Through the partisan looking glass

From the Red Line
Published in
7 min readMar 16, 2024


When politicians don’t make the right transit decisions, they make things worse for the people.

I’m starting to form the belief that bureaucrats are not totally at fault when things go sour. The role of civil society and local grassroots in pushing for the right decisions in public transit needs to be questioned too.

In Singapore, though, recent polls may show that people may be more interested in defending their interests — what this blog may call an outdated, anachronistic status quo, instead of pushing for innovations to be made; or to capitalise on them if they are already done. To some folks, it may well be that they’re swimming against the current.

If the system in place here is such that policy missteps are coming from politicians demanding that the people be given what they want and not only from bureaucratic incompetence, then it has to be called out. What can be done, then? There may be a point in doing something, as shifting political tides challenge other interests once thought to be safe.

The hardest part of ending

I will not deny that the LTA is horrible at manipulating public opinion. But is that solely because they are bad at it, or is it also because their job is harder than it should be? Ultimately, if they can’t convince themselves, they cannot convince anyone.

I like to think positive change is happening. Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat himself is also singing the “20 minutes to Shenton Way instead of 40” song, as we saw at the Committee of Supply — necessary to drive home the value of new rail development, and counter the narrative of public transport being long, slow bus rides, romantic as they may be. Similarly, I’ve also been seeing a litany of posters not only about the current CCL6 works, but also to demonstrate the time savings and other benefits that CCL6 will provide once completed.

But yet, there are still people reliant on buses, like growing new towns adversely affected by rail project delays. There is only so much that Dr. Amy Khor, as MP for Tengah, can do, if other politicians are the ones who are blocking additional service for Tengah and Bukit Batok West, by monopolizing public transport resources. As Senior Minister of State for Transport, she is in a good place to lead by example MOT’s stance of reallocating resources to new developments. Much complaints have already been made by Tengah residents, with plenty hitting the news.

Service should follow the residents. With our trend of shrinking households, young couples and other singles are moving out of their parents’ homes in places such as Tampines, Bedok, and perhaps Woodlands too, and move to new development areas like in Tengah. Will there remain a need to provide high levels of inter-regional service from these areas, with smaller households and thus lesser public transport users? Would these buses be better used in Tengah, especially as Tengah grows with more residents collecting their keys? It’s not like drivers, depots, and buses can’t be reassigned to serve Tengah from other parts of the northwest.

She’s not the only one. New estates such as Fernvale, Punggol, and Yishun East too also have similar transport issues and are located within PAP wards, making this a party-wide issue. Perhaps the need for region-wide service reorganization to more fairly provide similar service across older and newer estates may be useful as a nationwide initiative. If even Minister Chee’s own constituency, which includes Thomson Road where 162 and 167 ran, was not totally spared, why is the northwest treated so differently?

There may be precedent, where arguably transport inequality may have played a part in delivering Sengkang GRC to the opposition WP; such bread and butter issues adding on to the calculus for younger voters more inclined to vote for the opposition already. A perception that the PAP is unable to deliver improvements in transport quality of life may have worsened their prospects there.

The PAP may be able to redraw boundaries, but ignoring the infrastructural needs of large growth areas like Bukit Batok West and Tengah—now solely represented by Dr Khor in Hong Kah North SMC — may risk further political embarrassment for the PAP if action is not taken, especially with the current woes — not just with transport.

When the hammer falls

Perhaps my MPs in Bukit Panjang may come to appreciate rail-based transport options, if they were forced to ride the bus from Parliament House to meet-the-people sessions during the evening peak hour; and found themselves delayed for an hour on the BKE because some idiot crashed his car again. If they took the DTL/LRT, they might already be there.

Or perhaps they drive, get stuck in that jam, and are thus already so used to the horror that they can’t see it any other way. The appeal of grade-separated dedicated public transport is to not be stuck in jams, which no longer matter when you take the train. It’s why Malaysians, Thais, Indonesians, and Filipinos all desire and appreciate their MRT lines.

