April 28, 2017

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by Vinod Ashvin Ravi

We often read and hear how travelling and spending time overseas can turn out to be one of life’s most transformative experiences. How such endeavours broaden our horizons to acknowledge and appreciate cultures and peoples distinct from ourselves. All this may be true, but the reverse certainly holds as well. After four months on student exchange in Washington D.C., I’d like to think I’ve become just as aware and appreciative of how similar people are, even halfway across the world.

Even though we tend to like drawing lines of distinction between ourselves, my observation has been that Americans and Singaporeans today face fairly similar circumstances and challenges – derived partly from having fairly similar wants – in the course of their daily lives. This is not to say that there are no differences, but our constant attempts at distinguishing ourselves from one another should not cloud our vision from the similarities that exist either.

First and foremost, both societies today are witnessing a common narrative of growing resentment against the powers-that-be. From keyboard warriors to Hong Lim Park protestors, we’ve seen a discernably rising tide of anti-establishment frustration in Singapore in recent years. Yet diatribes against the prevailing political system – and those who run it – are no less severe here in America.

Granted, such anger is grounded in distinctly different reasons. Many Singaporeans are angry at what they perceive to be the continued unilateral decision-making style of the Government. In America on the other hand, much of the anger stems from the fact that effective decision-making itself seems to have become nothing short of a miracle given the political gridlock and paralysis in key Washington institutions engendered by entrenched antagonism between Democratic and Republican parties.

What’s common however is that people in both countries seem to increasingly express a growing sense of disconnect with those they elected to power. An American classmate tells me that the conversations on the ground – more so than ever before – are no longer echoed by those on Capitol Hill anymore. That the governed are losing heart and faith in the governing with each subsequent misstep. A recent Gallup poll in March revealed that Congress had just a 13% approval rating by Americans, only 1% and 4% higher than North Korea and Iran respectively.

A second commonality seems to be that the question of identity has come under equal scrutiny in America today as it has in Singapore. Our country loves to celebrate its diversity, and America is certainly no different. My classmates here include Korean-Americans, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Indian-Americans, and even Armenian-Americans. They look upon their adoptive country with much pride, but regard their home countries with much fondness. Many Americans I’ve spoken to recognize the critical role that immigrants have played in shaping the country’s past, but just as many remain anxious about a continued inflow of immigrants and the effects this will have on their future jobs and lives.

By extension therefore, immigration has become a hot-button topic in America just as it has in Singapore.  President Obama in both his Inauguration and ‘State of the Union’ speeches  continued to emphasize the need to constantly attract immigrant talent, yet such rhetoric continues to spark concern amongst Americans (why does that sound familiar?). Sure, some nuances of the immigration debate in both countries are slightly different. For one, Americans have to contend with the issue of illegal immigration on a scale dissimilar to the Singaporean context. Yet the general reactions that the debates have provoked – in all their good, bad and ugly hues – remain similar.

They have their magical immigration-related numbers just like us – remember 6.9 million, anyone? – yet here too, the issue of immigration itself seems to strike at something more profound than merely statistics. A classmate tells me that the question of what it means to be American – beyond just the free speech and other constitutional rights – seems increasingly to be in constant flux. Re-negotiating and re-establishing the nuances of citizenship, it seems, is increasingly a central feature of conversations here as well.

Thirdly, discussions pertaining to education – the ‘what’s, ‘why’s and ‘how’s – display distinct similarities in both countries. In Singapore, we recently witnessed a recent surge of public attention on the state – and merits – of studying Literature. Lest we think the  ‘Arts vs. Science’ debate is a quagmire peculiar to us, Americans too are increasingly subject to calls to engage in a ‘STEM’ – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – education. In some ways, the education issue here is interwoven with that of immigration, for the pro-STEM lobby has gained traction in recent years riding on the notion that declining rates of STEM education amongst Americans has created the need to bring in more immigrants trained in such specific disciplines.

