The post described Singaporeans as a perennially grumpy lot, bitching even about trains arriving 30 seconds late. At first, I gave it little thought. The post was one of many linked from Facebook which I cursorily surfed through while munching my breakfast this morning. I didn’t even keep the link; now I can’t find it any more. It was penned by a Malaysian visiting from Penang who was expressing his amazement at how “advanced” Singapore was, and yet how unreasonable Singaporeans were in not appreciating what we have.
I do recognise however that the remark was really a metaphor for a general state of unhappiness; it was not meant to be taken literally.
But as the day wore on, my mind went back to this comment a few times, and I thought to myself: I don’t see why we should necessarily be ashamed of being demanding. Setting high standards is, after all, the first step to achieving them. I would much rather that we as a people are perpetually dissatisfied and striving for better than be too accommodative of slack.
It reminded me of several occasions when I have been in a neighbouring country, often while attending a conference, but by sheer force of personality taking over the organisation of some part of it. The take-overs usually followed repeated expressions of frustration with the ramshackle way things were going, e.g. lackadaisical time-keeping and punctuality, or incomplete, misleading and out-of-date information disseminated to participants. Quite often, I would not be alone in wanting to seize control of things in an effort to put them right. One or two fellow Singaporeans would be active alongside, just as frustrated as I was.
Almost always, a few non-Singaporeans would remark, “You guys are so Singaporean,” or something to that effect. They see little Lee Kuan Yews in us: ruthless, domineering and obsessed with efficiency. The remark is often delivered with a smile, though I suspect mixed feelings lurk behind it. It’s a well-known fact that our Asean neighbours behold Singapore with a mixture of envy and distaste.
That post by the Malaysian also said something about how Singaporeans are searching for identity. I am not sure I agree with him (or maybe it’s a ‘her’) . I reckon it half-depends on what one understands by ‘identity’. If one defines identity in primarily ethnic or cultural terms, then, yes, perhaps comparatively we come across as quite unrooted. But when others can recognise a Singaporeanness in us from the way we react to issues of organisation, thoroughness, punctuality and precision, then there must be some psycho-social attributes that characterise us. That’s cultural too, in its own way.
We shouldn’t shortchange ourselves. These attributes are, in the main, positive ones. It is only by being dissatisfied with the present that progress is sought, it is only by being frustrated with failings, however small, that quality improves. I would not want us to be too accepting of error, delays, or neglect. By this, I don’t only mean striving for the material. A general unhappiness with the state of the environment, physical or social, or with the quality of our lives, is just as effective in propelling us to change things for the better.
And even if the writer intended his remark about being impatient with trains 30 seconds late to be taken literally, I might still defend our right to be impatient. It’s like this: At peak hour, if trains don’t run at two-minute intervals, crowds build up. Thirty seconds would be a significant difference in such a context. It would represent a 20 percent reduction in capacity. This in turn can also be a metaphor. For the densely urbanised, highly complex and interlocked society that we are, we know the value of operating within tight tolerances.
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A recent response of the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to widespread grumbling about public transport is the advertising campaign they are running to inform commuters of the improvements being undertaken. There are several indoor billboards trumpetting upgrades to the metro’s signalling system, which, when completed, should allow for closer spacing of trains, thus improving frequency.
Another speaks of adding 77 new trains. Information-wise, this one left me a little discontented. What does 77 really mean? What percentage increase is it to train stock? How much of an improvement to frequency and capacity does it represent? A number like that hyped in isolation is meaningless.
So, in the lead-up to this article, I did a bit of surfing. I couldn’t find any press release from the LTA talking about 77 trains, but I found one dated 1 February 2012 talking about 18 new trains for the Northeast Line and 16 new trains for the Circle Line. To be progressively delivered from 2015, the eighteen new 6-car trains for NEL will cost $234 million, whilst the sixteen new 3-car trains for CCL will cost $134 million. The press release said that when fully delivered, the new trains will increase peak-hour capacity on the NEL by 70 percent, and on the CCL by 40 percent.
There are currently 25 trains on the NEL (source: SBS Transit 2012 Annual Report, page 21) and 40 trains on the CCL (source, SMRT 2013 Annual Report page 84). These base figures are coherent with claims of capacity increase to come.
In SMRT’s 2013 Annual Report, page 84, there is a statement that they currently have 128 six-car trains on the East-West and North-South Lines. It also says that “we are adding 35 new trains which will be delivered progressively between 2014 and 2016.” Subtracting the 16 meant for the Circle Line, that leaves us with 19 trains. It is not clear how many of these are for the East-West or North-South Lines. Or, for that matter, whether additions to the Bukit Panjang LRT, if any, are included. But if we assume that the 19 are only for the East-West and North-South Lines, then they represent an increase of about 15 percent in rolling stock for the EWL and NSL — provided no old trains are taken out of service. It will be a small, but (I expect) a noticeable improvement.
That still leaves 24 trains unaccounted for out the “77 new trains” advertised in various posters. My guess is that these 24 are earmarked for the soon-to-open Downtown Line.
Based on the purchase values provided in the 1 Feb 2012 press release, the unit cost of a 6-car train is about $13 million. That of a 3-car train is about $8.4 million. My estimate of the cost of all 77 trains is about $817 million. That’s a pretty big number.
Such big investments would not be possible without prudently-managed state finances and a healthy, growing economy. So yes, we should see things in perspective. There are many things in Singapore to be appreciative of. While not perfect, the management of our public transport is the envy of many from around the region, and credit should be given to the government.
On the other hand, it can just as easily be argued that if not for the the loud and persistent grumbling about crowding, breakdowns, the once-dismissive attitude of the previous SMRT management and the previous complacency of the Land Transport Authority, this new energy to revitalise and improve our public transport might not have come about.
It’s a fine balance to strike. We need to see things in perspective and be cognisant and appreciative of the foundation laid and the overall management of the economy. At the same time, we must never stop being impatient for better. And if being Singaporean is not defined by ethnicity or tradition, but by this state of mind, then, however annoying it may be to the powers that be that would much prefer hearing unadulterated praise from the citizenry, it may well be something about our identity we can all be proud of.