Crossed With The Cross Island Line – Where We Draw The Line

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The debate on the Cross Island Line has been progressing steadily since the release of the first phase of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). On the one hand, we have witnessed how proponents of the Cross Island Line’s currently planned route have continually supported the Land Transport Authority’s plan to encroach into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to construct a new MRT line. This is in spite of the environmental consequences that have been spelt out by the EIA. It has been found that these consequences cannot be mitigated in their entirety or even with a level of confidence high enough to guarantee minimal impact on our local biodiversity. On the other hand, we see a group of concerned Singaporeans, from geographers and scientists to environmentalists and ordinary citizens advocating for the proposed alternative route along Lornie Road. Even NParks’ former conservation manager of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has joined the chorus of voices against the current route. Much has been fairly said about the specific localised and generalised merits and drawbacks of each route.

 

Contrary to what some might assume, however, this debate is not just about pragmatism versus principle. It is not the usual kind of trade-off we have witnessed in the course of our nation’s development. This debate is one that will help shape environmental governance, land use planning and our notions of sustainable development as our nation matures.

 

Central to the arguments over the Cross Island Line is the type of sustainable development Singapore will show it is committed to, through its decision. What environmental groups like the Nature Society are arguing for, whilst focusing on the intrinsic value of biodiversity, stops short of deep green philosophy. By accepting the real need for better transport infrastructure, capacity and efficiency to support a growing population, these arguments are more in line with the kind of sustainable development that Singapore has been accustomed to than with what the typical pragmatic Singaporean may think of as mere idealistic drivel or bluster. The alternative route, while costlier, will prevent encroachment into the most pristine of our nature reserves while meeting the demands of a 6.9 million-strong population. Simply put, the economic loss brought about by building the alternative route today will be worth what we stand to gain from this decision in the future. It is crucial to note that not only do we stand to conserve our local biodiversity for future generations to learn about, our public transport operators will also benefit economically from having the chance to build one more station along the alternative route. Indeed, residents in Central Singapore will get to partake in the joy of being better connected to both Jurong and Changi like never before. We will all stand to gain from the alternative route of the Cross Island Line which is a project that boasts clear benefits for most of the suburbs that it will ply.

 

Too often, however, the end game of sustainable development in Singapore has involved environmental losses, in the pursuit of economic or social gain. We live in a country where greenery, no matter how man-made or manufactured, is viewed no differently from that which is natural. We relish in the number of neighbourhood parks we have access to, and in the image of the Garden City, nay – a City in a Garden. But we forget that even a garden no matter how well-manicured or maintained cannot truly conserve the biodiversity that is unique to our Central Catchment Nature Reserve. When we build an expressway through the rainforest, we build a bridge for animals to cross the gap and hail it as a unique solution to a necessary problem. Today, we are committed as a nation to even more land reclamation, drawn out in the 2030 Land Use Plan that will harm more coastal ecosystems in the name of development. Against the backdrop that this mentality provides, for all the merit our nature reserves hold, they are not valued as much as environmental resources upon which we depend more directly are. Interestingly, the water in MacRitchie Reservoir is valued more highly than the trees that surround it, than the soil through which it infiltrates, than the flora and fauna that depend on it as much as we do.

 

Granted, in the past, development necessitated many trade-offs. Even today, such trade-offs may very well be necessary. However, given not only our current level of development but also the need for us to become smarter and more innovative in addressing land use planning challenges that will only provide more strain with a rising population in the future, the current Singaporean style of sustainable development needs to be rethought.

 

Otherwise, it is worth questioning if the story of the Cross Island Line presents the new normal of environmental governance in Singapore. Where one government department develops a national biodiversity strategy and another ignores it? Where we change our tune on the environment depending on whom we are talking to? – It is interesting that on the one hand, we tell the world that we are committed to a new global environmental pact founded upon the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities insofar as climate change is concerned. But, on the other hand, we cannot even be committed to safeguarding the green lungs of our own backyard even though we can financially afford to via a potentially viable alternative? The issues of climate change and encroachment into our nature reserves may not be directly linked. But, the clearer picture that the Cross Island Line debate paints of our attitude about the environment suggests that we may not yet be as committed to a new Earth systems-based model of sustainable development as our well-executed dealings in COP 21 may have had begun to suggest.

