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Time for transport firms to stand up and be counted

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s surprising decision to step down from politics raises many questions, most notably the high price of running the Transport Ministry.

Time for transport firms to stand up and be counted

Mr Lui (in grey shirt) onboard a bus in December 2012. The Transport Minister, who entered politics in 2006, is leaving his post and the party before the upcoming General Election that could be held as early as next month. TODAY File Photo

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s surprising decision to step down from politics raises many questions, most notably the high price of running the Transport Ministry.

Weighed down by numerous train disruptions and breakdowns in recent years, Mr Lui seems to be taking personal responsibility for the transport system’s failure to remain reliable and efficient.

His departure makes him the second Transport Minister to leave the post amid such controversy. His predecessor Raymond Lim did so after the 2011 General Election, where transport, along with immigration and housing, were hot-button issues that cost the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) a few seats and a dip in its vote share.

Shortly after the 2011 election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong unveiled a “radical” overhaul to his Cabinet, with the departure of five ministers, including Mr Lim.

Mr Lee said that he wanted a fresh start, and had accepted the resignation of Mr Lim, who stayed on as a backbencher.

Mr Lui, who entered politics in 2006, is leaving his post and the party before the upcoming General Election that could be held as early as next month.

The two-term politician, who was made full minister only in 2010, is possibly the first minister in the PAP’s recent history to leave under such circumstances.

This surprising, if not dramatic, resignation leaves many wondering if the Transport Minister’s job has become a poisoned chalice — a heavyweight posting that comes with high expectations from Singaporeans, and thus has the potential to extract a very high price.

Transport, unfortunately, has been a harbinger of bad things. Those who have helmed the portfolio have had to announce several unpopular policies, such as curbing vehicle numbers with the Certificate of Entitlement policy, which put paid to many a dream of car ownership, or easing traffic congestion with ever more Electronic Road Pricing gantries, the inevitable — and much-heralded, mind you — solution to allow some to own cars, but charge them for usage in an attempt to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

All of these did not lead to transport ministers over the years being favourites with the public. This was not unexpected. The Government has said, time and again, that it will not shy away from unpopular policies if they are good for Singapore in the long run.

But recent transport woes, especially the squeeze on buses and trains during peak hours owing to a growing population, as well as more frequent rail breakdowns could be said to be the tipping point.

There were 12 major breakdowns of more than 30 minutes each last year — 50 per cent more than in 2013, and the highest number in at least four years. There have been several breakdowns this year, with the most recent on July 7 being the most massive and embarrassing — affecting around 250,000 commuters when two major rail lines were disrupted.

Was this episode the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back?

When it happened, the usual grumblings and calls for resignations made the rounds. These were nothing more than knee-jerk reactions, and even the most strident in the alternate social media universe were less than convinced by the rants.

After all, Mr Lui, 53, is part of the PAP’s fourth-generation leadership that would lead Singapore forward. He was also appointed Second Minister for Defence in April, a move that had many speculating that he could take over as Defence Minister in the next Cabinet reshuffle.

Even when the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee report, issued last month, showed that Mr Lui’s Moulmein-Kallang Group Representation Constituency (GRC) had disappeared and his own ward was split up and absorbed by neighbouring areas, nobody batted an eyelid.

The cynical viewed it as a way to move the former Navy chief to safe harbour — another GRC that performed better than Moulmein-Kallang did in 2011, when it scored 58.6 per cent of the vote against what was viewed as the weakest Workers’ Party team fielded in that election. Some analysts have said that if the GRC had stayed intact, it would have been ripe for the picking in this election.

Whatever one’s spin on it, this much is clear — Mr Lui’s decision removes a potential lightning rod when the hustings begin in earnest.

That is short-term thinking of the sort that the PAP has not countenanced in the past, however.

In fact, it compounds the problem.

For who will occupy the hot seat next? Would the party be willing to risk a potential fourth-generation leader, as Mr Lui was, in a job that appears to have more downside than upside? Would a potential candidate be more apprehensive than energised by the prospect of a job as Transport Minister?

Mr Raymond Lim lasted one term as Transport Minister. Mr Lui has lasted for just as long. One, or two, swallows do not a summer make, but the faint outlines of a trend are beginning to take shape.

But perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction. What if we took a closer look at who is most responsible for this state of affairs? Mr Lui, a former Rear-Admiral, displayed the kind of leadership we instinctively expect from uniformed officers by making sure the buck stopped with him.

Surely it behooves the public transport companies to accept blame too?

They, after all, are the ones responsible for ensuring quality service to their customers — you and me — and have failed to do so. Mr Lui made clear the scale of the problem when he wrote in his letter that “large-scale or prolonged disruptions still happen more frequently than is acceptable”.

The infrastructure may be taxed, but plans are in place to build a rail network to cope better with commuters’ demands. The Government should not carry the can for what any business would consider an integral part of running costs — routine maintenance.

Mr Lui has decided to heap responsibility on his shoulders. Will those who run the transport companies stand up and be counted?

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