Another pressing concern on the current American conscience vis-à-vis education – and one with shades of convergence with the Singaporean context – has been the perceived decline in equality of opportunity. There seems to be a growing sense that the most prestigious brands of education – typified commonly by the Ivy League colleges – have become the entrenched domain of a few, and that the implemented designs of the meritocratic system need to be reviewed and rethought. A neighbour I spoke to told me how he felt an urgent imperative to revive the mantra of ‘hard work will be duly rewarded’ as a core tenet of the much-touted ‘American dream’.

A fourth and final commonality – and perhaps a function of convergent circumstances vis-à-vis immigration and education – is a similar sense of awareness of the mounting competition confronting both societies, especially the younger generations. Many Singaporeans tend to lament an endless ‘paper chase’ as one of the banes of an unceasingly competitive education system. Yet a ‘paper chase’ albeit of a different form is prevalent here as well. While the courses we primarily tend to pursue bear grades, those that Americans pursue bear predominantly job credentials.

Indeed, internships are like prime real-estate here in the American capital. Students of all levels scramble to secure a multitude of internships not only between but during semesters as well. The game of one-upmanship for career prospects here hinges less so on letters of the alphabet and more so instead on the breadth of work experience. But this does not discount the fact that the pressures of competition remain significant and equally daunting here in America as well.

As I’ve mentioned, this article does not aim to deny that differences exist between the two countries. Certainly the points highlighted above illuminate divergent finer nuances that characterize both nations. Yet the broader attitudes, mindsets and concerns that undergird these nuances can be argued to be similar. At the end of the day, people in both societies essentially want to lead better lives, and to do so consistently both for themselves and for future generations who succeed them. We put in hard work in the expectation that such effort will engender positive payoffs. We yearn for prosperity because it seems to have become a harbinger of stability in our lives.

My peers and I in Singapore worry constantly over the rising housing and transport prices and the implications these bring to bear on our future finances. Our American counterparts conversely concern themselves with having to pay back exorbitant and seemingly incredible student loans utilized to fund their college education. Once again, the manifestations might be different, but the fears and apprehensions associated with costs – and unaffordability – remain shared between both societies. We look to government to provide guidance and assistance – if not explicit answers – and are disheartened when they fail to respond adequately. Whether it’s the ‘American dream’ or the ‘Singaporean dream’ – whatever either may mean – it seems that more and more people in both societies perceive such visions to be devolving into little more than wistful fantasy.

This exercise in comparison is of course not meant to trivialize the challenges faced by either country, or to exonerate either government from its responsibilities and missteps. The Singapore leadership for one has certainly made its fair share of policy miscalculations in recent times – even by its own admission – and must now navigate a new and challenging phase of governance in an era of hyper-connectivity and re-politicization. But perhaps an awareness that Singaporeans are not alone in fighting the big, bad wolves that haunt us might help us to constructively shape the discourse that emerges from this period of political transition. One of the more sobering revelations I have experienced in my time here has been that many of the pressures we think Singapore faces by virtue of being a small country, may in fact apply to nations far bigger than us as well.

Embracing globalization has often been signaled as a strategy for a small state Singapore to remain relevant to the world. Yet even – and perhaps especially – a larger state like America cannot afford to isolate and alienate itself from the rest of the world, lest it risks its own prosperity. Forging and maintaining social harmony and cohesion are often regarded as paramount in Singapore on account of our small but ethnically diverse population. Yet such maintenance is equally critical to America given its numerous minority groups and the constant inflow of immigrants. We often feel the pressure to upgrade ourselves so as to maintain or enhance our position on the global economic ladder because small nations have it harder in making their mark. But it can be argued that the same pressure weighs just as heavily on those perceived to be atop the ladder so as to avoid being surpassed by those snapping at their heels. Our individual strokes may be different – as may be the size of the ripples we create – but we’re all ultimately swimming to survive lest we sink to darker, bleaker depths.

Back in our younger schooling years, we were constantly encouraged to take part in community service – to engage the wider community – so as to gain perspective and a heightened awareness of our own lot in life. As Singapore today seeks to rediscover and redefine itself – politically, economically and even socio-culturally – perhaps a similar attempt at observing the wider world beyond our ‘little red dot’ may in fact be beneficial to us in finding ourselves as a collective people and nation.