 

What we stand to lose from the construction of the Cross Island Line’s current route, however, is much greater than the lost opportunity of increased transport efficiency and capacity. Our commitment to sustainable development is on the line. Today, it might be the Cross Island Line. In a few decades’ time, it might be a residential or industrial development. As most people would surely hope for, Singapore will be around for a long time. Shying away from making smarter decisions about land use planning today will only exacerbate our urban problems in the future in what shall certainly be a more complicated landscape.

 

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Is Aviation In Singapore Flying In The Right Direction?

Aviation F16s

Serving in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) as a Flight Line Crew (FLC) and Dedicated Crew Chief (DCC), I have developed a fascination for aviation and in particular, military aviation. I had the opportunity to work on the Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 52 D+ fighter jet. Apart from getting myself acquainted with the ins and outs of the jet, refueling the jet encompassed a small albeit important part of my duties. Aviation is certainly an energy-intensive industry.

The sheer force with which an engine afterburner can provide sufficient thrust for flight coupled with the fact that the F16 travels at supersonic speeds to allow pilots to withstand forces as great as 9Gs, are a testament to the forces the F16 can both exert and withstand.

I started to wonder, however, just how energy-intensive is the aviation industry in general? Are there regulations in place to ensure energy efficiency in the industry? What progress has engineering made to allow the use of cleaner fuels by planes?

Singapore Airlines, our nation airline, has committed1 to undertaking energy-saving practices to “reduce fuel consumption and emissions include various initiatives such as flight operations enhancements, engineering performance and maintenance improvements, and weight saving measures.”

Legislation can also be enacted to ensure compliance on the part of transport operators. Airport service operators can be required to meet different minimum energy efficiency standards before being qualified as transport facility operators, for instance. In Singapore, the Energy Conservation (Transport Facility Operators) Order 20132 puts this to effect.

In 2006, the Ministry of Trade and Industry reported3 that Singapore, in spite of being an aviation hub, has “energy intensity is roughly on par for an economy of its level of development.”

Questions remain. I look forward to seeking these answers in the near future.

References:

[1] Singapore Airlines. (2012). Environmental Report 2011/2012. Singapore: Singapore Airlines. Retrieved from http://www.singaporeair.com/pdf/media-centre/report2012.pdf.

[2] Energy Conservation (Transport Facility Operators) Order 2013.

[3] Ministry of Trade and Industry. (2006). Economic Survey of Singapore 3rd Quarter 2006. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.mti.gov.sg/ResearchRoom/Documents/app.mti.gov.sg/data/article/5901/doc/ESS_2006Q3_EnergyIntensity.pdf.

Environmental Governance in Singapore – Questioning the Narrative, Questioning the Future

Singapore

The evolution of environmental policy in Singapore is a topic that has intrigued me for a quite a while now. Growing up, the narrative since primary school had always been that the foresight of our pioneering post-Independence leaders paved the way for the rise of the Garden City1 – the clean and green Singapore, as it we know it today. The city that we hold ourselves responsible to keep litter-free, the city with streets lined with trees methodically planted to splash shades of green upon the mundane grey of our pavements and roads.

At the same time, we learnt that the removal of the negative externalities harboured by the Singapore of the past was necessary to improve our environment so as to render our nation attractive for foreign investors1. A clean nation was not good for public health and the well-being of our own people; it had broader economic consequences that would make Singapore stand out against the rest of the developing Southeast Asian nations of the time.

