Saturday 15 December 2012

Higher bus costs to be shared: Lui

Balance to be struck between Govt, operators and commuters, he says
By Maria Almenoar, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2012

IN DECIDING how to meet the rising costs of operating public buses, Singapore should not simply take the "populist approach" of ruling out any increase in bus fares, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said yesterday.

"We should not... just push it on to the public transport operators, or rely on more and more government subsidies.

"Not only would this require additional public money, but it would give operators no incentive to be efficient, or to provide good services to commuters."

These are Mr Lui's first comments on what has been an overwhelmingly negative reaction from commuters over his remarks last week that bus fares may need to go up to pay for higher salaries for bus drivers.

Opposition parties have also joined the debate, with the Workers' Party calling for the Government to put the interests of the public before those of shareholders, and the Singapore Democratic Party describing any moves to raise fares as reprehensible and unacceptable.

But Mr Lui also made it clear yesterday that any increase in fares must be accompanied by service improvements, and not just boost the short-term profits of operators SBS Transit and SMRT.

He pledged that if fares increased, the Government would do more to help commuters.

"I want to emphasise that we are fully committed to an affordable public transport system, for the middle-income, the low-income, the disabled community and other vulnerable groups," he said.

Mr Richard Magnus, who is chairing a committee to review transport fares, told The Straits Times on Tuesday that his committee was still studying the options and would propose improvements early next year.

"The outcome of the review should be a framework that continues to achieve a good balance between keeping public transport fares affordable and keeping public transport operations sustainable," said Mr Magnus, a former senior district judge.

He added that for the benefit of commuters, the fare formula should also continue to incentivise the operators to improve their productivity and be efficient in their operations.

Undergraduate Damon Giam, 24, who was initially opposed to a fare increase, said he might agree to it if there were indeed accompanying service improvements.

"As commuters, there is no incentive for us to pay more (if it is) just to pay for the wages of bus drivers. But if we are paying for better service and bus frequency, it is more acceptable," he said.

But Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, who is from the Workers' Party, remained critical of the move.

He said: "There is little incentive for transport operators to be more efficient if they know they can count on receiving more fare revenue whenever their costs go up.

"Neither is there much incentive to improve service beyond the minimum standard set by the regulator, when the operators are primarily accountable to their shareholders, not the public."

Improve bus drivers' employment terms: Lui
This must be done to attract more S'poreans to the job, says minister
By Royston Sim, The Straits Times, 14 Dec 2012

EMPLOYMENT terms and conditions for bus drivers must be improved further if more Singaporeans are to be attracted to the industry, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said yesterday.

In a Facebook post, he called for a "concerted and sustained effort" to retain existing drivers and recruit new ones, in the face of a rapidly ageing workforce and plans to introduce more routes over the next few years.

Referring to the recent wage adjustments made by bus operators SBS Transit and SMRT, he said: "We need to go well beyond the one-time increase earlier this year, which raised salaries by up to a few hundred dollars a month."

Mr Lui first broached this topic last week in remarks to the media, when he said wages would have to be adjusted further.

In yesterday's post, he added that Singaporeans currently make up about 57 per cent of the 7,500 bus drivers here, down from almost 80 per cent six years ago.

On top of that, the locals doing the job are ageing, with most already in their 50s and 60s. "Clearly, we should continue to welcome foreign bus drivers within limits," Mr Lui said.

"But we also need to attract more locals to take up bus driving if we do not want to rely overly on foreigners."

More drivers are urgently needed to man 800 new buses that will be added over the next five years.

These vehicles will boost the existing fleet of 4,000 by 20 per cent. They are part of a broader $1.1 billion Government plan to significantly improve bus services.

New routes will be introduced, and those that are used heavily will be given added capacity.

Bus drivers are among the lowest-paid workers in Singapore, earning more than cleaners, but a bit less than factory operators.

After the adjustments this year, the average Singaporean driver takes home between $2,000 and $2,500 a month after overtime and allowance. Those from Malaysia and China make even less.

Long hours and relatively low pay have translated to a high turnover in the industry.

An average of 15 per cent of the 7,500 drivers here quit the profession each year.

With fewer Singaporeans embracing bus driving as a profession, SBS and SMRT began sourcing from Malaysia in the 1990s.

Then, in 2008, the two operators started hiring drivers from China. Last month, 171 Chinese nationals went on strike to protest against low wages and living conditions.

In a press conference several days later, Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said bus drivers' salaries were something the industry had to re-examine.

Transport operators must ask themselves if the current wages match the job's demands and responsibilities, said Singapore Human Resources Institute executive director David Ang.

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