The writer, 22, is a National University of Singapore undergraduate majoring in political science now on an exchange programme at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

by Bertha Henson

As at 11am, in less than 24 hours, the gay couple who started the constitutional challenge on the validity of Section 377A has already raised US$60,000 for their cause. Seems they are not taking their recent court defeat to get the section repealed lying down and are appealing to higher authority. It says much that what was an initial target of US$50,000 to be achieved within a two-month time frame was reached in such a short time, with at last one person contributing $5,000 and another 11 doling out $1,000 as of 10am.

Those helping to raise the funds said that the campaign will NOT end at the US$50,000 mark. The total amount of legal and court fees that need to be raised is actually US$150,000 (over both High Court and court of appeal phases).

by Alfred Siew

Broadband users moving in to new homes in Singapore in the years ahead can expect their premises to be already hooked up by a fibre optic point, in addition to the cable TV and phone jacks they get now.

This means they won’t have to arrange for their homes to be wired up separately by national contractor Opennet. That has been a source of irritation for many users, some of whom have had to wait several weeks to activate their link before their fibre broadband service can be turned on.

The directive from the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) on Wednesday is among a couple of changes that are aimed at improving connectivity in the country. Homes built from next month will have to feature the new connection points.

So far, 95 per cent of homes already are hooked up to the nationwide fibre network, and broadband prices are more competitive than ever before. Yet, problems with installation and connectivity often offer speed bumps for users looking to surf on the fast lane.

IDA hopes its new rules will solve some of these issues. New homes, it has also specified, will have their rooms internally wired up so they can fully enjoy the high speeds offered by fibre broadband and not be hampered by patchy Wi-Fi links.

That solves yet another headache for house-proud home users here. They often have to resort to laying unsightly cables to hook up other rooms in an apartment, or resort to Wi-Fi connections that are slow or prone to interference.

Indeed, the infocomm regulator went so far as to specify that new homes have to be wired up internally with Category 6 cables capable of carrying data at gigabit speeds. Most home users today sign up for only 100Mbps or 200Mbps fibre plans, which use only a fraction of that capacity.

 

Improving cellphone coverage

Separately, the IDA also directed building owners and developers to provide more space, say, in carparks or roof tops, for cellphone operators to set up equipment to provide better coverage.

This is in addition to existing regulations which already call for space to be given to equipment that serve residents in the property.

Effective next month, the new directive comes after all three operators here were fined for poor 3G coverage in December last year. SingTel, StarHub and M1 had said then that they had problems installing base stations to improve coverage.

By making it easier to set up base stations in buildings, IDA may not be as lenient if they continue to fail these tests in future. Of late, telcos have tried to improve their networks to cater to an explosion in usage.

On Monday, M1 said it was spending up to S$85 million to improve 3G coverage and network resiliency. It will upgrade its core infrastructure to an all-IP core network and also deploy a 3G network on the 900MHz band.

The telco had faced one of the most serious disruptions in Singapore in January, when a sprinkler set off accidentally at a network centre caused widespread issues for users for almost three days.

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by Yen Feng

The Consumer Association of Singapore (Case) can’t be too pleased with TNP today. The newspaper checked 25 hawker stalls that Case said was found to serve the cheapest fare – and turned up some strange results.

One stallholder said that contrary to the Case survey, he never sold briyani. There were also a few stalls wrong listed – and one which strangely couldn’t even be found . More importantly, since last December when final-year students at Ngee Ann Polytechnic conducted the survey, some have gone on to raise prices. One has even closed down (can’t sell at that low price?).

Nevertheless, the survey of 541 non-air-conditioned eateries which looked at the prices of chicken nasi briyani, chicken rice, plain roti prata, fishball noodles, and mixed vegetable rice, confirmed what every foodie knows – hawker prices have gone up. Fishball noodles, for example, is now mostly sold at $3, up from $2.50 in 2011.

Case concluded that “there were signs of an upward trend” – although, its executive director Seah Seng Choon said food prices were “still reasonable”. Common reasons for the uptick were rental costs, competition, and rising ingredient costs.