Today, Singapore’s economic success has been, in part, hailed as one that was borne out of foresight in environmental governance1. However, not all is well with the environment in Singapore. What was seen as necessary development yesterday is today perceived to be the destruction of relics of the past. The changing landscape of Singapore foreshadowed the trade-offs2 we had to make in losing our natural heritage, built heritage and even cultural heritage for the sake of economic development. This is a reality Singaporeans today are all too well aware of and perhaps too complacent about.

Of course, the current government does not deserve all the blame for this. Indeed, one of the most consequential alterations made to our environment was carried out by our former colonial masters. The extensive deforestation of natural vegetation in Singapore provides us with the historical context to explain the existence of merely 0.04% of our natural forest cover that remains today3. To be fair, the government has also done a fair bit to preserve what they felt they could. Our historic cultural districts have always been a feature of our built heritage. Today, iconic suburbs are conferred the title of ‘Identity Node’ to celebrate their unique place in modern Singaporean history4.

Nevertheless, we are faced by challenges today that will require us to rethink environmental governance in Singapore. Steps have been taken in this direction – sustainability perhaps means more today in the context of Singapore’s environmental governance than it had in the past1; climate change is also being looked at by the government2. But is this enough of a shift in our approach or in our assessment of our desired ends? There are pertinent questions to be answered within the next 50 years. Are we ready for climate change? When will we pause for a second to realise there surely must be limits to the amount of land we can reclaim? Can we predict what our optimum population and the corresponding infrastructural requirements will ever be? Are we going to continue to trade our natural heritage for more development, more economic gains and more convenience?

There are questions to be answered. But first, enough of us need to ask them.

References:

[1] Tan, P.Y., Wang, J. & Sia, A. (2013). Perspectives on five decades of the urban greening of Singapore. Cities, 32, 24-32.

[2] Tan, F., Lean, H.H. & Khan, H. (2014). Growth and environmental quality in Singapore: Is there any trade-off? Ecological Indicators, 47, 149-155.

[3] Castelletta, M., Thiollay, J.M. & Sodhi, N.S. (2005). The effects of extreme forest fragmentation on the bird community of Singapore Island. Biological Conservation, 121, 135-155.

[4] Yuen, B. (2005). Searching for place identity in Singapore. Habitat International, 29, 197-214.

Quantifying Air Quality – The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI)

PSI

Most Developed Countries (DCs) regulate environmental standards by putting caps on the emissions of criteria pollutants that empirical evidence has shown to be harmful to human health1. The PSI is one way to quantify air quality and has been adopted by Singapore to be the authoritative indicator of air quality in the country. Once quantified, it also aids in informing the public about the risks posed by different levels of air quality by affixing health advisories to each level.

Since 2013, every incident of transboundary haze brings with it a period during which the PSI becomes an oft-cited figure amongst ordinary Singaporeans in our daily lives. It seems as if when communicating about air quality with one another, merely saying that air quality is unfavourable would be unsatisfactory. A means by which we can put a number to air quality gives people a sense of scale as well as benchmarks for comparison as air quality usually varies as often as throughout the course of a day.

How is the PSI calculated?

The concentration of each criteria pollutant is compared to a standard index which is used to determine the sub-index assigned to the most recent recording of the concentration of the pollutant in question. The highest sub-index, whichever criteria pollutant that may represent, is taken as the PSI level2.

The PSI, as it was calculated before April 2014, took into account five criteria air pollutants. These were SO2, nitrous oxides, CO, PM10, and O3. The inclusion of PM2.5 occurred in 20142 when the National Environment Agency was of the opinion that a greater focus on PM2.5 was necessary to better reflect reality on the ground in the air as PM2.5 are finer particles that pose a higher threat to human respiratory health as compared to the more generalized pollutant known to us as PM10.

Was the inclusion of PM2.5 as a criteria pollutant in April 2014 necessary?

