free time.

The lack of fallback capacity goes beyond stressed-out family or starved-thin civil society. A similar history of putting all eggs in one basket — in the name of efficiency — is all too obvious in our politics. The argument that Singapore cannot afford two or three political parties rotating in power, or independent media setting its own agenda, because we need to put all “talent” into the same team to maximise economic growth, is just another way of praying to the same gods.

The government keeps reminding us that Singapore is a highly vulnerable place; our survival is always in peril. One crack in our carefully-constructed world and we will fall to pieces, they say. How much of that is of their own making, from worshipping before the feet of false gods?

22 Responses to “Time to demote some gods from the altar”


  1. 1 Crap 17 April 2012 at 17:55

    Alex,

    Actually, PAP is not worshipping before false gods; they want to be the only one and only God that the electorate worship. Thus, the obsessive need for PAP to control the local media. The latest measure to promote their “god-like” nature is to feature their MPs in prime-time TV drama series. An example is the in-between scenes (of the current 9pm Channel 8 TV drama series) insertion of a brief interview with Teo Ser Luck on the issue of abortion. Since when was Teo Ser Luck an expert on such issues??

    • 2 The 19 April 2012 at 09:58

      /// they want to be the only one and only God that the electorate worship ///

      Crap, if you have been following Alex, I think that this is exactly what Alex is doing – knocking the PAP gods, goddesses and godlets from their pedestals.

  2. 3 Nice 17 April 2012 at 19:12

    Well written! i dare say remove PAP from power and all our problems are solved!

  3. 4 nsf 17 April 2012 at 20:43

    on the other hand, plenty of redundancy in the army because the government don’t pay proper salaries to the nsf. Hence this garmen don’t pray to their gods all the time.

  4. 5 Elijah Lau 17 April 2012 at 21:38

    Part of the problem with planned MRT closures on the weekends is that weekend leisure for many Singaporeans involves “going to town”.

    • 6 Chow 18 April 2012 at 23:57

      That’s true, although I would think a good many need to use the trains to go places other than town on the weekends.

      Whatever the case, I think that it’s probably better to implement this sort of shutdowns. It’ll be a pain in the ass but necessary since the other option is to do a half-baked shutdown and maintenance and yet not fix the problem.

      I was in Boston in February this year and they actually shut down a part of the line over the weekends for a whole month (or was more?). They had bridging bus services but I didn’t take them. I just walked. The maintenance works were to the floating slabs. That’s right. The same ‘floating slabs’ where most of the claws in our system came off. Oh the irony of it all!

  5. 7 jax 18 April 2012 at 02:23

    are you saying that the govt doesn’t have contingency plans? that it is avoiding “insurance”? that it doesn’t plan ahead? and that it warns that the slightest thing could make the system here fall apart because that system is poorly put together? dear dear me, that is so anti-sporean you know.

    plse, go stand in the corner for a few years. about a decade would be just fine. by then, this country would be inclusive, productivity would have risen, and people’s pay would have risen, though there is no road map on how to get from this point to that. and if you stand in that corner for another decade or so, we’ll even have a singaporean culture!

  6. 8 Anonymous 18 April 2012 at 09:25

    As it is the loading in MRT is way above its capacity, hence the frequent breakdowns. Running a parallel bus service is inevitable. Lui must be a fool if he doesn’t this is the basic cause of the problems.

  7. 9 oute 18 April 2012 at 11:13

    You can become the Transport Minister.

  8. 10 Tristan 18 April 2012 at 15:50

    very well written piece and i very much agree with the conclusion that our desire for efficiency and disregard for all social effects have starved us, weakened our society and made us an apathetic state. the unfaltering pursuit for GDP growth thru luring foreign investments with cheap labour and efficiency cannot be the winning formula forever. long overdued changes which are critical to bring us to a higher level are met with much resistance, primarily due to centralization of wealth + power…or perhaps of unthinking leaders. we can feel the absence of empowerment rid us the sense of ownership and pride for our country which stifle us further from greater achievements and still public comments are rebutted forcefully. it saddens to see the detrimental effects of many highly regarded ideals + policies on our society have surfaced long ago but ignored by arrogance and indifference. changes must happen swiftly to bring us to the next era.

  9. 11 Rabbit 18 April 2012 at 16:12

    I hate to see the lack of will and determination by our leader to genuinely cure the FOREVER problems, not just our transport systems. They can tell the world they are the best surgeon and thus demanded top world salary. The end result is simply plastering serous wound, to cut cost, in Singapore that never seem to heal from perpetual sickness. It is no wonder why some thinking heads decided to speak up for the good of our people which can be seen from Lim Chong Yah’s appearance. Unsurprisingly, his speech irked PAP’s boxed-in mind and were treated with hit-n-run reply from demigods.