Of all three reports published in yesterday’s ST, TODAY, and Zaobao – ST had the most comprehensive reporting. It reported, for example, that there were 2,500 such non-air-conditioned eateries. It also put up a profile of a nasi briyani seller in Middle Road who charged $6 per plate – one of the highest prices found by the survey (in 2008, the dish cost about $4.50).

Still, it could have gone further by going beyond the results of Case study (which, by the way, can be found on its website) to look closer at whether Government policies to save our hawker culture (and keep it affordable) are actually working.

TODAY said for example that the recent move in April last year to curb hawker-stall rents by scrapping the minimum bid prices have led to lower rent stalls – but ST said it had yet to “trickle down to the rest of the market”.

Thing is, we don’t know how many stalls are tendered this way (How many of the 541 surveyed were?), and what is the expected time-frame for this trickle down effect to happen?

If it’s already taking more than a year, will other factors such as rising food prices eventually drown out this effect?

After all, as one F&B consultant told ST: “Rent is just one cost element. Everything else has been going up in price.”

by Bertha Henson

ST carried a splendid interview with DPM Tharman Shamugaratnam today.

Here are some key points: He said that no, we should not use reserves, but the G is willing to see if more of the income generated by the reserves can be used to fund social policies. Right now, that’s capped at half of income.

Also, he said that there has been no U-turn on foreign worker policy, but it’s not going to be tightened further too. It will be capped at one-third of workforce.

What’s more interesting than the newspoints is how he strove to build new concepts around all themes. Like meritocracy.

He said: “We’ve got to be a broader meritocracy recognising different strengths and different individuals, but also a continuous meritocracy where it doesn’t matter so much what happened when you’re in Sec 4 or JC 2 or when you finish your polytechnic or ITE (course), but what happens after that.”

“We are a meritocracy that’s still a bit too much defined by what happened in your school years or your post-secondary years.”

Mr Tharman, a former education minister, observed that the education system has created two groups of students.

One group know their strengths, but are not “sufficiently aware of their weaknesses, and not sufficiently aware of the strengths of others”.

The other group have not done as well in school and are “very aware of what they didn’t achieve, but not enough of them have discovered their strengths”.

That is true.

An academic caste system appears to have developed over the years. This is based on whether you come from the right schools and therefore, mix with the right people. It is a system that is being and will be perpetuated by the way alumni have priority in enrolling their children in those right schools.

In the National Conversation on education, this “academic caste” is something to think about even as we strive to eliminate the stress from the examination system and work towards a more holistic view of what sort of students we want to build. According to ST, some participants had asked that even brand name schools offer all academic courses, to break down social barriers and encourage mixing. It’s something to consider.

It is also clear that the smart ones know they are smart and this leads to a sense of entitlement: that better grades and coming from the best schools is something that others should respect and reward – for as long as possible. Perhaps, this is why a Robert Half survey reported today talked about the Gen Y worker who wants everything “now”.

Another concept Mr Tharman raised was about the role of the People’s Action Party Government – that it should be dominant but not dominating. Sounds good.  But it takes two hands to clap. Even if the G decides to reduce its presence in some sectors, you can bet that some people will still insist that it eliminates all ills and be responsible for all aspects of life here.

What’s even more interesting is what he said about the political system.

He said that part of a healthy political system is to have a “decent opposition in Parliament and outside”. Pretty odd for a member of the ruling party to say something like this. He will be in a pickle if he was asked to define “decent presence”. A decent presence that will force the PAP to be just dominant, but not dominating?

He also said that the trend towards having smaller GRCs can be “moved a little further” in the same direction. So three-member GRCs or more single-seat wards? Seems this can be viewed two ways: the PAP G no longer thinks that big GRCs will benefit its electoral chances (witness Aljunied GRC) and might well be a bane. Or is it a way to build a decent opposition presence in Parliament? Can’t be.

Looks like the PAP has decided to bite the bullet and acknowledge that it can’t have all the seats in Parliament and wants to seek some kind of accommodation with its critics.

