Increasing Point-to-Point Accessibility for Vulnerable Groups

Anthea Indira Ong
Aug 6, 2019 · 9 min read

Parliamentary Speech for Point-to-Point Passenger Transport Bill, 6 August 2019

Introduction

Mr Speaker, I stand in support of the Bill. Regulating private-hire vehicle ride fares will benefit the population at large. Stipulating the Codes of Practice gives a common framework of standards for the different players in the ride-hail and street-hail services to provide a consistent experience for passengers while ensuring their safety and comfort. I am decidedly pleased that sections 2f and 3f of Clause 30 of the Codes of Practice explicitly specify measures to facilitate access to, and use of, the ride-hail and street-hail services by individuals with disabilities.

Indeed, I would like to ride on this Bill and the recent announcement of the SG Cares-GoJek Medical Transport Subsidy Scheme in Kembangan-Chai Chee by none other than our dear Speaker himself to discuss how we can push the envelope further for a 3P partnership to support the point-to-point transport needs of vulnerable groups in our community as part of our Smart Nation vision. To support this accessibility, we must also look at how we can train current and potential drivers. And finally, I would like to discuss how the fair pricing policy is a way for us to account for carbon emissions as we continue to be a good steward for the environment.

Increasing Vulnerable Groups’ Accessibility to Point-to-Point Passenger Transport

Mr Speaker, whilst writing this speech and gathering ground feedback from community practitioners who work with our vulnerable seniors, persons with disabilities and low-income communities, I went from feeling informed to confused to determined. Please let me elaborate.

Where I was informed is the spread of point-to-point transport schemes that are currently available for our vulnerable groups:

  • First, we have the Medical Escort & Transport or MET services, funded by the Ministry of Health for community providers to provide transportation and/or someone to accompany their vulnerable clients to travel to and from their homes for medical appointments and treatments (for example, at hospitals, specialist outpatient clinics, or polyclinics). It is for those who need help to move around, and have no caregiver or whose caregiver is unable to provide support because of their own health and physical condition. There are currently nine community providers including Handicaps Welfare Association or HWA, Red Cross and others who provide the service via specialised vans. They now make about 2,000 such trips monthly.
  • Second, we have the Taxi Subsidy or TSS Scheme funded by the Ministry for Social & Family Development which specifically targets persons with disabilities. The scheme only covers school, work or training supported by SG Enable. The scheme reimbursed qualified beneficiaries 35–80% of their monthly taxi fares including from private hire cars registered with the Land Transport Authority like Grab. MSF expects the number of beneficiaries on TSS to grow to 300 by 2021.
  • Lastly, we have the VWO Transport Subsidy Scheme also funded by MSF which should be called the SSA Transport Subsidy Scheme since we have now officially dropped the VWO for SSA (Social Service Agency). This scheme supports persons with disabilities who are attending Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC), Day Activity Centres, Sheltered Workshops or Special Education (SPED) schools. I understand there are four service providers namely Caring Fleet, HWA, Silveray, Singapore Wheel on Wheels.

Mr. Speaker, I then got confused because I can clearly see it’s entirely plausible that an individual may need to tap on multiple transport services, but how would this individual, already dealing with challenging circumstances, manage that with the way the schemes are now organised? It looks like he would need to apply to one organisation for help to his medical appointment under Medical Escort & Transport service and another to bring him for my day rehab under VWO transport subsidy. From what I understand, only a handful of organisations like HWA and Red Cross can provide a one-stop shop for all these services.

In addition to the perplexing fragmentation, there is also the unnecessary exclusion of debilitating conditions from the above schemes. Simon (not his real name), now in late 50s, was diagnosed with terminal stage cancer. He needed to go for chemotherapy and subsequently palliative radiotherapy plus several other medical appointments regularly. Apparently, the Medical Escort and Transport service does not cover trips for chemotherapy so he was rejected. Thankfully, the Singapore Cancer Society stepped in to support him. Mr. Speaker, this was a dying man who was not literate, had little family support and yet had to face all these accessibility challenges in his last days. Thankfully, a group of volunteers were there to hold his hand and help him navigate through all this. He passed on earlier this year.

I also know of people with severe mental health conditions who clearly cannot manage taking the public transport being rejected by these schemes too.

In addition to the fragmentation and availability issues, there is also the issue of availability. In his late 70s and living with dementia, Steven (not his real name) was referred to the Medical Escort and Transport service after his discharge from the hospital because he had lost his mobility. The service provider took some time to admit him into the service, and even after being accepted as a client, they could not serve him for his post-discharge appointments because they were all fully booked. The same happened to Simon too — the service could not support on short notice but as his condition deteriorated, there were many appointments that he needed to go for urgently.

