Singaporeans complained that trains were getting too crowded. So the Transport Ministry came up with a solution: free train rides for early birds.
Interestingly, immediately after the announcement, people again began to complain. Here is an excerpt of a Facebook post by opposition politician Teo Soh Lung on 16 April 2013 :
“train rides are not free at all… we are the sponsors. As a retiree and senior citizen who travel [sic] in crowded trains, I am not happy that I should sponsor the train rides of people going to work? [sic]… I find it irresponsible for the Minister of Transport to attempt to solve a transportation problem by taking money from taxpayers… He forgets the human factor… Would parents leave home when their young children are still in bed… what kind of adults will the children turn out to be? The minister should take the trains every day… I am not happy that I have to sponsor working people”
What made me uncomfortable about her post was not the fact that it was an opposing view. There is nothing wrong with opposing a policy, or pointing out policy flaws. Procedural problems, administrative costs, the setting of a negative precedent – all these are valid criticisms that could have been highlighted.
Instead, I was most disturbed by the values which the comment embodied, which happen to be the same values some Singaporean’s beliefs are built upon. (at the time this article was written, she had 1936 Facebook likes)
To begin, it embodies the message that “I don’t like it when the tax I pay goes to someone else but me”. This is an extremely selfish and myopic notion, and to reject this policy on that basis that “I am not happy that I have to sponsor working people” is very regressive and misses the point.
Do you think the people who pay the majority of taxes in Singapore (the very wealthy) take the train? Of course not. But they still pay their taxes; not because they want to. If they had a choice, they would not pay for the train ride of you and me. But we force them to, and that’s the whole point of taxation.
Additionally, it is not only a selfish idea but an inane one. Commuters are not ‘giving’ money to the early birds; they are ‘paying’ them a nominal fee to alter their behavior in order to attain an overall reduction in congestion. It is ultimately a favorable economic transaction where regular commuters pay part of the cost (because remember, they don’t pay all the taxes) but get all of the rewards.
Next, it seems to embody the idea that policies must be perfect, and that a single strain of imperfection is not only enough to render a policy useless, but justifies the demonizing of policymakers. This is a bad premise to work from. Certainly, there will be tradeoffs, such as the likelihood of parents waking up earlier. But just because tradeoffs exist do not mean firstly, that they were not considered by policymakers when drafting the policy, and secondly, it does not destroy the value of the policy entirely.
Finally, it seems to embody a warped notion of taxation and spending. The idea that “it (is) irresponsible for the Minister of Transport to attempt to solve a transportation problem by taking money from taxpayers” is quite disturbing. Is that not the point of taxes, to fund public infrastructure? What then would be the responsible thing to do?
I really hope that these insidious values only exist amongst a minority of Singaporeans. They are false, deficient, and extremely detrimental.