Velasco and Rastan (2015)3 of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and the National University of Singapore respectively, certainly seem to think so. A paper published by the pair in 2015 noted that “the real hourly pollution levels” during the haze incident that year had still been unrecorded. This was in no small part attributable to the fact that before 2014, the only indication of PM2.5 in the atmosphere was the PM10 reading. This was in spite of the fact that during the episode, it was shown that the reported PM10 levels had been an under-representation of the significantly poor quality of air that existed in reality at the time. The methodology undertaken by Velasco and Rastan was to use newly collected information on PM2.5 concentrations since April 2014 and derive statistical models by which they could predict with an insignificant degree of uncertainty the actual hourly PM2.5 during the episode in mid-2013. Their findings indicate that these values could very well have been “twice the maximum 24-hour moving average reported by the authorities.”3

The findings of Velasco and Rastan seem to provide credence to the notion that incorporating PM2.5 as a new criteria pollutant measured by the PSI was a good move on the part of the local authorities. While it seems intuitive that more needs to be done to overcome the problem of the lag time in the official PSI readings published by NEA, refining the methods of measurement of the PSI seems to be a step in the right direction.

References:

[1] Hamilton, S.F. & Requate, T. (2012). Emissions standards and ambient environmental quality standards with stochastic environmental services. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 64, 377-389. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0095069612000538/1-s2.0-S0095069612000538-main.pdf?_tid=694d5626-7df9-11e5-ae0e-00000aacb35f&acdnat=1446094767_6ae8a0a14e35f289d579711c6397edb6.

[2] National Environment Agency. (2015). PSI. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov.sg/anti-pollution-radiation-protection/air-pollution-control/psi/psi.

[3] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131. Retrieved from http://ac.els-cdn.com/S2210670715000463/1-s2.0-S2210670715000463-main.pdf?_tid=fd72d6f8-7dfb-11e5-b248-00000aab0f26&acdnat=1446095874_7c02d98301a4465fb7cb71472bc5fa0a.

Transboundary Haze – Care To Air Your Views?

Haze
Dr Haridas
Ms Lee Li Lian
Beckham
Tirta

The haze affects different people in different ways. But there are things we can do to make life a bit better for those around us and ourselves as well.

My aunt, Dr Haridas, whilst keenly aware of the health hazards posed by the haze and that she has to look out for patients showing symptoms of haze-related health issues, also knows she has to exercise due diligence by not assuming that every patient who reports irritation to his or her eyes, for instance, is not suffering as such due to the haze alone.

Ms Lee Li Lian, using her voice and influence as my Member of Parliament, had tabled a Parliamentary Question in 2013 to ask the Minister for Health “(a) what effort has been made to make parents more aware of the advice that N95 masks are not designed for children; and (b) whether the Government intends to make available masks that are certified for children in public health emergencies.” 1Today, she continues her efforts to help the local community in various ways, having distributed masks to residents at a grassroots event recently.

My young friend and neighbour, Beckham plays his own part as well by reminding his secondary school friends on Facebook to wear masks when leaving the house.

And last but by no means least, my best friend Tirta whilst feeling sympathetic towards his fellow countrymen who have little choice but to bear the worst consequences of the haze, also recognises that this is a problem that not only doctors, politicians and those more vulnerable to the effects of the haze should be worried about – it is a problem that speaks to all of us, young or old, with urgency regardless of how seemingly helpless ordinary folk like us may perceive ourselves to be.

References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2013). Safeguarding Singaporeans’ Health During Occurrence of Haze. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 90, Sitting 19. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00000151-WA&currentPubID=00000140-WA&topicKey=00000140-WA.00000151-WA_2%2Bid-43fcd59a-3ee3-45fa-a762-817fde5e1d55%2B4.

Photo Credits:

IMG: Ms Lee Li Lian – Punggol East Constituency Committee

IMG: Beckham – Beckham Song Ying

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act: What It Can and Cannot Do.

Hansard

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act was introduced to Parliament on 7th July 2014. It was debated by the House on 4th August 2014, committed to a Committee of the Whole House and passed after its Third Reading a day later on 5th August 20141. The Act came into effect on 25th September 20142.

