Singapore’s Transport Woes

Singapore’s overcrowded trains and buses need investment. Should the government be subsidizing upgrades?

Mong Palatino

Singapore may be a global city known for its superior quality of living and efficient public services. But its mass transport system isn’t something to be envied.

The overcrowding on buses and trains is the visible manifestation of the city’s transport mess, and the main transport operators SMRT (train service) and SBS (bus transit) have acknowledged that there’s a problem. However, their proposed solution of raising fares has angered commuters.

In response to the petition of the SMRT and SBS for a fare hike, the opposition Workers’ Party has proposed the creation of a ‘not-for-profit National Transport Corporation,’ which would aim to provide ‘safe, affordable, accessible, efficient and reliable universal public transportation services, on the basis of cost and depreciation recovery.’

They blame the lack of genuine market competition in the transport industry for the apparent absence of interest of SMRT and SBS to innovate, raise standards, improve productivity, and keep prices low. Gerald Giam, a member of parliament from the Workers' Party, has questioned the government’s decision to allow a public utility to be ‘and operated by what are effectively private monopolists earning monopoly rents.’

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Giam added that nationalizing the transport sector ‘wouldn’t necessarily mean higher subsidies or a loss-making endeavour. If competently run, the National Transport Corporation could reduce costs associated with the duplication of functions and roles.’

Despite the country having one of the most open economies in the world, the Singaporean government is actually subsidizing several public services like schools, hospitals, clinics and housing. Therefore, the idea of infusing public funds into the transport sector to improve its operations isn’t unusual, even for Singapore.

But Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew immediately dismissed the proposal of the Workers’ Party by praising the benefits of allowing the private sector to manage the transport sector. He also warned against the ‘downsides’ of nationalization, which would mean, among other bad things, more taxes and higher costs in the long run.

Mr Lui, however, recognizes the need to raise the quality of service provided by both the SMRT and SBS. In particular, he wants the two transport operators to immediately address the overcrowding on buses and trains by improving the frequency and reliability of their services. He also assures the public that the government will thoroughly review the petition of SMRT and SBS for a fare increase.

Mr Lui has vowed to alleviate the hardships experienced daily by Singapore passengers, especially after riding the trains several times. In fact, he posted his ordeal on Facebook, writing: ‘I have experienced the discomfort and frustrations that commuters faced because of the congestion and the sometimes unreliable service and I share your desire to see improvements to our public transport.’


It’s true that nationalization isn’t a guarantee in solving Singapore’s transport woes, but it certainly is a better alternative to the current set-up, where private corporations are allowed to amass huge profits while the riding public is left to suffer from poor service.

Mong Palatino
Contributing Author

Mong Palatino

Mong Palatino served for two terms in the House of Representatives in the Philippines representing the youth sector.

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