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Public transport: No. 1 in the world?

The Straits Times | Kishore Mahbubani | Monday, Mar 10, 2014

Big Idea No. 2 is a no-brainer: Make Singapore's public transportation No. 1 in the world. Why is it a no-brainer? Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur as well as Bangkok and Manila face the danger of more or less permanent gridlock with massive traffic jams. I pray and hope it will not happen, but I am also prepared to take bets it will. But even if our neighbours strangle their cities in this way, their countries will continue.

Singapore does not have this option. If our city strangles itself to death with massive traffic jams, both the city and country will collapse. Good public transportation is therefore not an option. In Singapore it is a critical necessity.

Unrealised potential

Fortunately, we have all the ingredients in place to create the world's best public transportation system: money, meritocracy and motivation (the three Ms). We are one of the richest countries in the world in terms of financial reserves. We can pay for the best system. We also have one of the best civil services, if not the best, in the world. I know this well as several leading global scholars have asked me why Singapore does so well in public administration.

Few other governments in the world can match the quality of minds we have in our Administrative Service. And we also have the motivation. For us, good public transportation is a matter of life and death.

With all these assets in place, it was truly shocking to read in The Straits Times on Feb 13 that Singapore's MRT system is average in the world in terms of system breakdowns.

According to Christopher Tan, senior transport correspondent for The Straits Times, "breakdowns on the 125-year-old, 340km, 24-hour New York City subway average one every 260,000km operated. Singapore's 25-year-old, 180km network breaks down once every 120,000km".

When I told a Harvard professor this fact, he was astounded. He asked me: "Should I be proud of New York or worried for Singapore?"

What happened? How did we go from being almost No. 1 in the world in MRT systems to falling behind ancient systems like that of New York?

What mistakes did we make? How did it go so badly wrong? And what can we do now to reverse this negative slide and move towards making Singapore truly No. 1 in the world in public transportation?

A 2012 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found that Singapore's public transport systems ranked behind those of Toronto, London, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Please let me stress one point here. I am not an expert on public transportation. I do not have enough data or information to explain what went wrong. All this requires a massive study.

However as an amateur analyst of Singapore's public policies, I believe that I can point out three challenges Singapore will have to overcome to succeed in its goal of becoming No. 1. All three challenges begin with the letter C.

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