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Adulting 101: I’m a car geek, but I don't own one after weighing the pros and cons

SINGAPORE — It was probably five years ago, when I was 28, that I unknowingly crossed a threshold in adulthood because older relatives stopped probing me about my love life or my job and instead started asking whether I had a car.

Adulting 101: I’m a car geek, but I don't own one after weighing the pros and cons

TODAY correspondent Ng Jun Sen loves cars and follows Formula 1 racing but for now, has decided against buying a car of his own.

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.

 

SINGAPORE — It was probably five years ago, when I was 28, that I unknowingly crossed a threshold in adulthood because older relatives stopped probing me about my love life or my job and instead started asking whether I had a car.

Since then, I’ve been plagued by variations of a line of questioning from both of my beloved grandmothers at family gatherings: “Did you drive here?”, “Oh, you still don’t have a car?”, “Why not?”

They probably still see car ownership as a rite of passage into adulthood. After all, if my parents’ generation began driving their first beater cars at around my current age, why not me?

Among my relatives, colleagues and friends, I often feel out of the loop whenever the conversation veers towards their weekend road trip to Johor in Malaysia or whether the latest model of a certain marque is better than the last.

“I don’t see the point of owning a car in Singapore,” I would say whenever I’m put on the spot about my seeming lack of progress towards getting the 5Cs, a set of "achievements" that marked a person's socio-economic standing in Singapore, namely cash, credit card, car, condominium and country club membership.

At night, I would spend hours debating the issue in my mind, because I’m not sure if it is something that I truly believe.

The truth is that my car-loving pals and my grandmothers are preaching to the semi-converted.

I am a huge car geek and a racing nerd: I turn to ogle whenever I hear the growl of a sports car’s engine, I’d pick watching Formula 1 races over sleep, and as a student, my lecture notes were always embellished with scribbles of whatever dream car captivated me then.

The writer pictured near the Formula 1 pit building in Singapore. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Nowadays, whenever I have some time for myself after work and family obligations, I’ll turn down the lights, fire up my favourite racing simulator to practise hitting apexes around Germany’s Nurburgring motorsports complex.

There is, in my view, a very personal reason to own a car.

A car is not just any possession, it is an extension of your own personality and aspirations in many ways. I know like-minded friends who have taken out huge loans to buy a car for this reason, for better or worse.

But even as a car-loving 33-year-old, it is hard to find a compelling reason to own a car in Singapore when weighing the pros and cons.

I admit it is a bit odd that a car enthusiast can’t drive. That I don’t have a driver’s licence is linked to my decision to remain car-free for now.

It’s no secret that owning a car in Singapore is expensive, especially when it’s a depreciating asset.

Part of adulting also means I’ve to balance between competing needs such as spending on other big-ticket items like a home and setting money aside for a rainy day.

To be clear, the calculation would be very different for people who drive for work and business, since car ownership is very much tied to their income.

The writer finds it hard to come up with a compelling reason to own a car in Singapore when weighing the pros and cons. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

We live in exciting times in terms of public transport, considering the birth of the private-hire vehicle scene here back in 2013 and the inevitable arrival of driverless cars in the near future.

The cost factor would, of course, vary from person to person, as an economic choice between the relatively fixed cost of owning a car versus the variable cost of paying for each Grab, Gojek, Tada or taxi ride.

Now, with working from home probably here to stay as a result of the pandemic, I’ve wondered if personal cars are slowly becoming obsolete here.

Around 46 per cent of Singapore households owned cars based on official 2012 data, which is one of the lowest rates among first-world countries. As of last year, there are nine Singapore residents for every car and station-wagon here.

And with Singapore embracing a car-lite vision by 2040, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) is looking into how commuting preferences have changed.

This year, the LTA started a large-scale household travel survey that will last until 2025 to gather data on such trends.

Globally, there are plenty of articles suggesting that millennials are killing the auto industry, arguing that car ownership among younger people is declining due to financial reasons and a general lack of interest in these petrol-powered contraptions compared with previous generations.

Just look at Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, which killed off its edgier, racier sub-brand Scion five years ago. The brand was marketed towards younger people in the United States, but was not feasible because millennials were simply not interested, wire agency Reuters reported.

Yet, for every article about this that I read, there will be another touting the exact opposite — that millennials will lead the next boom in car-buying.

Some believe that this is because of, and not in spite of, Covid-19.

A report by consultancy EY involving global respondents last year noted that one-third of people who do not own a car intend to buy one in the next six months, and 45 per cent of those will be millennials.

The study suggested that this was due to the risk of Covid-19 transmission in public transportation and the allure of being in a safe personal bubble without needing to wear a face mask.

In any case, the literature does not say definitively whether millennials are shunning cars or not, and so I sought explanation from experts.

Transport economist Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said: “What we do know from evidence elsewhere is that car ownership is largely driven by personal and geographic context, rather than by cultural or social factors.’’

This means that your job, your financial situation, your living location, your travel needs, and your family situation are bigger factors behind car purchase decisions than trends relating to your age group, he said.

Associate Professor Theseira added: “Some people are car enthusiasts, some like driving, some use cars to show off their wealth. These are all important parts of the car market… but the majority of car ownership is motivated by cars being the best solution for a person's travel needs.”

Mr Kelvin Foo, managing director of traffic and transport consultancy TTS Group, said that compared with past generations here, many younger Singaporeans are growing up in an era of comprehensive public transportation options that are compelling alternatives to private cars. 

“Younger Singaporeans have also expanded the concepts of car sharing and on-demand car use in their time, which truly challenges (the concept of) car ownership in today’s society,” Mr Foo said.

Many of my peers have also embraced a car-free lifestyle because owning a car is a poor value proposition for them.

A friend who now works as an economist in a ride-hire company noted that generations of Singaporeans are now taking to swiping mobile applications for ride-hailing at a younger age before car ownership becomes something within financial reach.

With these habits and preferences already formed, it is common to hear younger people say that they will buy a car only when they have a child, he said.

“I don't own a car, and have no plans to. I have rented cars by the hour just to take my family out to locations where it can be difficult to hail taxis or cars. For people with ad-hoc use cases like me, these rental services are good enough and come at reasonable prices,” my friend said.

Likewise, Dr Raymond Ong from the National University of Singapore’s department of civil and environmental engineering gave up driving some time ago and now commutes via public transport.

The transport expert said that he no longer needs to worry about finding parking lots in malls or in the Central Business District, when he goes there for meetings.

He added that as someone who primarily travels between home and work, it is also much cheaper to rely on public transport and private-hire vehicles than to drive a personal car.

At the end of the day, with proper urban and transport planning so that people live, work and play within the same neighbourhood, there will be less need for long commutes, Dr Ong said.

And as Assoc Prof Theseira said, nobody seriously attributes the changing trends of car ownership to the argument that millennials are just different from previous generations.

“The right question isn't whether you can meet your transportation needs more cost effectively through public or shared transport.

“The question is whether all things considered, car ownership provides value to you as an owner that outweighs the cost,” he said.

One day, when my life circumstances and financial outlook change, I will relook my calculations and see if the time is right to bite the bullet.

But for now, I’ll stick to the bevy of transport options that are available and satisfy my car enthusiast urges by watching sports car racing on television.

If only there was an easy way to explain this to my relatives.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Ng Jun Sen is a correspondent at TODAY, where he writes about technology, business and housing.

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