Singapore’s Land Transport Authority made an embarrassing policy U-turn this week, retracting its earlier plans announced on 9 January to phase out EZ-Link and Nets FlashPay cards in June of this year. These cards, operating on a card-based ticketing system (CBT) that stores transaction data directly on the cards, have been a staple of Singapore’s public transport system since 2001.
This reversal follows a massive backlash from commuters who faced significant challenges and concerns over the mandated transition to SimplyGo, an Account-based ticketing (ABT) system. Many found the process of converting to SimplyGo cumbersome and inconvenient, particularly because the balance of their cards would not be displayed as with the traditional cards. Additionally, there were hurdles in processing refunds and exchanging cards as initially planned.
Responding to the backlash and U-turn, the newly appointed Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat announced on Monday (22 Jan), “We have decided to extend the use of the current [CBT] for adult commuters, and not to sunset the system in 2024 as originally planned.”
He also highlighted that S$40 million would be invested to integrate the Ez-Link and Nets Flashpay cards into the new system. According to the LTA, this investment will be allocated to hardware replacement and system maintenance.
As Minister Chee announced the policy U-turn, he also pointed out the benefits of ABT cards, particularly emphasizing their security advantage: “If a commuter misplaces his registered ABT stored value card, the balance can be protected because the value is stored in the user’s account.”
Despite these benefits, the abrupt transition to digitalization apparently overlooked the needs of various commuter groups, especially seniors and those less adept with technology.
Notably, Chee’s data suggests that approximately 36% of commuters still use CBT cards, which presents a troubling aspect of the LTA’s decision to phase them out nevertheless.
LTA’s claim of market testing and focus groups before finalizing the SimplyGo transition is questionable. The public outcry and the subsequent U-turn suggest several possible scenerios: either the testing didn’t happen, the groups were biased towards government proposals, or LTA disregarded the results and pushed for SimplyGo despite resistance.
It is worth noting how transport companies in the UK and Hong Kong, which Chee cited, have adopted different approaches to introducing contactless payment.
Hong Kong continues to run its CBT cards, notably the Octopus card, while facilitating contactless card payment for commuters, and does not show any intention of phasing out the payment mode. However, Chee, in his Facebook post, seemingly conflates the situation by stating that ABT cards in Hong Kong do not display balances.
Contrasting sharply with Singapore’s initial approach to phasing out its existing payment mode, Transport for London (TfL) in the UK has been more gradual and inclusive in integrating new payment technologies. By catering to the continued use of the Oyster card, introduced in 2003, TfL laid the groundwork for subsequent innovations in ticketing across the country.
Addressing concerns about Oyster being replaced by contactless payment after the latter’s usage exceeded the former in 2021, Mike Tuckett, then head of customer payments at TfL, denied such speculations.
He stated, “I can’t imagine a situation where everyone either will have a bank account and card suitable to pay and wants to.” He also acknowledged the ongoing need for the Oyster card, saying, “You try to steer away from forcing or strong-arming people into an option; it’s about letting people naturally migrate towards it.”
TfL recognized the importance of maintaining the Oyster card alongside newer contactless options, understanding that a significant portion of the population either cannot or chooses not to use contactless technology. This approach considers the digital divide and ensures inclusivity.
Social historian Liz McIvor’s comments on digital poverty further illustrate this point. The removal of traditional payment methods would disproportionately affect certain groups, particularly the elderly and those on the poverty line. This concern is reflected in TfL’s commitment to maintaining the Oyster card as a viable payment option, thereby supporting a more inclusive public transport system.
While digital solutions offer significant advantages in terms of convenience and efficiency, their implementation must be sensitive to the needs and capabilities of all segments of the population.
The experiences in Singapore, Hong Kong and the UK underscore a crucial aspect of public policy in the age of digital transformation: the need to balance innovation with inclusivity.
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