Concrete ideas needed for public transport subsidies

Posted on 28 November 2011

Or else, it might just come back to haunt the folks in parliament in the future.

By Belmont Lay

It was Bernard Chen from the Worker's Party who first brought up this issue of unfair pricing for polytechnic students years ago! We, the YPAP, are just stealing it now for political capital after suffering a bruising encounter with WP during May's General Election! Photo borrowed from YPAP Facebook.

To prove that they possess some semblance of street cred, the YPAP were at Hong Lim Park on Saturday banging on about how unfair it is for polytechnic students to be paying more fares to take public transport.

Here’s the current deal: Students from junior colleges and the Institute of Technical Education are post-secondary students. So, therefore, they get to enjoy subsidised rates.

On the other hand, polytechnic students are considered tertiary-level students. They, therefore, picked the shorter stick. Sorry.

So poly students have to pay about twice as much. For being the same age and getting packed into the same overcrowded trains and buses to get to school to acquire an education as their brethren in school uniforms.

And why the double standards? Er… as far as I can tell, even with a brain, I can’t really work out the rationale going backwards.

Well, but what I am aware of is that unfair fare subsidies have been going on for the longest time. It has been the case since my junior college days 10 years ago.

And strangely, it doesn’t take anyone with an IQ above that of a snail to notice this: The entire bloody problem with public transport fare pricing for students stems from the moment some idiot savant of a policy-maker decreed that JC and ITE students pay less simply because they are wearing school uniforms.

Yes, it’s true. Poly students have to bear the brunt only because they are not in Communism-inspired garb.

The distinction is as simple and as arbitrary as that.

There is no other more succinct way to put this.

Look, if you took just 5 minutes to browse through the rationalisation (documented here by the honourable Bernard Chen of the Workers’ Party) as to why public transport fares differed between the two groups, you will shake your head in disbelief at all the after-the-fact rationalisation used to defend this current pricing scheme.

You would note that the reasons are nothing but bunk. Crap. BS.

Worse, the onus to explain the rationale behind how fares are subsidised is always passed back and forth. The public transport operator and the good old folks in parliament sure enjoy volleying.

It’s all typical civil servant mentality.

And what about the Public Transport Council?

As the third shareholder with a stake in this debate, the council could effectively be made up of eunuchs and zombies.

They are there, but somewhat lacking or absent, if you happen to know what I mean.

Which also translates, in other words, to the notion that they are useless.

Nonetheless, the oft-repeated argument has been that the government cannot step in to intervene any time they like. Pricing mechanisms work as the market dictates. The government only steps in when there is a need to help the needy. (And even then…)

As public transport operators are businesses, they know their own financial situation best.

Public transport operators have argued that concessionary rates are currently based on cross-subsidies. This means that the adults and upright public transport users who pay full fares are subsidising the rides of those receiving concessions.

With only so much cross-subsidies to go around, any more and the system will go tits up and we all die in agony.

But let me just ask one simple question: Whose bright idea was it in the first place that students in junior colleges and ITE require Mao-approved uniforms?

Whose eureka moment was it to come up with labels like “post-secondary” and “tertiary-level”?

The Ministry of Education, right?

So the issue, if you look at it, needs to be brought back to the starting point. Right back to the heart of the ministry.

If I was a Minister sitting inside a Cabinet, and I know full well I make something like $2 million a year, and I need not owe anyone a living except my people and constituents, I will issue a diktat stating plainly that anyone under the age of 21 will enjoy subsidised rates when they use our First-World public transport system.

They can be in JC, or poly, or home-schooled, or out of school, or out of work, or out of their minds, I don’t care.

And uniforms be damned.

Once anyone becomes old enough to vote, which means you’ve lived long enough to not be dependent, your public transport subsidies get revoked.

And how in the blue hell are we going to finance this seemingly two-bit idea?

A fraction, say 5 percent, of the money collected from ERP gantries every month will go towards the public transport subsidy fund.

Any time parking fines amassed throughout the month exceeds, say, $1 million, the excess shall go towards the pot too.

HDB season parking revenue? We’ll round it off to the nearest million at the month’s end, and take the rest, thank you very much.

Road tax? COE? Carpark coupon sales? Fuel taxes? Revenue from Traffic Police speeding tickets?

Mmm… I’ll just take 1 percent from each of these components and add it to the tally.

And if Orchard Road floods? We shall dock Vivian’s pay, say 10 percent each time, and give it back to the young ones in the form of cheaper fares.

Hey, I mean what good is a road if you can’t use it because it is choked full of water? Someone’s got to be penalised for the equivalent of a modern, cosmopolitan faux pas.

Come to think of it, imagine if it floods in Orchard Road three times a year, and if you took just 1 percent from all the road-related revenue above, there might even be enough to provide free transportation for the disabled and those aged above 55.

Till kingdom come.

But here’s the point of today’s missive: Just because we here at New Nation incorporate humour into our articles doesn’t necessarily mean we pull arguments out of our ass.

That is my personal chopped, signed and guaranteed quality assurance to you, my dear reader.

Fairness is like a cherry pie. You got to explain why a slice isn't too big or too small. And how it is just nice.

Three weeks ago, we published a truncated article about “fairness” and its role in policy-making by a professor of psychology at the Singapore Management University.

Basically, what the don was trying to say is that there is fairness in outcome. And then there is fairness in process.

An accompanying picture showing a cherry pie being cut up was put up (pictured right). The manner in which a pie is cut alludes perfectly to fair outcomes and processes.

In this instance of transport fares, poly students have been receiving a smaller share of the pie. Because they have been paying more fares for using the same transport system. That is an unfair outcome.

Worse, they don’t even know why that is the case for a long, long time. No one gave a compelling answer. Therefore, there isn’t any fairness in process.

Ipso facto, in five years’ time, come 2016 General Election, the youngest of today’s batch of polytechnic students shall at least be 22 years old.

Just saying.

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  • Lee Xian Jie

    This issue has been around since 1977:

    • Belmontlay

      The only difference now is that youths understand the power of the vote.

  • Anonymous

    Should we be using age as the only factor in determining the concession fares when comparing between poly and JC students? What about the value of the certification? If age is the only factor, does that mean, for example, a 5th-year O-level student (after completing N-level) need to pay more than a 4th-year O-level student?

  • Wai Leong

    What a lame article!