In fact, DPM Tharman’s comments on social media are astoundingly accommodating: “It is a plus that you have social media because a lot more people are involved in commenting and thinking about issues but it’s got to evolve further, so that it matures and you’ve got a more even-handed disposition. We also have to evolve to a situation where absurd or speculative claims do not propagate so easily and get bought into and circulated so breezily, even by the intelligentsia. The social media can be critical of Government and probably always will be. It’s a useful check. But people have to be a lot more sceptical about what’s put out there as well.”

by Bertha Henson

Now we know exactly who is eyeing that 4-hectare piece of land in Pasir Ris that residents are hankering to preserve. It is for the Overseas Family School, which will have to move from its Paterson Road premises by 2015. For nine months, the G has been locking horns with residents who want to preserve the forested area. Over that time, the management of the school must be anxiously looking at the fracas because it will mean so little time for construction. As for an alternative site, it appears that there are very few places that can house a school with more than 3,000 students.

This is an interesting case because as one property expert was reported saying in Today,  it was “a little unusual for the Government to put off the development of a land parcel if there is a real need for a new development”. If the residents got their way, then will a precedent be set? One can imagine developers and other investors shaking their heads over the G’s change of heart – all because of some tree huggers and bird watchers! He said: “If word gets out that the authorities will delay (the development of a plot of land) just because of some special interest groups, where does this leave us?”

Hmm. It will leave us with a reminder that there is a democratic process in Singapore and that the people who live here want a say in what happens to their surroundings. TODAY had an interesting commentary which tries to explain this angst we have about our neighbourhood, especially areas we think are worth preserving as part of our heritage. This has surfaced most recently over the fate of Pulau Ubin and its residents.

Said the commentary: “The fate of the island is held in suspension, contingent on the country’s housing needs, and this uncertainty has a long-term profound impact on Singaporeans’ sense of belonging and psyche.

“The lesson here is not that spaces must be sacrificed for the country’s housing needs but that spaces, regardless of natural or heritage worth, are transient in Singapore and it is better not to get too attached to them.’’

The island has been held in bureaucratic limbo over the years and while exhortations that it will be kept “rustic’’ have been made, they just do not go far enough as a stamp of permanence.

“One cannot expect citizens to sink roots into the land or be called to defend it without expecting them to be angry, even confrontational, when spaces like Pulau Ubin and Bukit Brown are vulnerable,’’ the commentary said.

“It is thus important for civil servants and civil society activists alike to understand that the bridges of communication must always be kept open in order for dialogue to take place. Without this dialogue, both parties will become more entrenched in their positions and less willing to compromise.’’

Nobody has a monopoly over the definition of the national interest. The old norm that economic development must over-ride all other considerations is increasingly being questioned now that the country has passed the survival stage. Questions of identity and belonging loom large.

The Bukit Brown, Pulau Ubin and Pasir Ris examples makes official decision-making “messier’’ for sure, and will make bureaucrats pause the next time they see a “development’’ opportunity in a piece of green space. The stakeholders, that is, the people who live here, want to have a say. Both sides will have to talk it out and decide together what would be in their best interest.

In the case of the Pasir Ris greenbelt, one side might have to give way or some compromise be sought.

The greenbelt lobby is digging in its heels. Said a spokesman: “We have also made it categorically clear that there are no justifiable grounds for the authorities to clear the Pasir Ris greenbelt at all for whatever reason, whether it is to build an international school or for that matter any other urban development like private condominiums, which are sheer commercial profit-driven enterprises.”

How to talk like that?

by Philipp Aldrup

Mr Chia Yeng Keng (age 85) was born on Pulau Ubin in the 1920s. Since more than 40 years ago, he and his wife Mdm Chow New Phang (age 80) have been living in that house, in which they ran a small provision shop in times when the granite quarries were still active. Up to 6000 people lived on the island back then.

Today there are around 100 residents left; it’s getting lonesome in the remote areas, so the Chias commute between the island and Singapore City, where they spend some time in their son’s HDB flat in the Serangoon district. There, they get to meet friends and family and use the amenities of a modern apartment.