The introduction of the Bill to the House came a year after Singapore suffered its worst incidence of air pollution caused by haze, with the highest recorded PSI levels the country had ever experienced3. In his opening speech to the House on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill4, then Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, noted that the a legislative approach to Singapore’s response to the haze was necessitated not so much by Indonesia’s lack of environmental laws as by their lack of ability in enforcing these laws.

Part II of the Act sets out commercial or other entities’ liabilities for transboundary air pollution5. The provisions contained therein make it an offence for entities to be involved in causing haze. The law extends the scope of entities or companies covered under the Act to include those that may not be directly causing haze but are in some way involved in the management of another entity or company that owns land and contributes to causing haze from there. Furthermore, the legislation also specifies that it shall be a statutory duty of such companies to ensure compliance. Entities that have been found to have acted in contravention of the Act are also liable to provide compensation if there is evidence that the haze caused by them has affected any “person, property or the environment” in Singapore.

A key feature of the Act is the extraterritorial nature of the extent and reach of the legislation. The Act applies not only to companies based within Singapore but also to foreign-owned ones. Minister Balakrishnan assured the House that, “This exercise of extra-territorial jurisdiction under this Bill is in line with international law, specifically the objective territorial principle.” However, the effectiveness of the extraterritoriality of the Act is questionable. Then Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, Mr Yee Jenn Jong of the Workers’ Party, rose to point out6 that Singapore has no extradition treaty with Indonesia and that, “If the accused person fails to appear in court, a warrant of arrest is issued under Section 17. This will likely have little or no effect if the person is not in Singapore.”

Other practical constraints limit the effectiveness of the Act. In order to prosecute perpetrators, the Government of Singapore would have to be able to accurately identify them according to the lands on which forest fires were started and spread to. However, this can only be done if Indonesia agrees to share cartographic information with Singapore. Even if the Indonesian authorities agreed to do so, the prevailing complexity of forested land tenure issues in Indonesia would render it onerous to distinguish the rightful owners of the land in question from commercial perpetrators if indeed such distinctions can and ought to be made in the first place. This was a point raised by the then Nominated Member of Parliament, Ms Faizah Jamal, who represented environmental interests in the House.

During the debate on the Bill, MPs from all sides of the House recognised that the key to solving the woes of transboundary haze lies beyond a legislative approach. Member of Parliament for Marine Parade, Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef said, “Education must continue. Commitment must be inculcated. Mutual trust must continue to be strengthened.” Mr Yee of the Workers’ Party urged the Government to not only look at how forest fires can be prevented but to extend our diplomatic efforts to helping Indonesia develop “a more sustainable agro-industry.” The most sobering view, however, came from Ms Jamal, who proclaimed that the Government has to take the lead in changing our approach to the bigger picture of consumerism for the better. She said, “The ordinary citizen as consumers should be made aware that they have the power to change a business model that has thus far been more concerned about profits than about people or planet, provided citizens start by taking back responsibility for their own part in the problem. It is no use playing the blame game when there is no sense of personal responsibility for the consumer choices that we make individually and collectively as a country.” Today, with the greying of our skies once again, local companies took to improving their consumption practices with much support from the public.

Two things are certain. From an environmentalist’s perspective, it should not have to take a bad bout of haze for us to improve the way we use the environment. And, from a political and legal perspective, it will not take a single Act of Parliament alone to prevent these bouts from recurring to colour our skies grey once again.
References:

[1] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Bills Introduced. Singapore: Parliament of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.gov.sg/publications/bills-introduced.

[2] National Environment Agency. (2014). Parliament Statements. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.nea.gov.sg/corporate-functions/newsroom/parliament.

[3] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[4] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 10. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006470-WA&currentPubID=00006417-WA&topicKey=00006417-WA.00006470-WA_2%2Bid-2242cb2e-c3e5-4597-9bfa-bbaa6c57a231%2B.

[5] Transboundary Haze Pollution Act 2014 (Act 24 of 2014).