In fact, the return of dual-loop LRT operation on Saturdays, and the launch of new LRT trains in the third quarter, takes away reasons to have additional bus service to work around LRT detours, as dual-loop service hours are expanded. To be fair to my MPs, they may be working behind the scenes for that, but do their actions match their public statements? Once dual-loop operation is fully restored, work must then begin on a thorough review of bus services in Bukit Panjang and Choa Chu Kang; the goal being to retain intra-town and regional connections, while shifting as much long distance travel as possible to the MRT.

On the other side of the aisle, you have a man who lost nearly everything. WP MP Gerald Giam has picked up the torch of addressing service quality; perhaps because his Bedok Reservoir residents lost almost everything, and 228 has become a punching bag. MP Giam may even have a better case to ask for a new service in Bedok Reservoir, not only to supplement 228, but also to connect his residents, and those in other parts of Bedok, to the new Bayshore TEL4 station; a longitudinal connection between three MRT lines in Bedok should not pose significant concerns with rail duplication. And this will need funding, increasing funding pressures.

By cannibalizing the DTL, Tampines and Bedok residents also lose out too, when SBS Transit runs lesser trains because it doesn’t have the passenger load to justify them. SBST CEO Jeffrey Sim is already playing with the idea of “multiple-loop operation”, which will likely create additional transfers. Such a catastrophic move will only result in further reduced service levels and connectivity on the line, and thus reduce rail ridership, as transit service is taken away from Tampines and Bedok because of stubborn communities in the northwest.

The WP is in a good place to target, in Parliament, this inequitable distribution of service funding; they may yet find an unlikely ally in Dr. Khor. The WP, working with the Transport Ministry, can and should stand up to pork barrel politics from MPs who likely own cars too and project their own car-driving habits on their residents. Thus, they may believe that fighting to preserve such networks is somehow or rather a good for their constituents, at the expense of literally everyone else. It’s very similar to NIMBYism.

The real populists

That said, these are not uniquely Singaporean problems. Hong Kong also has issues with particularly militant local politicians who need to look like they’re doing good by their residents. After all, even despite its democratic backsliding, Hong Kong district councillors face re-election too.

When the Kowloon Southern Link opened, MTR’s proposals to withdraw several bus routes within the West Rail area and around the new rail connection were met with fierce opposition. District councillors even went to the new Austin station on opening day to protest bus route withdrawals that were also justified by LRT service expansion. Sound familiar?

District councillors protesting bus route withdrawal (left source: HKRail Wikia, right source: HKBus Wikia)

MTR bus K16 connected Nam Cheong and East Tsim Sha Tsui stations before the Kowloon Southern Link opened in 2009, serving a few other residential estates along the way.

Keeping the route might have made sense in a bygone era before the MTR-KCR merger, when passengers would have to pay an additional MTR fare to travel from Olympic MTR to the West Rail at Nam Cheong, compared to using transfer benefits from the bus to the KCR at either end. But with HK’s rail merger, they only pay one fare; it thus didn’t help that much of K16’s catchment could walk to Olympic station or the new Austin station. So MTR removed transfer benefits, shifting it to the nearby KMB 12 instead. The removal of transfer benefits from K16 caused ridership to plummet, and gave MTR an excuse to eventually terminate the route.

In Tin Shui Wai, eventually MTR got their way too. After 20 new Phase 4 LRVs were delivered in 2009, MTR was able to increase frequencies on the LRT routes that A73 and K73P were meant to relieve, permitting the withdrawal of these routes. As LRT service improved, local residents withdrew their objections towards the bus service withdrawal, and it was thus allowed to proceed.

The lessons for Singapore may be quite similar. Whilst public contracting is meant to “serve the people” unlike HK’s for-profit transport companies, public services must also deliver optimum outcomes for the people overall, and not just interest groups protecting property values or personal convenience at the expense of everyone else. When projects are completed and we start seeing their benefits, we must maximise our resources such that those who don’t directly use the projects can benefit from them too.

Sometimes, you have to say no. And political leadership is needed for that — a lack of such leadership may end up hurting the PAP at the ballot box.

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From the Red Line

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.