Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Here’s a tip for anyone who wants to be a politician – if you one day get the chance to become Transport Minister, run far away and never look back. In between train breakdowns, fare increases, and perceived price gouging by an SMRT-SBS duopoly, there’s going to be no time to enjoy your ministerial pay.

Becoming Transport Minister is a no-win scenario.  Your successes will be taken for granted – no one cares about the 99% of trains that have arrived on time, because that is something we have come to expect from our public transport system.  Your failures, however, are going to seriously compromise your political future.  Public transport is something that every Singaporean is concerned about in more or less the same way. We would all agree that fare hikes are bad, that MRT breakdowns are unacceptable, and train delays are downright annoying. Contrast this to something like housing – if HDB prices were to go up, sure, some people would be displeased. But homeowners and those who rent out their apartments would be pretty darn pleased that their property appreciated in value. Unless you can do a perfect job (you cannot), you’re bound to bear the brunt of the political pain and enjoy none of the gain.

I bring this up because I think Transport Minister Lui has just played himself into a position of vulnerability. As most of us already know, the Public Transport Commission (PTC) recently announced a 2.8% hike in public transport fares. Keeping in mind that since 2010, public transport fares have never been adjusted downward, Singaporeans are understandably displeased. The fact that crude oil prices are now at 50 USD a barrel doesn’t help matters – lower pump prices shouldn’t translate to higher fares. A quick glance at Mr. Lui’s Facebook page shows that a paltry 69 people have ‘liked’ his status update regarding fare adjustments. When there are four times more people leaving angry comments on your page than there are supporters liking your status, you are in trouble.

Remember that in the 2011 elections, the Minister for Transport was now-MP Raymond Lim’s portfolio. Mr. Lim was the main anchoring minister for East Coast GRC and his team suffered a staggering 9.8% vote swing in favour of the WP. The best part is that this was before the infamous MRT breakdowns of 2011. Rumour and common sense has it that the WP is now targeting East Coast as the next GRC to fall.

Mr. Lui faces quite the daunting task in the upcoming elections. Current public perception is definitely against him, due to the 2015 fare hike. And he can’t pull the classic political trick of pointing to his track record either, thanks to the numerous train breakdowns that have plagued his stint as Transport Minister. To make things worse, he’s an anchoring minister for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, which was contested by a WP team in 2011. All signs point to a perfect storm brewing – it is very plausible that a team led by a strong WP candidate like Sylvia Lim or Chen Show Mao might be able to dislodge Lui’s team. The only thing that counts in Mr. Lui’s favour is that Moulmein-Kallang GRC isn’t your typical heartland district. It contains the Central Business District and the Moulmein/Kallang residential areas. The strength of the upper class and upper-middle class vote might just be enough to see him through.

I was texting Kuan about this when he pointed out that there’s an opinion editorial about this issue in the Straits Times today (A31). And sure enough, it was an article which sought to rationalize the fare hike by pointing out the unfortunate confluence of oil prices dropping and public transport prices rising – creating a perception that the difference was going straight into SMRT/SBS pockets. Everyone from the senior transport correspondent in the Straits Times to an average Singaporean surely knows that this fare hike spells trouble for Lui. After all, no election is ever won on the hard realities of a situation. It is always and everywhere a game of perception and messaging. And this is something that can’t be reversed overnight.

If Lui were to lose his Parliamentary seat in the 2015/2016 elections, keep a close eye on who ends up as his successor. It will reveal much about the internal party politics within the PAP (obviously I’m assuming they win). Whoever ends up in that position will be someone who has fallen out of favour with the top brass, and hence seen as a convenient scapegoat for anything that goes wrong with the public transportation system. Even if this new minister wins an election, he or she will still have to run for office again five years later in the same capacity – a cycle which repeats itself until something finally goes wrong with the trains again, or when the PTC decides to raise fares.

There’s really no winning in the sad world of transportation.


4 Replies to “Heads I Win, Tails You Lose”

  1. I find your proposition that people would ignore Transport Minister’s successes invalid – while transit systems in Singapore has seen many more hiccups in the past few years and non-stop increases in price, it has also seen improvements that are just as tangible. North-south line has seen sleeper replacements, a new line is under construction (albeit conceived way before 2011), and number of buses have been greatly increased last year. Heck, there’s even a new route in the middle of Moulmein-Kallang that basically halved wait times. As for fare hikes, while it may upset commuters, it shouldn’t come as a surprise as prices have been steadily rising for decades.

    Basically, while it may seem like shit really hit the fan in the Ministry of Transport this past term, I think it’s wrong to assume that people would be ignorant enough to place the blame entirely on Mr Lui. People are enjoying the crap out of transport improvements and after 3 months of tweeting about their sad wallets, most wouldn’t even think twice about paying the new bus fares. At worst, I don’t think the shit the ministry has brought us the past few years is enough to shake PAP’s considerably strong grasp of moulmein kallang. But who knows.

    honestly i have no stats on mr lui’s approval ratings idk may be you can shed some light about that


    1. Fair comments. However, I feel that public transport improvements tend to be less direct and less noticeable in contrast to other ministerial portfolios. Take for example sleeper replacement works and the increase to bus fleet numbers. This may mean that waiting times are reduced by a minute, and that MRT rides are slightly faster. Compared to something like the Pioneer Generation Package or property cooling measures, where effects are not only immediate, but tangibly apparent to voters.

      Also, the pros and cons of being Transport Minister don’t really balance themselves out – so maybe some voters do genuinely appreciate these improvements. But the scope and scale to which this is the case is outweighed by the number of voters who are aware/disappointed by MRT breakdowns. Sure, these lapses are rare and are part of any public transport system. But as I mentioned above, the electorate has grown used to a top-class public transport system that never fails.

      Finally wanted to expand on your point about a new line being in construction. Many a time, the infrastructural improvements planned by one Transport Minister doesn’t actually benefit him – he gets voted out before these things are completed. So it is only your successor that reaps the benefits of your foresight. In other words, it is quite hard to gain quick brownie points in this portfolio.


  2. At least we’re sitting around bitching about transport fares and train delays, instead of school shootings and poverty. So we got that going for us, which is nice.

    I’m afraid the problem you point out is the symptom of a very specific condition: when you create a methodically-engineered semi-autocratic utopia, you’re bound to have a population constantly dissatisfied by the more petty annoyances of daily life than anything else – to the extent that train delays become the opposition party’s ticket in to power.

    I can’t help but be amused at the thought – every time an MRT train jerks and stops mid-transit on the tracks, among the thousand annoyed commuters there’s possibly one who’s grinning gleefully inside while discreetly noting down the date and time.


    1. Ehhhh transport being a somewhat crappy portfolio is not quite as specific a problem as you claim. Just watch Series 3, Episode 5 (A Bed of Nails) of Yes, Minister and you’ll realise it’s sufficiently common a feature of governments that it’s in a show noted, among other things, for its uncanny resemblance to real life (because there were people in the British civil service leaking stuff to the show’s writers)


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