    Sometime, making prayer to our own god for miracle might just yield result than asking PAP for solution, so to speak. Frankly, with every breakdown in MRT line, my heart sank even deeper. Trust our leader for concrete solution has long became an over bloated hope. Instead we should give them credit for causing problems than solution as a result of many entwined problems that telling logic became illogical to the ruling party, not transportation issue alone. They know best mentality has never dwindled even after the last watershed election.

    As I wrote, the MRT circle line in Bishan has screwed up again this morning, of 18 March 2012, a day or two after similar breakdown in the west area with the same confusing crowds. This will not be the last as “promised” by you-know-who again. Did 60% population voted for this?

    Now I shall go out of my house but before that, kow tow to my altar for a smooth ride today, at least the ONE I prayed to will not tax me heavily for my prayer unlike the shamelessly over hyped demigods.

  10. 12 Loyal reader 18 April 2012 at 17:15

    Welcome back Alex, glad that you’re blogging again🙂

  11. 13 KAM 18 April 2012 at 19:08

    We are seeing the cracks and suffering the consequences. And then who cares?
    The gods still profess blissful ignorance and continues their way to economic prowess in spite of ground noise. Yes, they make a few cosmetic adjustments, to please the internet media and the technically-savvy population.
    They simply ignore anyone more than 50 years old. They are expired workers.
    Low and middle income Singaporeans are doomed. There is no turnaround.

  12. 14 patriot 18 April 2012 at 20:01

    Luckily nobody is late to attend sermon as it is not a Sunday today.

    patriot

  13. 15 Anonymous 18 April 2012 at 23:27

    well said, but i wonder how can the government/party that will take over PAP going to solve these transport problems?

  14. 16 I Voted For Kodos 19 April 2012 at 00:48

    The gods of profit were always false gods, anyway. The MRT is not truly profitable. MRT operations are shown as profitable because the financing of the construction is part of the LTA budget. I very much doubt the money paid by the MRT operators to LTA can fully cover the cost of that, or even a significant portion of it. The only real reason for splitting the train operations from the construction is so the latter can show profit on paper and thus be privatised in future.

    Transport overall would be more efficient if a single publicly owned transportation body operating at arms length from LTA operated MRT, LRT and Bus services as complementary public services. As long as the profit god is there, false or not, extra capacity is only ever going to be seen as wasted money.

    Buses shadowing MRT routes would make a useful capacity booster and in the case of the EWL, is just begging for an Express bus duplicates using the ECP and AYE.

  15. 17 Singaporeans Deserve Better! 19 April 2012 at 02:51

    We should be asking ourselves (especially the 66%) questions like how did we allow them to take away our pensions and award it exclusively to themselves? How did we allow such a situation where Ministers were already receiving their pensions while still getting their millions? How did we allow such a situation where the Finance Minister’s and later PM’s wife was head of government-owned Temasek Holdings which manages a portfolio of about or more than $200 billion?

    We should be asking ourselves why the children of our millionaire Ministers are recipients of government scholarships at prestigious universities overseas instead of more needy and equally (or more) deserving Singaporeans. We should be asking what are the true facts of President Tony Tan’s son’s national service? After denying vociferously and even scolding the public, no clear explanation or evidence has emerged as yet to put the allegations to rest. How did we allow them to bully, destroy and finally disqualify capable opposition members like JBJ and Francis Seow and then turn around and point to the lack of quality opposition? How did we let them to pay themselves millions of dollars while we saw our wages stagnate for so long? Their justification was that we have to pay top dollar to get top quality – if that were true, why so many screw-ups then?

    Screw-ups like HDB’s (mission == affordable housing for masses) soaring prices, allowing someone as dangerous as Mas Selamat to stroll out of a max security detention centre, most Singaporeans not having enough in their CPF upon retirement, HDB’s DBSS, the frequent floods, the all-too-frequent MRT breakdowns, the breaches of security at SMRT, Singapore’s overpopulation, the swarming of foreign ‘talents’ especially unqualified and non-English-speaking PRC’s in frontline jobs, the over-granting of scholarships to foreign students – I could go on with more like the graduate parents scheme and our birth control schemes but this paragraph wouldn’t end.

    All of a sudden, our government has changed its tack and are willing to change and listen to the people. Why this sudden change? Not because they sincerely want to listen and change but because the unthinkable took place at the last GE which, for the first time, showed them what could happen at the next election. Also because the New Media has allowed the masses to hear alternative views for the first time after being force-fed by the government-run (no, LKY-run) SPH. For the first time in its history, it’s helter-skelter time at PAP HQ as they keep getting kicked in the teeth day after day, expose after expose.

