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S’pore’s authorities cannot win S’poreans’ trust if they are not honest in times of breakdown

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | July 7, 12:01 am

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Four years ago today (July 7, 2015), one the worst breakdowns ever to hit Singapore’s MRT system occurred when both the North-South and East-West lines were hit by twin disruptions at peak hour.

Around 250,000 commuters were stranded as a result of the disruptions.

Here, we reproduce an excerpt of remarks made on this topic by Straits Times correspondent Christopher Tan at a conference, taken from the book Public Trust in Singapore. 

The book, edited by David Chan, consists of essays and discussions on the issue of public trust in Singapore, presented at last year’s Behavioural Sciences Institute Conference, held on Feb. 6, 2018.

It examines the dynamics and workings of public trust within the context of Singapore, shedding light on how it is built, lost and restored.

Public Trust in Singapore is published by World Scientific, and you can get a copy of it here.

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By Christopher Tan

Good morning everyone.

When Professor Chan asked me to talk about this topic of public transport and public trust, it first seemed to me that it was obvious — you can’t have one without the other, and the two are so inseparable. But given recent developments, I guess the topic deserves some discussion.

Do Singaporeans trust the public transport system? Do you trust it? I suppose it depends.

Would you have the same level of trust if you were heading for an important examination, a job interview or a wedding?

So, let us take a close look at developments in public transport — in particular the rail system because the rail system is actually the backbone of our public transport — and try to understand why statistics and ground sentiments do not seem to be aligned in recent years, and why the level of trust may have dipped.

Public transport is a basic need

First, let us remind ourselves of the primary premise of public transport.

In essence, public transport is the most efficient way of moving people around in a densely built up area — a way for people to get to other people, to jobs, to school and to the doctor’s. It is a city’s lifeblood; a social and economic lubricant. If we refer to Maslow’s hierarchy, it is considered a basic need.

Let us look around the major cities in the world.

The subway in New York, for instance, brought the five boroughs together. In Taipei, the train station is actually a destination in itself. But for the public transport to work, it has to be dependable, which is why there are bus and train timetables and schedules.

And of course, we have heard about the clockwork precision of these services in places like Germany, Switzerland and Japan.

Good transport operators pride themselves in being dependable. Everyone loves a story about operators who go out of the way to serve, even if it is a little romanticised, such as the one about the train that would stop for just one student in a small town in Hokkaido.

In Singapore, expectations are high and for good reasons.

We have very high car prices, and so driving a car is not a viable alternative for many of us. We are a country that has been car-lite since the 1970s.

We’ve had high car taxes for over 40 years. So, public transport is very crucial in Singapore, and more crucial than in many other places. And we have invested heavily in public transport. Of course, if we spent that much, we expect value for money, good returns.

We want to double our rail network to 360km by 2030 so that 80 per cent of households are within a 10-minute walk to a train station. It is a very ambitious target, but it is not as ambitious as the one before.

This first target was announced by former Transport Minister Yeo Cheow Tong in the year 2000 in Parliament. He said the network of 91km would treble to 270km by 2010, and 540km by 2030.

Unfortunately, that did not quite happen.

Our public transport infrastructure could not cope with our population growth

Instead, these things happened. The population grew very aggressively, within 10 years — one million more people in Singapore — and that led to higher usage of public transport, higher ridership, and it taxed the system.

And we began to see the strain. Trains were becoming more crowded and breakdowns were becoming more frequent. It culminated in two massive breakdowns in December 2011. It happened on consecutive days, and it led to a very costly and long public inquiry.

All parties resolved to do better, and we made many changes.

The SMRT management changed, and there was commitment to renew all the assets and fix all the flaws. The government rolled out the Bus Enhancement Programme, which was never done before — public money used to beef up the bus service by about 2,000 units.

That was in recognition that the rail system needed time to repair itself and to ramp up in terms of capacity as well. We had the New Rail Financing Framework, where the government actually took charge of all assets and took responsibility for renewing them.

And finally, two years ago, SMRT was delisted after 10 years of being a publicly listed company.

So fast forward from then to now, the government said that there had been vast improvement in rail reliability.

Using the measure based on the mean distance travelled between delays of more than five minutes, we could see a huge improvement from where we were in 2011 (mean distance of 58,000) to the third quarter of 2017 (mean distance of 400,000).

But do people on the ground — the commuters — feel the same way? Not quite, going by various polls conducted.

Rail reliability still perceived to be low

For example, as I reported in May 2017 in The Straits Times, according to a survey by public transport app and mapping provider Moovit, more than half (54.3 per cent) of commuters were affected by at least one disruption in the month prior.

In another survey, which we reported in The Straits Times in December 2017, there was a significant increase in the proportion of commuters who catered additional buffer time for their train travel to factor in unexpected delays or disruptions compared with three years ago.

The proportion who said they don’t factor in any buffer time decreased from 57.1 per cent to 24.9 per cent in three years. This showed that there was a dip in faith, a dip in trust.

Another survey was done by Today, reported in the newspaper in November 2017, to find out whether the public had confidence in the people who are in charge of repairing the system and bringing the system up to speed, whether they were confident that they would actually finally do it.