Every 10 days, the Chias travel through time – retracing Singapore’s changes of the last decades in just a couple of hours, from the old village lifestyle to modern life in an urban built environment.

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Philipp is a German who has been based in Singapore since 2005. With his camera he creates images of places that possess a disquieting beauty filled with an ethereal sense of timelessness.

The word “sorry’’ has appeared. Such an easy thing to say in the light of the distress a bungled notice to Pulau Ubin residents caused. The 22 residents served a HDB “clearance’’ notice should rest easier, and so too those who think that Pulau Ubin is going to be Disneyland and are taking up cudgels to defend this last bastion of kampong-ism.

The Singapore Land Authority has decided to come out in the open today to sort out the confusion. Going by what it says, it seemed like a small matter of trying to stick to rules – but it was botched by bad bureaucracy.

Small matter you say?

Seems like the HDB botched it up first by sending a notice with an unfortunate header:  “Clearance scheme: Clearance of structures previously acquired for development of Adventure Park on Pulau Ubin”.

From what SLA let fall earlier today, the header is a throwback to a 1993 land acquisition exercise by the State. It wanted the land back from landowners to build what it had then planned for – an Adventure park. So landlords gave the land, took the compensation and left. Trouble is, some of them had tenants who were paying them rent – and some of these tenants are still staying put in their kampungs on what is now State land. Some 22 of them.

As for that Adventure Park, it was never really built – at least not on the scale of popular imagination. Over the next 20 years, the Outward Bound School (maybe this is the Adventure Park?) , bicycle tracks and other recreational spots sprouted up. This “development’’ has been completed and nothing else is going to happen on Ubin apparently.

So those 22 tenants can stay on – or go if they want.

Seems like if the tenants stay, the G thinks they should be paying rent, of about $10 or so a month in the first year, and at most $200 a month in year six when the rents are supposed to be “market rates’’. Doesn’t sound too bad.  As tenants, they would have been paying rent to the original landowners pre-1993.

If they go, they get a re-settlement package of about $10,000 or so and get help to secure a place on the mainland. The phrase “re-settlement benefits’’ is pretty unfortunate. It conjures up hundreds of thousands of dollars – which is why $10,000 look paltry. But really, it is more an ex-gratia payment – tenants aren’t entitled to re-settlement benefits, according to SLA. Again, why didn’t someone clarify things earlier?

As for that so-called Ubin Census, it seems that some people moved in after 1993 when it was already State land. They are not descendants of the earliest kampong folk, like the Chias. (link to picture spread) So the money must go to the right people, the SLA reckoned, or it would mean that some people are getting an un-deserved windfall.

The G is working pretty by the book it seems. That book, however, doesn’t seem to say anything about how to communicate with people. Or how G agencies should talk to each other…

Of course, anyone can choose to believe or not believe what the SLA said. Maybe it is backtracking in the face of dissent and the HDB was right in the first place about clearing the land. Or maybe it was a truly innocent lapse in communication. In a time of mistrust of G’s intentions, some people might be inclined to think the former. The proof will come when someone checks on those residents again in a few months.

For now, Pulau Ubin looks safe from the bulldozer.

A rapidly ageing society isn’t all bad – for businesses, it’s a big potential market to make lots of money.

That’s the message from Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing when he spoke yesterday at the annual Ageing Asia Investment Forum.

He said: “Many people have used the words ‘silver tsunami’ as if this is a disaster that’s going to happen… An ageing population is not a crisis, if we prepare well.

“Whoever masters the circumstances well will conquer the market,” the minister was quoted in ST.

The story was also reported in TODAY and Zaobao, and the Chinese-language paper was ahead with more facts from the forum than the rest.

For example, how big exactly is this market?

ST didn’t say; TODAY reported $3.7 trillion, but it was only ZB who gave the figure for the Singapore market: $46.3 billion.

ZB also went deeper into the report by the Singapore-based consultancy Ageing Asia, which ranked Singapore as the third largest potential market for baby boomers, behind Hong Kong and Australia.