    So let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the government has changed in any drastic manner as they are simply doing what anyone in survival mode would do – try to placate the masses with empty promises and acting like they care but still trying to bulldoze their policies through. Now they are trying to shoot down Prof Lim’s proposal by painting dire and gloomy scenarios. The same way they say and keep saying that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM or minimum wage and that multiracial Singapore will never be a melting pot like US because we are just too different from each other.

    We played our part in making Singapore the success story it is by tightening our belts, taking pay cuts with no bonuses during difficult times – shouldn’t we be given a slice of the pie in good times (not the pittance they throw at us every now and then especially just before the elections). We can only hope that the 66% who voted in the government only to grumble and point fingers at the government a few months later will diminish to a much smaller percentage at the next hustings. No one is saying that the PAP should be kicked out – all many Singaporeans want is more oppositions in Parliament to fight for us and present alternative viewpoints and keep the ruling party in check and on their toes!

  16. 18 Doing what is right by following your heart 19 April 2012 at 11:29

    Yep, I remembered a couple of years back, when the NE line was just opened, there were still bus routes available (If I recalled correctly, Nos 82 or 80) to Orchard. Then suddenly the routes were diverted and changed, largely due to rumours that the NE line to Dhouby Ghaut was under utilised and SMRT was looking to recoup their costs. At that time, I was working in Takashimaya. Though taking the MRT was faster in terms of travelling time, it was often crowded with no seats. I was standing about 10 hours a day and badly wanted a seat at the end of the day. So sometimes I decided to take the bus as it was less crowded, though the journey time was much longer. When SMRT took away the bus route, luckily I was no longer working there, but I was rather frustrated that yet another option was taken away from the commoner in the face of profitability and so called ‘efficiency’.

  17. 19 The Pariah 19 April 2012 at 19:51

    PART 1: The yaya-PAPayas are so ….. well, yaya (cocky) and sure that they are the only ones who can make A-Team and therefore they have only one Plan A. So, not having Plan B has exposed their inherent weakness and irksome cockiness – time and again.

    BISHAN-TOA PAYOH GRC MP Hri Kumar’s ltr to Today newspaper is a classic example:
    http://www.todayonline.com/Voices/EDC120224-0000035/No-automatic-by-election-in-our-model-of-parliamentary-democracy

    This is a Senior Counsel speaking. This is an experience MP talking.

    From Mr Kumar’s ltr, it would appear that these yaya-PAPayas believe they can control when they will not die – as I’ll elaborate in Part 2.

  18. 20 The Pariah 19 April 2012 at 19:52

    PART 2: Based on the above link to PAP MP Hri Kumar’s ltr to Today paper:

    1. In above ltr, Hri Kumar said: “It holds political parties accountable to voters for the performance of their candidates. Parties must endeavour to field candidates who can last the term as MP.” For a Senior Counsel to spout this, I’d like to know if the PAP can ensure that their MPs won’t die before the full term ends?

    2. Mr Kumar goes on: “Our parliamentary democracy is based on the principle that elections are fundamentally about voters choosing between different political parties to lead the country, rather than between individual candidates standing in a constituency.” Then Elections Dept need NOT bother to painstakingly draw electoral boundaries and parties spend so much to put up candidate posters. Just vote Party X, Y or Z and then let the party assign monkeys, gorillas and langurs here and there.

  19. 21 Jentrified Citizen 20 April 2012 at 12:52

    for those of us who have had first hand experience working with govt bodies and GLCs, we have often been shocked by their lack of experience and incompetence. This whole MRT saga is karma’s way of exposing the level of incompetencies , of lack of holistic planning, of lack of foresight and real skills in the govt and at these government related bodies. Many of them are placed in their jobs through loyalty and do not have a capability to run those big companies nor the government. Do they deserve their big titles and high pay? The truth speaks for itself.

  20. 22 BK 21 April 2012 at 22:42

    A lot of today’s problems are a result of PAP’s “lack of foresight” and “GDP and profits at all cost” policies. These huge headaches require change of thinking which they do not want to, and foresight which they still lack, to solve.
    One of the more serious problem is the ever widening wealth disparity. Just look at their softly softly and half-hearted approach of increasing productivity thereby increasing the lower rungs of the workers’ salary. They have been talking about productivity growth for years and has it work? NO. On the contrary, productivity may have drop. And what was the response when Prof. Lim suggested the “shock therapy”. The same old “it will affect the businesses competitiveness and they may have to relocate or close shop thereby increasing unemployment” argument.
    So what now? Softly softly approach has failed and “shock therapy” too extreme. And in the meantime, they still laugh all the way to the bank every month and feeling very rich looking at their CPF’s statement, what talents have they not yet utilised (since they claim to be hugely talented to deserve such humongous salary) to solve our many problems, many of them will affect ours and our future generations’ livelihoods.
    Not only their greed is being confirmed but I also doubt their ability.


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