Commentary: Are We Simply Going To Ignore The S$40M?

Should the Government explain the S$40 million figure incurred from its SimplyGo U-turn?

The SimplyGo saga seemed to have disappeared from the news agenda. I would have thought a quick reaction story from commuters, not just “experts”, would have been published by now.

But no — even though it’s a simple matter of going to bus stops or bus interchanges where there is an ever ready pool of commuters. You can get 1,000 people to answer this question: are you happy that the old EZ-Link card has been retained — why or why not?

If you want to ‘stir’, you can also ask this: “Are you happy that it would cost S$40 million to bring it back?” What do you think the answer will be?

For context, earlier this week, the Government reversed its decision to phase out EZ-Link and NETS FlashPay cards for public transport.

Instead, the existing card-based system will now run in parallel with the account-based SimplyGo system, at an additional cost of S$40 million.

Govt Halts Plans To Cease Card-Based Ticketing System, Non-SimplyGo EZ-Link Cards Will Stay

Clarity needed on how the sum was derived

This is one thing I can’t wrap my head around on the SimplyGo U-turn.

What is the point of telling us the figure? That there is a cost for not doing what the Government wants? If so, why then describe this as “a very small proportion of the total cost of providing public transport”?

Note that this is the first time costs have been attached to either the card-based (old EZ-Link) or account-based (new SimplyGo) system during the fracas which ensued after the announcement that the old EZ-Link will be replaced.

This is for “hardware” and “maintenance”, as if the information is explanation enough. As if people will say: “Oh! So that’s what the money is for!”

When the Land Transport Authority (LTA) says that the old system is near the end of its operational life span, I wondered if this was because someone decreed its death? Evidently, the lifespan can be extended, given the U-turn.

So does it take S$40 million to give it life? Or would the cost have been lower if the authorities weren’t so certain that every commuter will simply go their way? What did the switching to SimplyGo cost us in the first place, including that cashback incentive?

I wouldn’t have known about the drawbacks of SimplyGo by reading its marketing paraphernalia or earlier news reports. It’s like pushing a product and neglecting even a cautionary statement in the fine print. Then you get a surprise when you use it.

In fact, it did NOT start as a replacement for the EZ-Link, but more for the convenience of credit card holders who are already used to simply whipping out their cards and moving on.

Displeasure with SimplyGo already unfolding

I did a check on whether the discontent with SimplyGo only surfaced after the announcement. No, it has been raised in online forums and even the ST Forum page in September 2023. The reply was that you can download the app.

It seems to me that the Government’s ground feelers aren’t very sharp at picking up sentiment. Let’s say they did — did somebody at the top think this was way too small an issue to be addressed technically? The non-action reflects a bureaucracy that seems to be out of touch with people’s needs and comfort levels.

Commuters say they are upset that they can’t see their card balance on bus card readers or at station fare gates. But we have since been told it is technically possible, although with a few seconds’ delay.

And we have been further informed, in a Facebook post by Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat, that the LTA has been tasked to “enhance the features”. If only someone had taken the pulse of the people — and had done so much earlier.

Did anyone even look at giving the commuter a choice of cards, as in Hongkong and London? What would have been the cost of maintaining both systems right from the start?

Reasons behind the cost should have been communicated better

Some people are billing this as a communications failure. Yes, and it is still failing. Instead of a press conference to answer questions, we have a post on Facebook announcing the U-turn. Does the commuter not deserve some respect in terms of better and clearer answers, as quickly as possible?

And now we have a S$40 million surprise.

I think it’s pretty irresponsible to throw out this single figure without elaboration. Surely it knows that this will lead to finger-pointing about who is to blame for this supposedly extra cost. Or is this what the Government wants to see?

Bertha Henson is a long-time media practitioner and trainer who comments on local news. She blogs at Bertha Harian.

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Featured image adapted from Land Transport Authority on Facebook and shawnanggg on Unsplash

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