Singapore's MRT Issues Undermine Ruling People's Action Party

Singapore's MRT Issues Undermine Ruling People's Action Party
Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su

What you need to know

Recent criticism of Singapore's mass transit is about so much more than trains.

Singapore is a city under perpetual construction. For the last few years, islands of hoardings have stretched in a line northwards from downtown, marking where vast subterranean works rise to the surface. Billions of dollars have been sunk into extending the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) outwards to open up new commercial and residential districts and take the strain off the densely-packed central business district.

Clean, air conditioned and relatively punctual, the MRT has long stood in stark contrast to public transport in Southeast Asia’s typically crowded and dysfunctional cities. However, one Sunday this December metal shutters were pulled down on stations on the East-West Line and shuttle buses crawled between transport hubs.

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Photo Credit:Reuters/達志影像
Singapore's MRT is seen as emblematic of the efficiency and reliability of the city's technocratic government.

For one taxi driver, picking up fares close to his home in Jurong in the island’s northwest, this latest closure of a long stretch of the MRT – one of a series of planned works – was a catalyst for a stream-of-consciousness scree attacking the city-state’s lackadaisical approach to maintaining its much-vaunted infrastructure. Cost-cutting, he believed, had led to more failures, more major disruptions, pushing more and more people onto the roads. Complaining about traffic is a popular hobby in Singapore, but unusually this driver – a former civil servant – quickly laid the blame at the feet of the national government.

At an intersection, he pointed out a squad of police motorcycle outriders accompanying a junior minister on a weekend bike ride.

“What a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he spat.

Singaporeans are generally not vocally political, but over the past three months there has been an outpouring of anger as a series of accidents and disruptions on the MRT has shaken confidence in the public transport system and struck at the country’s self-image. That, in turn, has driven a normally placid electorate to ask searching questions of a government whose legitimacy rests on its ability to seamlessly deliver services in exchange for its absolute dominance of the political system.

The most recent troubles began in October, when a pump malfunction led to flooding in a metro tunnel near Bishan. Services were disrupted for 20 hours, and the image of a stalled train up to its wheels in standing water was widely shared on social media.

Then, on Nov. 15, 39 people were injured when two trains collided at Joo Koon station. It was only the second crash in the system’s history. News coverage of the event was constant and frenetic, and was given a further boost when, five days later, lightning struck trackside equipment causing another brief disruption.

The network is run by SMRT, a private company, albeit one in which the state has a sizeable stake, but the government took the heat. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, speaking to a conference of his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), warned the party faithful that these incidents “loom large in the public consciousness”.

Trust in the transport system has clearly been shaken. A survey by local polling company BlackBox found that 57 percent felt that they had not been fully informed about the extent of the issues on the MRT, and a similar percentage felt that it would take more than a decade for the problems to be resolved and for the system to be “world class” again.

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Credit: Parliament TV (Singapore)
SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek looks despondent amid a parliamentary hearing reviewing his competency.

“Sixty-nine percent would like to have a public enquiry, which the government has denied… and 51 percent think that the [SMRT] CEO, Desmond Kuek, should resign immediately,” Johannes Loh, BlackBox’s research director and a public policy expert, said. “These are very high numbers for Singapore. You would normally not see a constituency speak out so directly to our survey questions.”

Such an outspoken response is significant in Singapore, where the social contract is one where certain political freedoms are exchanged for a highly functional city-state, characterized by low crime rates, universal education, solid infrastructure and economic opportunities for citizens. This has been maintained by a number of practical, if imperfect solutions to managing potential conflicts within its multi-ethnic population and subtle, but ruthless, ways of maintaining order. These have – either as a by-product or by design – have shored up the governing People’s Action Party’s near-absolute dominance of the political system.

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The theory is that by submitting to technocratic leaders who are largely – though not entirely – freed from the demands of electoral politics are able to pursue long-term strategic goals. The PAP’s story is that the benign paternalism evinced by the city’s "founding father," Lee Kuan Yew, has allowed Singapore to outshine its larger regional neighbors and punch above its weight on the world stage.

In many ways it has, reinforcing the government’s position and creating a large cohort of satisfied Singaporeans who are relatively indifferent to politics and see no reason to seek a change. Those that do speak up in opposition often find life difficult due to tight restrictions on freedom of speech.

The government’s narrative of exceptionalism – because of us, Singapore is the best in the world – has driven a genuine desire at many levels to succeed, but it has also created incredibly high expectations.

“In a way, we are used to being number one,” Loh said. “If something doesn’t fit that narrative, such as having a bad transport system, [people] get quite agitated... It’s part and parcel of the self-understanding of the country.”

As Eugene Tan, a political analyst and professor of law at the Singapore Management University, said: “It is the whole idea that things work in Singapore.”

Tan said that the public outcry about the MRT has to be seen in the context of a difficult year for the PAP. A succession of crises – some unforeseeable, others arguably self-inflicted – has rattled the leadership.

In June, two of Lee Hsien Loong’s siblings alleged that the prime minister, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, was seeking to use their father’s legacy to extend his political influence by preserving their childhood home on Oxley Road. The elder Lee, who died in 2015, had reportedly wanted the place demolished to prevent it from becoming a shrine.

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The family dispute, which began on Facebook and ended with questions in parliament, was hard to suppress, and provided an invitation to question the power structures within the PAP. Lee handled the dispute deftly and came away with his dignity intact. However, the party will soon have to name a successor to the prime minister, who is unlikely to lead the PAP into the 2021 election, and the spat could regain its salience.

A further challenge came in September with the election of a new president – a largely symbolic role in Singapore. After the 2011 presidential election, the government had changed the rules, ostensibly to ensure that the role would be shared by the country’s different racial groups, rather than remaining the preserve of ethnic Chinese candidates. Opposition groups saw it as a way to block the candidacy of Tan Cheng Bock, a former PAP member of parliament who left the party and was only narrowly beaten in 2011 by the government’s choice, Tony Tan.

Under the new rules, the 2017 election was reserved for Malays, who had to qualify on grounds of their ethnicity and on a strict set of eligibility criteria that stated that a candidate had to either have a long history of public service or experience running a major enterprise. On Sept. 11, the Presidential Elections Commission declared that only the PAP’s preferred candidate, Halimah Yacob, met the criteria, and so she was sworn in without a contest. The public was not impressed. Social media reactions were overwhelmingly negative, with the Twitter hashtag #notmypresident becoming a rallying point for younger Singaporeans.

“The train issues come at the end of all of this. It has become the lightning rod, no pun intended. It becomes the focal point by which Singaporeans say: is the government delivering?” Eugene Tan said. “If they can’t deal with this system, how are they going to deal with bigger issues?”

The government does have time to fix the current problems before it enters an election cycle, but it faces battles on other fronts. The cost of living is high and rising. Stresses on the country’s infrastructure have forced the PAP to adopt unpopular policies, including a major hike to water bills and further restrictions on car ownership. Immigration is a perennial hot-button issue, but the government has to square the circle of maintaining growth and increasing productivity within an ageing workforce that stoically refuses to breed.

Transport issues cut across these often abstract and hard-to-visualize challenges, and provide a tangible, measurable output for citizens to judge their government’s performance. As Tan said: “It does strike at the heart of the government’s claim to performance and legitimacy, to deliver on their promises… I think it really has extracted a political cost.”

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SMRT declined to respond to an interview request from The News Lens for this article.

TNL Editor: David Green