[6] Parliament of Singapore. (2014). Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill. Official Reports -Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), 92, Sitting 11. Retrieved from http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00006478-WA&currentPubID=00006482-WA&topicKey=00006482-WA.00006478-WA_1%2Bid-4067f594-ea00-4e20-ac4b-1ad5493c5b74%2B.

Clearing the Air on the Haze – A Hazy New Year?

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“As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.”

The Straits Times reported on October 19th 2015 that the haze could persist until 20161. A researcher from the Centre for International Forestry Research was quoted as saying that it might very well last until the final month of 2015 or the first month of next year. Unsurprisingly, many Singaporeans might wonder why we are to bear the brunt of the haze for a longer period than our squeaky clean and ‘sterile’ respiratory airways are normally accustomed to. Amongst the reasons for the persistence of the haze are factors of a geographical nature.

The seasonal monsoons experienced in this part of the world that straddles the Equator are the main culprits. In June 2013, the worst haze in Singapore’s meteorological history was recorded. The southwest monsoon was the main cause of the haze as winds blowing from Sumatra to Singapore carried a comparatively higher concentration of particulate matter (PM) particles with them2. In March 2014, the haze was back again – but this time, the northeast monsoon was the primary cause of the public’s ire. Its northeasterly winds were retreating back northwards3, accompanying the gradually moving Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) with the approach of warmer temperatures in the northern hemisphere. Now, in October 2015, however, one would expect a taming of the haze as the northeast monsoon comes to our rescue – to rid us of the prevailing southwesterly winds that have been carrying too many PM particles4 with frequencies greater than comfort ordinarily affords. However, in any given locality, the replacement of the southwest monsoon by the northeast monsoon during the inter-monsoon period is a gradual process5 that requires patience on the part of the people who would be expected to relish in this seasonal change.

SST

Diagram 1: Sea Surface Temperature anomalies across the tropical Pacific (22nd October 2015) enable us to visualise the temperature disparities across the Pacific Ocean that drive the El Niño Southern Oscillation. Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States.


This time, however, hope for clearer skies might be further afield than initially expected due to the current cycle of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) being experienced in our part of the world. The ENSO is brought about by cross-longitudinal changes in oceanic water circulation that results in a change in temperatures across oceans (Diagram 1). In the case of the eastern margins of the Pacific Ocean, warmer sea surface temperatures bring higher rainfall to South American countries such as Chile. The corollary to this is that Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia that lie along the western margins of the Pacific Ocean experience drier conditions brought about by easterly winds rid of moisture6. The ENSO occurs every few years and lasts for variable periods of time7. Drier conditions that may exacerbate forest fires in Indonesia due to the persistence of the ENSO are the reason cited by geographers and meteorologists as to why the haze might continue up until January 2016. It is worth noting that this is certainly not the first time the ENSO and Indonesian forest fires made for a fearsome combination. In 1997, the ENSO brought about forest fires in Kalimantan, Indonesia that emitted a thick aerosol plume, forcing the shutting down of airports in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

There might exist a commonly held misconception in the Singaporean psyche – that our country does not experience seasonal changes in weather patterns. We do. There is also perhaps a feeling amongst those who are uninitiated with the geography of weather and climate that compared to life in temperate countries, living in Singapore makes for a boring existence due to the high year-round temperatures and rainfall experienced here where snow can only be artificially manufactured in air-conditioned enclosures and where tomorrow’s weather must surely be as mundane as that of any other day in the year. On the contrary, our susceptibility to seasonal weather patterns has impacts on our daily lives that are more real than one might imagine, given the right conditions (in this case, an anthropogenic condition imposed upon us by our neighbours which is being heightened in its effect by physical conditions). As any geographer would attest to, the haze itself might be dull in sight, but insight into the haze is surely never boring.


References:

[1] The Straits Times. (2015). Hazy new year: South-east Asia set to suffer for months as Indonesia fails to douse fires. (2015, October 19). Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/hazy-new-year-south-east-asia-set-to-suffer-for-months-as-indonesia-fails-to-douse.