It added that in Singapore, the average savings for households with occupants over 60 years old in 2012 was $36,000, and that this sum was expected to rise to $42,000 by 2017.

The minister also took the opportunity to encourage more community work to aid the elderly.

Rather than count only on the Government to provide assistance, Singapore should also “leverage on the strengths of the private and people sectors” – such as “mobilising local resources… to develop local solutions best suited for the community,” reported ST.

Super, super vague.

Thanks, TODAY, for speaking with the chairman of the People’s Association Active Ageing Council, Dr Tan Yong Seng, who suggested companies could, for example, design housing that’s “ageless” – so that ramps and non-slip tiles don’t have to be added later on.

This could also mean a re-design of common applications, such as a bottle cap or a door handle. “Be it housing, be it healthcare, be it service, food and beverages, whatever it is, think ageless,” Dr Tan told TODAY.

That’s a tall order – but a $46.3 billion incentive should get some wheels clicking.

by Bertha Henson

MP Janil Puthucheary should be pleased with himself – his proposal for free train rides have come true. And it’s going to cost us $10million. Sigh.

Now the question is: how do we measure the outcome? Transport Minister Lui projected that free rides could move another 10 to 20 per cent of commuters away from the peak period. This translates to between 10,000 and 20,000 train users. One assumes then that if this is achieved in a year’s time, then the free rides programme will be terminated? And commuters will have to start paying again? Or will it be continued because it is successful?

SIM University transport expert Park Byung Joon was reported in TODAY saying: “Since it is spending taxpayers’ money, the Government must have an option to stop (it) if the scheme is not achieving intended objectives.”

We have been quite liberal with taxpayers’ money, whether to subsidise wage raises or to achieve other social, economic outcomes. Even if there is an end point or time-frame, it’s usually tough to stop what’s being handed out free. People get used to it. That GST rebate, for example, looks like one of those things. Remember the worry that employers will get too used to the Wage Credit Scheme which is meant to be temporary measure?

Here’s what TODAY reported:

On whether the trial is a judicious use of taxpayers’ money, Mr Lui noted that, in general, public transport is largely funded by the same source because of the massive investments on infrastructure.

He pointed out that schemes that are funded by the operators — such as concessionary travel for certain groups — are cross-subsidised by other commuters. Adding that the free travel trial “may well be extended”, Mr Lui reiterated that the Government “will fund this scheme entirely so that commuters can be assured that whatever it is that they do or not do, it is not going to affect their fares”.

The thing is,  TODAY reported that SMRT has set aside $10 million (same amount as the G) since October 2011 to incentivise commuters to change their travel patterns. As of February, about 40 per cent of the money has been used and an SMRT officer said the rest will now go into “supporting” the free ride scheme.  So Government money will work where company money cannot? The SMRT must think it makes commercial sense to spread out the load, and here is the G giving it a helping hand!

Well, if the free rides work to get commuters out of bed early and ease the train load, well and good. But we had better think hard about having to subsidise this forever. The benefits had better outweigh the cost, in more ways than just spreading out commuter traffic.

Anyway, those polled by ST seem to prefer their sleep more than getting what’s free. ST reported that transport analyst Graham Currie, who studied the effectiveness of a similar free travel scheme in Melbourne was not surprised.

He was reported saying that the incentives reduced peak- hour traffic in the Australian state by only 2 per cent. The report didn’t say how much the state gave out in incentives, but Mr Currie said the effort was “worthwhile” as the state could hold off on investing A$100 million (S$128 million) to improve the train system.

To get commuters out of bed earlier, however, might require other changes and even if successful, might lead to other effects that haven’t been factored in.

Starting work early, for example, shouldn’t mean ending at the same time as usual (or should we be looking at easing evening peak hours?) It is good that the G will lead the way in changing working culture here to foster an “early start, early end’’ .

SIM’s Dr Park also noted the move  could possibly lead to more crowded feeder buses — with workers and students trying to get on the buses during the same time belt. It will be tragic if people sacrificed their sleep only to find that they can’t get to the train station on time!