On Monday, the newly appointed Transport Minister, Chee Hong Tat, responded to questions from Members of Parliament about the implementation of the Account Based Ticketing (ABT) system, SimplyGo, and the retraction of plans to phase out Card-Based Ticketing (CBT).
Many anticipated answers about the saga, but Chee essentially reiterated his previous statements regarding the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) U-turn and emphasized that no decision about CBT systems beyond 2030 was needed at this time.
He stated, “In making the decision subsequently, important factors would include whether we can overcome the current technical limitations of the ABT system, and which system commuters prefer to use.”
Chee also discussed the LTA’s observation of a decline in CBT card usage and how 1,000 individuals have been surveyed, using this as justification for their abrupt phase-out announced in early January this year.
As is typical for a cabinet minister, Chee omitted details when MPs inquired about the saga and provided questionable definitions for the payment systems, leaving Singaporeans to infer what has transpired.
Chee repeatedly stated that the estimated S$40 million was for new hardware and system maintenance, but when asked for specifics by Joan Pereira, People’s Action Party Member of Parliament for Tanjong Pajar GRC, in her supplementary question about the breakdown to maintain the EZ link system alongside SimplyGo, he was unable to give specifics and said the sum was an estimate.
This arbitrary amount seems intended to make commuters who want to use the CBT cards feel guilty for causing the government to spend on additional expenses.
Chee also mentioned that LTA’s decision to phase out CBT cards aimed to avoid costs associated with extending the system’s lifespan beyond 2024. Yet, he did not explain why the phase-out wouldn’t also incur additional costs for concession cards using the CBT system.
Was the old Ezlink system more expensive to operate than SimplyGo?
The S$40 million is presented as an additional expenditure, with no comparison to the costs of introducing and implementing SimplyGo, which replaced a system that served Singapore for two decades.
When Workers’ Party MP for Aljunied GRC, Gerald Giam, inquired about the potential cost savings of SimplyGo and whether they could be passed on to commuters, Chee responded with rhetoric, claiming any savings would benefit taxpayers, not commuters, and provided no specific figures.
Chee’s evasive responses would suggest that there are no cost savings, and LTA may be spending more on introducing SimplyGo than on maintaining the existing CBT system.
In his response to Pereira, he mentioned a separate CBT system for concession card holders, which LTA decided to retain after consulting over 1000 commuters. LTA plans to integrate these two CBT systems gradually to potentially have one unified system in the future.
One might understand the need for a separate CBT system if senior concession cards had no stored value. However, seniors still need to top up their cards, making them similar to ordinary CBT cards, aside from the concessionary prices. So why the additional S$40 million to run a system similar to the concession cards?
While Chee emphasized that the ABT systems in other cities — United Kingdom and Hong Kong — also cannot show balances, he disregarded the fact that these transport systems, unlike Singapore’s, made a deliberate effort to ensure that CBT and ABT cards could operate in parallel, rather than choosing to phase out CBT cards as the LTA intended.
There is no explanation as to why the ABT system, introduced by LTA in 2019, cannot allow the continued use of CBT cards or why further development has not been carried out to enable the concurrent operation of the two payment systems. Chee simply states it as if it is a given that the CBT cards need to be phased out, at least until the LTA realizes how it underestimated the commuters’ preferences.
The situation becomes more absurd considering that SimplyGo represents a downgrade from the CBT cards, as it cannot be used for motoring purposes.
When Louis Chua, WP MP for Sengkang GRC, inquired whether the improvements to SimplyGo included plans to make it a universal card and whether it would be compatible with the next-generation Electronic Road Pricing system’s onboard units, Chee expressed his lack of confidence in resolving these issues within a year.
“Having installed the necessary hardware and equipment, we believe it is more prudent to plan for it to operate for at least a few years, at least until 2030,” he added.
“This will provide us with time to explore possible solutions with industry experts and other government agencies.”
While additional spending for service improvement is acceptable, framing LTA’s U-turn as regrettable due to overspending is problematic.
If there are indeed no cost savings in the implementation of the new payment system, then the whole scandal lies blatantly in LTA’s decision to phase out a system still used by 36% of commuters, many of whom still prefer to see their balances when they tap out.
Chee’s “clarifications” thus far suggest — at least to me — that the transport ministry is essentially gaslighting the public, concealing the LTA’s lack of prudence in phasing out Ez-link and Nets Flashpay, and the embarrassment of its reluctant U-turn due to public outcry.
Given that this issue has been discussed in Parliament and the media is likely to move on since the phase-out is no longer imminent, Chee and his ministry would surely hope that people will forget this saga as more commuters switch to SimplyGo or, as the presumed timeline for sunsetting CBT cards is 2030, that existing senior users will gradually cease using them or simply cease to exist.
In any case, by then, Chee, if still in office, would likely be in a different ministry, leaving the decision of whether to continue the CBT cards or to phase them out entirely to his successor.
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