[2] Velasco, E. & Rastan, S. (2015). Air quality in Singapore during the 2013 smoke-haze episode over the Strait of Malacca: Lessons learned. Sustainable Cities and Society, 17, 122-131.

[3] Meteorological Service Singapore. (2014). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for April 2014. Singapore: Government of Singapore. Retrieved from http://wip.weather.gov.sg/wip/pp/ssops/reparch/apr14.pdf.

[4] Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2015). Press Statement: Singapore Registers Haze Concerns with Indonesia. (2015, September 10). Retrieved from http://www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/jakarta/press_statements_speeches/2015/201509/Singapore_Registers_Haze_Concerns_With_Indonesia.html.

[5] ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre. (2015). Update of Regional Weather and Smoke Haze for September 2015. Singapore: Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Retrieved from http://asmc.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Sep15.pdf.

[6] Cane, M. (2005). The evolution of El Niño, past and future. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 230, 227-240.

[7] Chen, D. & Cane, M.A. (2008). El Niño prediction and predictability. Journal of Computation Physics, 227, 3625-3640.

Public Transport – On the Right Track?

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Is public transport on the right track anymore?

In any urban settlement, the issue of transport is very much a public one. To be transported is to traverse the urban jungle that is Singapore. Long removed from our pre-war past when rickshaws, bullock-carts and sampans allowed us to get where we wanted to go, modern Singapore is not so much metropolitan as it a densely-populated urban area characterised by decentralised residences, industries and services surrounding a vibrant Central Business District. Such decentralisation renders incumbent upon the Government the provision of efficient, reliable and affordable transport options to link people to places. Public transport, in particular, is a key way in which the Government does this for it affords us several benefits including a viable, large-scale solution to alleviate congestion on roads in an environmentally-friendly manner. A quote that stands out stringkingly in its attempt to highlight the invaluable nature of pursuing public transport as a key solution to any country’s transport woes is an utterance by Mayor Peñalosa of Bogota, Colombia – “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

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We all agree that public transport is of utmost importance in a country like Singapore where 49.5% of residents aged over 15 years use some form of public transport or other to commute daily from home to work or school. However, the reliability and affordability of public transport have come under strong criticism in recent times due to a spate of breakdowns in the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems since 2011 as well as the formerly existing situation where several groups of people such as polytechnic students and the disabled were denied transport concession. To add salt to the wound, the advisory Public Transport Council (PTC) in wanting to extend concession to these groups, increased the fares for almost everyone else by 3.2% using the need for more money to drive upgrading and efficiency as a supposedly justified excuse to do so. The PTC announced this in its fare review of January 2014, a month during which thousands of Singaporeans from every corner of the island experienced MRT and LRT train breakdowns – from Kranji and Bukit Panjang in the west, to Ang Mo Kio in the north and Tanah Merah in the east. Rather unexpectedly, people began to ask why the Government intends to allow the fares to be raised when public transport operators such as SMRT and SBS Transit continue to rake in millions of dollars in operating profits annually in the wake of noticeably declining standards.

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The appalling state of affairs of public transport is perhaps most fundamentally affixed to the nature of the administration of this public service in Singapore – that public transport is in fact being operated by private companies such as SMRT and SBS Transit rather than being administered by the Government in the same manner as the successful provision of other public services such as the public education system (through MOE schools), public housing (through HDB) and public healthcare (through Government hospitals). If it is one thing that the system of governance in Singapore is best known for internationally, it is the large-scale provision of essential and accessible public services in a structured and workable manner since Independence. Whilst real challenges continue to exist within each of these Government-controlled systems today, the nationalisation of such services has been a definitve hallmark of our nation’s development.