The survey found that more than half of the respondents were not confident — no, they did not quite trust that the people in charge would do what they set out to do.

So, why the disconnect between the statistics that we saw earlier on rail reliability and how people felt?

Train breakdowns leave a huge impact on public consciousness

I think one of the reasons could be the series of major incidents that we have been having. The two breakdowns in 2011, at that time, they were the worst two breakdowns that we had.

But in 2015, this was superseded by two major rail breakdowns on the same day. And in March 2016, we had the fatality of two technicians, who were killed on the tracks near Pasir Ris.

Then in April 2016, four lines broke down on the same day. In 2011, it was one line; in 2015, it was two lines; and in 2016, it was four lines together on the same day in the same hour. Then in October 2017, we had tunnel flooding, as well as a tunnel fire.

Of course, people did not take note of the tunnel fire because the tunnel flooding really took everybody’s attention. In November 2017, there was the train collision. So all these things happened in quick succession, and of course, when things like that happen, it shakes confidence.

Many of the breakdowns happened during peak hour

Let us do a reality check.

The oldest lines form half the network but account for two-thirds of the number of rides, and they account for nearly two-thirds of the major delays.

If we look at the peak period, the oldest lines account for half the weekday ridership even though the peak accounts only for one-third of the operational hours, and 87 per cent of the major delays are in the peak period.

So, what we have is a high concentration of people affected by disruptions, whereas if you spread it out the statistical average looks quite different.

The re-signalling project started last year on the North-South line and it will now go on to the East-West line. If we include the flaws that were associated with re-signalling, the statistics will look quite different. The mean distance travelled between delays of more than five minutes will decrease, and not increase, from 2016 to 2017.

Full recovery is certainly possible

So, what is the situation now?

We have desperate attempts by all parties to fix things. Personally, I think that the worst may be over but we are still quite some way to a full recovery. But I think we can make a full recovery.

I think so because some of the other lines in the world, which are in a far worse state than ours, have made recoveries previously.

For example, the New York subway was in the pits, in its deepest crisis. But through sheer political will, it improved, and by the 1990s and early 2000s, its reliability had actually improved by more than 30 times.

And from a deficit, the operator has actually gone into surpluses. Of course, New York, as we read recently, had let the ball drop again. But I am quite sure if they can revive it once, they can revive it again.

If they can do it there, there is no reason why we cannot do it here.

Building up public trust starts with clear communication

Trust, of course, is more than just trains.

In recent years, we have ride-hailing apps like Uber and Grab. And what happens when autonomous vehicles come into play? These are vehicles without drivers.

We have seen, for instance, the train collision in a very segregated pathway. What happens when these autonomous cars are on the road — mixing with traffic, drivers and other road users? These are things that we need to manage.

As mentioned by the earlier speakers, building trust is a difficult thing to do. I think it starts with good communication, like in any relationship.

There are permanent secretaries in the room here, industry leaders, and policymakers. I would just like to make a personal plea from a newsman — make your message plain, and be plain with your message and your words.

Phrasing matters, & sometimes, it’s better to be upfront

Don’t say “ponding” when it is flooding; don’t say “make contact with” when it’s a collision; call a strike a strike; and tell people about the cracks on the train before they are uncovered. When you announce train delays to commuters on a train, don’t underplay it.

Sometimes, it is better to overstate than to understate.

I recall the time — and this was before the Active Mobility Bill was passed — when I was looking for casualty rates for cyclists and personal mobility devices (PMDs) on pathways.

I had such difficulty getting the statistics because no one would want to tell me the statistics; no one will want to reveal them. If you want public buy-in on something as crucial as allowing PMDs and cyclists on pathways, I think you need to tell the whole story, the full facts.

I think it is unfair and would be counterproductive if you withheld some facts, and then pass a Bill, and then later the public outcry will be so much stronger and so much louder.

Communication teams need to have greater flexibility in their jobs

Organisations need to empower the communicators.

I remember 20 to 30 years ago when I dealt with regulators and corporations, the corporate communications team had huge autonomy in talking to us.

Now, it seems like everything has to be approved right up to the Ministry level — it is just passing on risks and ending up with no one taking them.

It is not only bad for building trust; it is also bad for efficiency. If you really think about it, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

In bad publicity, like even the Joo Koon collision, something good comes out of it because it has garnered us a high level of attention on the train system.

For public transport to work, high commitment from the very top is paramount.

Trust is a two-way street. It is a virtuous cycle — the more you share, the more trust you build. The public appreciates honesty and the public knows when they are taken for a ride. The public can handle the truths better than you think.

Finally, you have to engage the press and see the press as partners rather than adversaries. Even during times when reports are not so favourable, as long as the criticisms are fair, there should be no quarrel.

Do people trust the press?

The government certainly thinks so, otherwise it will not expend so much energy and time in crafting their press statements and replies. But the government has to realise that if this is overdone, there is a real danger of it coming across as a little less truthful.

Thank you for your attention.

Top photo courtesy of Andrew Pang

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