Healthy bias for consumers

IN THE end, it's only 10 cents.

Plus, it's only for feeder buses. So most Singaporeans who commute from their HDB estates to work without taking one won't even feel the fare hike.

Once the Government stops micro-managing market forces, checks and balances will come from other institutions

Nobody likes a price increase, no matter how small the amount, particularly on bread-and-butter items like public transport.

But let's keep things in perspective.

After all, the bulk of the proposed across-the-board fare increases was rejected by the Public Transport Council (PTC), in light of the economic downturn.

And that's after the transport companies were made to justify their request for fare hikes, citing rising operating costs and improved services.

Even the NTUC and consumer watchdog Case have weighed in to urge restraint on behalf of commuters.

Whatever you may say about all this being an elaborate wayang by the powers-that-be, it's clear that consumers' concerns on the ground are not just being blithely ignored.

As it is, pundits suggest that raising a traditionally dicey issue such as transport costs in a likely election year seems a rather politically courageous move.

Overconfidence? Not likely, given the economic gloom.

In fact, Government higher-ups have been conspicuous by their absence in the recent fare-hike debate, preferring to let appointed public bodies, like the PTC, slug it out with the transport companies.

Is it convenient for the Government to deal with this at arm's length?

Sure, but here's a different spin: It's good for market-driven issues like transport costs to be removed from politics anyway.

Aren't we supposed to be weaned off Government intervention in every little aspect of life here? Well, it's not possible to have it both ways.

If we accept that a liberalised, competitive transport market is good for Singapore, then we should expect the regulators not to entertain lobbying from special interest groups - and that means neither big business nor consumers should have it all their way.

That doesn't mean we have to take things lying down.

In fact, civic institutions like Case, NTUC and even the PTC, which was set up as a multilateral body to regulate fares in 1987, have stepped up their advocacy on the side of commuters.

Case, in particular, has been a vocal champion of other consumer causes recently, including calls to lower petrol pump prices.

Singaporeans themselves are coming forward as activists: Witness the Car Against Cartel alliance and consumer advocacy groups in the varsities here.

The premise is simple. Once the Government takes a step back from micro-managing market forces, then the checks and balances will come from other institutions: Civic bodies, civil society groups, and citizens themselves.

And that can only help Singapore grow up a little.

© alvin pang
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