If you think that the numbers accessing these point-to-point transport schemes are negligible, I’m here to disappoint you with just these two sets of numbers:

  • Ministry of Health is on track to meeting targets with 6,200 daycare places, 10,000 home care places and 17,000 nursing home beds by 2020. The Agency for Integrated Care or AIC reported that a projected 60 per cent of these clients will need some form of transport.
  • Handicaps Welfare Association or HWA provided more than 77,000 trips in FY2017 for rides catered to medical consultations, rehabilitation sessions, recreational activities, ferrying children with disabilities to and from schools. They do this through Handicare Cab Scheme, a collaboration with ComfortDelGro to provide wheelchair-bound persons a guaranteed cab during rush hour driven by a specially-trained cabby, Medical Escort & Transport Service, Taxi Subsidy Scheme, among others.

Mr. Speaker, I am determined that we must take the opportunity with this Bill to call for a whole-of-government action and out-of-the-box approach to address the above challenges.

We all know how our lives have changed with the ability to just tap for a Grab or GoJek on our phones and knowing that a driver with a car will be at our doorstep in no time. Wouldn’t this point-to-point convenience mean even more for vulnerable persons in our midst who are already struggling with the challenges of money, illness and disabilities? Given the growing accessibility needs and existing challenges with availability and responsiveness, I would like to urge the government to consider partnering the private sector with their existing technology and drivers to address this challenge at a national level as part of our Smart Nation vision. Even for a lay person like me (although I did invent a technology product in a past life), it seems completely conceivable that there could be a special button on the booking apps visible only to those who are eligible for the subsidy schemes to access the very same underlying booking platform that will ping to hundreds of drivers out there who are trained and available to come to them within minutes or on advanced booking. Some may even be trained to be medical escorts. The financial process is automated and electronic, relieving the community service providers to provide more high value add services to their clients. (On a side note, there’s no reason why Meals on Wheels can’t do the same too with the food delivery apps too.) It’s not so simple as I have described, of course but it’s definitely not impossible. This can truly be the kind of socially innovative 3P partnership that we want to see more of for a Smart Nation and as a caring and inclusive society.

I would like to also ask the government to (1) look at streamlining these support schemes to make them more accessible to the very people who will be using them, as well as the care workers supporting them — be it social workers and/or community volunteers. The Medical Escort and Transport Scheme is clearly one that will see an increase in demand with our ageing population and therefore needs an urgent review; and (2) to consider broadening the qualifying criteria for these schemes to include those with severe mental illness or low cognitive functioning given their challenges with taking public transport as well as expand the Taxi Subsidy Scheme to include trips to and from medical appointments.

Improving accessibility will require drivers to be sensitive to the needs of passengers with access needs. Currently, there are some schemes in place. I mentioned ComfortDelGro’s collaboration with HWA earlier. Grab has a Grab Assist option where drivers are trained by the Agency for Integrated Care to offer additional assistance to seniors and persons with disabilities. I ask that the government looks into broadening these schemes to include more ride-hail and street hail drivers and providers, so that we can meet the access needs of our society with more frequency and consistency. A possibility could be requiring ride-hail and street hail providers to have all or at least a certain substantial percentage of drivers trained in providing for passengers with disabilities through a Code of Practice, under Clause 30 of the Bill.

Carbon Emission-based Pricing

Mr. Speaker, let me switch now to our climate change responsibility as a nation and the opportunity this Bill affords us to do so. Singapore has pledged to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 16% below business-as-usual (BAU) levels in 2020, and made a further commitment to reduce our emissions intensity by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030, and stabilise our greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of peaking around 2030.

We could consider tier-pricing according to the carbon emission of the vehicles. This way, passengers could be nudged to consider the ecological footprint of one’s transportation choices in their daily commute. A framework to follow could be the Vehicular Emissions Scheme that takes into consideration a vehicle’s emissions of four pollutants and the vehicle’s carbon dioxide emissions. Another pricing structure for private-hire cars could be based on electric, petrol-electric hybrid, compressed natural gas, bi-fuel (CNG/petrol) vehicles.

This will not only push passengers and drivers to opt for more environmentally-conscious options, but will also increase the environmental consciousness of our population. Singapore’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gases will require the population’s recognition of the severity of the climate crisis, in order for various corporate and civil society stakeholders to resolve the issue in unison.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, the Land Transport Master Plan 2040: Bringing Singapore Together clearly ensures that Singapore’s transport system is inclusive through priority cabins, Hearts Zone initiative, making public sector infrastructure barrier-free. Making our taxis and private-hire vehicles more accessible will allow the burden to be shared between the private sector and our Social Service Agencies. Those with access needs can choose among different travel options, thereby affording them more convenience and bringing their options closer to the rest of the population. Because we must change the focus from mobility to accessibility.

Last but not least, we simply must use every opportunity we have to shape green habits in our people. Almost everything we do emits carbon. Instituting carbon emission-based pricing for our point-to-point passenger transport services further reinforces our commitment to integrate climate change measures into national strategies and policies.

Thank you.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and volunteerism in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

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