What do you get in Singapore when you ride a bus or train?

05/01/2024

IN LIGHT of that recent academic commentary on transport fare increases and subsidies, here are three quiet truths that keep Singapore from stalling:  

  1. The PAP Government generously subsidises public transport fares. This fact will always remain true.  
  1. Commuters get world-class reliability and quality during each journey. No matter whether by bus or by rail. 
  1. The Public Transport Council (PTC) moderated the recent fare hikes with an eye towards future sustainability; the Opposition’s calls to “expunge” future fare increases will just stop our world-class transport system in its tracks.   

This first truth is one which your wallet feels each journey. Each time you tap on and tap off, our Ministry of Transport pays more than $1.  

So that’s at least $6.39 million of transport subsidies which Singaporeans get every single day, when we use the latest available numbers of 6.39 million journeys daily in 2022. Or more than $2.3 billion every year.  

In fact, this number will only increase for 2024. Singapore recovered from the pandemic wonderfully and Singaporeans are flocking back to mass events like the New Year’s Countdown.  

Our Government will meet this increased need. After all, these generous subsidies have been going on for years now. So much so that the most recent (2021) major study of transport affordability by McKinsey shows that Singapore has the most affordable public transport in the world:

Source: McKinsey     

As for the second truth about the world-class public transport journeys which our Government provides, we need only be brief: Just take public transport in another country. Then compare.  

Or listen to what your friends from overseas say about the MRT and the bus when they come to visit. Let them do that comparison for you.  

Hear what they share first-hand about how very often Singapore’s trains and buses come. About how clean, fast and new these vehicles which connect you to so many other places in Singapore are.  

All this versus other places in the world where subway breakdowns are such an everyday fact of life that they do not make the news. 

That’s all; there’s nothing like day-by-day on-the-ground experience to get more perspective on how excellently our local public transport system works. 

Remember, then, what international experts noted in that classic McKinsey 2018 report while addressing the fundamental dilemma for public transit. “How to create dense, efficient and comfortable public transit and keep it affordable without heavy subsidies? Singapore represents a notable example in achieving high results across all dimensions, including affordability.” 

2 million Singaporeans will pay only 5 cents more 

But the Opposition would put the brakes on all this. 

Mind you, the 7 per cent fare increases in December 2023 (or up to 11 cents extra per adult journey) essentially reflects global inflation and the increased prices of fuel. They also indicate that competitive wages are needed to retain Singapore’s hardworking transport workers. 

Having future fare increases “expunged”, as Workers’ Party MP Louis Chua (Aljunied-Hougang) put it, will make the public transport system unsustainable. Bus services already run at a loss and train services make less than 1 per cent profit.  

“We should not pretend that the deferred fare increases can somehow be expunged and magically disappear, or assume that future fare increases can be frozen without consequences to our public transport system,” explained (Oct 4) Acting Minister for Transport Chee Hong Tat. 

“Making such populist moves will further enlarge the funding gap over time which must be supported by higher Government subsidies funded by taxpayers. It is not the responsible thing to do,” Minister Chee continued.  

In other words, Singaporeans will also have to bear the tax burden. So this is a dead-end solution that will affect different parts of Singapore’s society overall.  

Remember this whenever some populist politician or academician suggests free transport or higher subsidies – somebody somewhere among us has to be paying for it. Already, our annual Government expenditure has to be supplemented by net investment income from reserves by about a fifth of the total expenditure. Taxes can be better spent somewhere esle. Certainly not in a sector that is already globally known to be affordable and efficient.  

So we have to be smart about it. What is important and is being done on the ground is our Government giving $300 million of very targeted help. In particular, around two million Singaporeans — students, seniors, lower-wage workers and people with disabilities (PWDs) — will see their fares increase by up to only 5 cents per journey in this world-class system.

Source: SG Enable 

Public transport vouchers worth $50 for low-income households as well as cheaper (up to 10 per cent) monthly concession passes for PWDs and a new monthly concession pass for lower-wage workers are concurrently being rolled out. These passes will help about 60, 000 commuters. 

This targeting is with purpose.  

At its core, public transport (and the anxieties and measures regarding its fares) is about being able to take part in the activities of life. Whether when going to work or school, meeting friends and family, going to the market and back again or watching big events like the New Year’s countdown, affordable and reliable public transport drives daily life.  

Here, our Government puts in immediate help and long-term thinking when calibrating the public transport system; so that all Singaporeans get to go a long way.