The pros and cons of the privatisation of public transport operation in Singapore have manifested themselves in the situation we witness today. Higher prices are constantly sought after by the transport operators because of their instinctive economically fuelled ambition to achieve profits to pay their investors and shareholders, regardless of the real standards of transport experienced by commuters. Hence, it was wishful thinking on the part of the Government for assuming that increased profits coupled with economic forces such as demand and supply attributable to the privatisation of public transport operation would haved provided the necessary investments for upgrading and the impetus for greater efficiency and reliability of tansport, ultimately benefiting the consuming commuters. In reality, however, the trickle-down effects of privatisation have evaporated even before commuters could have even harboured the thought of enjoying better and more affordable public transport, leaving us with nothing but a vicious cycle of paying more for expecting a miracle. Furthermore, the intended effect of privatisation in spurring competition and productivity between the public transport operators has not materialised given that SMRT and SBS Transit do indeed have a monopoly on routes since commuters cannot choose which operator’s services to pursue when travelling. Perhaps it would be rather miraculous for us to expect SMRT and SBS Transit to put our interests over those of their investors for, at the end of the day, they are companies involved in a business. Another downfall of the whole idea of privatisation is observable from the way in which the Government has responded to falling standards – that is, to fine SMRT and SBS Transit for breakdowns or other instances of unreliability rather than directly controlling the upgrading of tracks and improvement of services. Once again, the PAP Government of the 21st century assumes that throwing money at an issue (or in this case, taking it) will almost magically make our problems fade away.

The nationalisation of public transport, on the other hand, offers a much more optimistic solution to the transport issues we face today since our experience in other nationalised services provides a useful template for such administration. Rather than using profit as a driving force of standards, direct government involvement in transport operation will allow the Government to regulate it more effectively to ensure that maintenance and upgrading are not put on the backburner so that standards will rise once again while commuters’ interests are put first. After all, public transport has evolved into a neccesity just as healthcare, housing and education are services that all Singaporeans ought to be able to enjoy. Singaporeans who need to work and study, whilst contributing to our economy and, ultimately, our society, simply cannot do without public transport on a daily basis. The challenge of nationalisation will, as usual, be the need to find enough money to fund and subsidise the upkeep of public transport without having to burden taxpayers even more. However, a variety of solutions have been thrown up from various sources such as pegging the salaries of statutory board officials to service standards, ensuring cost-effective use of money from Government coffers for subsidies amongst other methods of cost recovery and investment initiatives such as those used in the subsidising of healthcare and housing. Perhaps we could take a leaf from Hong Kong’s model of transport whereby the investment required for upgrading is derived from competition between private companies involved in infrastructure development rather than the operation of transit. Even if public transport fares increase initially, such an increase would be justified and the taxpayers’ money will be put to good use in the longer term as service standards can be controlled and assured by the Government. Hopefully, this will not have to be the case as before SBS Transit was privatised, it made ‘reasonable profits’, according to a transport policy researcher from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS.

While a wholly-privatised or fully nationalised public transport system is hard to perceive as workable and cost-effective, the type of balance to be striked needs to be decided upon to ensure there are marked improvements in the state of public transport in Singapore. Do we wish to continue with the current partially government-funded, privately operated model or switch to a nationalised not-for-profit model? In any case, the unfairness entrenched in the current system that relies on profit-oriented companies for the operation of public transport will need to be addressed by better long-term planning, fiscal responsibility and decisive action by the Government of Singapore which are currently lacking. Hopefully, public transport will once again truly be for the public’s interests, allowing it to properly function as a modern, integrated and useful solution to traffic congestion in our island-nation and other geographical and environmental issues of our time.

References:

LKY SPP (NUS). (2013). The evolution of public transport policies in singapore. Retrieved from http://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Transport-Planning-for-Singapore.pdf

Singapore Department of Statistics. Government of Singapore, (2010). Census of population 2010. Retrieved from website: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/publications_and_papers/cop2010/census_2010_release3/cop2010sr3.pdf

Straits Times. (2014, January 16). Bus and train fare review: Public transport council announces fare increase of 3.2%. . Retrieved from http://www.straitstimes.com/the-big-story/public-transport-fare-review-2013/story/fare-review-public-transport-council-announces