Commentary: MPs Simply Let Their Questions Go To Waste

Despite the barrage of parliamentary questions for SimplyGo saga, several went unaddressed

The SimplyGo debate entered Parliament — and then simply went away.

It was swiftly disposed of, despite a multitude of questions (at least 25, including written ones, and that’s not counting multi-part questions).

Exactly what I was afraid of took place: The frontbench launched immediately into answering all the questions at one go — and Members of Parliament (MPs) have to glean from the mass of information whether their specific questions were answered.

Most were not, but not enough MPs got up to say so.

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

There was really nothing new in Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat’s answer to the SimplyGo U-turn, beyond a 2030 deadline for the extension of the card-based adult EZ-Link system.

Responding to the barrage of parliamentary questions on the ministry’s decision to halt its full rollout of SimplyGo and the costs involved, Mr Chee said the S$40 million figure mentioned earlier was needed to buy “new hardware and equipment” to allow the system to run until at least 2030.

Okay, there was one more glimmer of light: the system for senior and student concession cards is not the same as for the adult EZ-Link card. Both were implemented at different times and presumably have different expiry dates. This settles the mystery of why the concession cards could continue to be used even as the adult card was to be phased out.

Several unanswered questions remain

Back to the S$40 million to retain the old system — Mr Chee, who was making his first speech in parliament since he was appointed Transport Minister, did not give a breakdown beyond the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) description of equipment, hardware, software and maintenance costs.

His exact words: “LTA would need to spend an estimated S$40 million to buy new hardware and equipment, and then operate and maintain the system over the next few years. This is a cost that LTA wanted to avoid incurring by sunsetting the CBT system for adult commuters.”

He did not say if this S$40 million was a one-off or recurring expense. He did not reply to questions on how much money went into the SimplyGo system or its operational lifespan.

Yet these were questions MPs asked and which have been articulated in public as well.

The chief question, which was asked in all sorts of different ways by MPs, was: Why oh why did LTA even think that SimplyGo would be accepted so easily?

Source: Reuben Hu on Unsplash

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Saktiandi Supaat was rather pointed in asking “whether LTA is aware that SimplyGo does not display fare deductions and card balances since 2019”. He also asked what it had done to address this.

Other MPs also asked about the extent of consultation before the Jan 9 announcement of a mandatory changeover of systems from June 1, with Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai wondering if the Smart Nation Digital Government Office had been consulted about the switch — no answer on this.

Mr Chee repeated LTA’s earlier answer on engaging some 1,000 or so commuters who were asked to test the new card. Feedback was then given after a few months of use.

Seniors among them were vocal about not being able to check the card balance, which was why senior citizens who use concession cards are exempted from the switchover. Now we know that it could be because the system’s lifespan is probably longer than that of the adult EZ-link card system anyway.

Only 25% of commuters switched to SimplyGo stored value card

Mr Chee also repeated the LTA’s reason to extend the SimplyGo platform to all: because 64 per cent of adult commuters had already made the switch by December last year. From Jan 23 to 31, another 9,000 made the switch, he added.

We now have close to 70 per cent of adult commuters using SimplyGo in end January, with 44 per cent using bank cards and mobile wallets and 25 per cent using SimplyGo stored value cards,’’ he said.

He did not give figures on those who switched back after the U-turn was announced on Jan 22, despite a question posed about this.

To be exact, the switch is not from card to card, but platform to platform. So 44 per cent of commuters now just whip out their bank cards because they are already on the SimplyGo platform, which is an account-based transaction system.

Whether they used the old EZ-Link card or not, they are probably used to checking their bank balances online and would kick up a fuss if their balances were flashed for everyone to see. No one asked if there were figures for commuters who used both.

Only 25 per cent of commuters had switched from the old EZ-Link card to the SimplyGo EZ-link card since it started in 2019. This is a stored value card like the old card system, but account-based.

This means this group of people who are used to seeing their fares and card balances instantly on the card readers on buses and train stations will no longer be able to do so unless they download an app.

Source: Ministry of Communications and Information on YouTube

Mr Chee had said that there were actually three systems, not two. These are the two card-based systems for adults and seniors, and the SimplyGo system.

I would add a fourth, the bank card system.

MP for Mountbatten SMC Lim Biow Chuan got up to ask about the feasibility of integrating the two card-based systems.

Mr Chee gave an intriguing reply. “You know, a lot of these stored-value cards, EZ-Link cards, for example, have an expiry date. So when the current cards expire, if we are able to then issue a new card under the integrated system, then in future we can gradually, progressively work towards having one CBT system,” he said.

What should have been the next question is whether the LTA is therefore simply waiting for the stored value cards to expire since the old EZ-Link cards have not been sold since 2022. A 2030 deadline would actually be longer than needed, if the idea is to simply wait out the old card’s demise.

Another question: why not take EZ-Link out of the SimplyGo platform altogether? The platform was originally intended for bank card users who wouldn’t complain about fares not being displayed anyway.

Source: ezlink

Commuters care when it comes to budget

The SimplyGo fiasco says something about people’s worries about losing control over one aspect of their lives. In this case, it is their transport budget.

People with no mobile wallets, who use cash instead of a bank card for payment, and who are unused to online banking want a sense of financial security. I think this also applies to other people like me, who are used to an easier way to track travel spending.

I wish the Government had used the opportunity to expand on its philosophy regarding technological upgrades and the trade off between administrative efficiency and consumer convenience.

East Coast GRC MP Cheryl Chan’s question had offered an opening: To ask the Minister for Transport (a) what were the decision factors used when considering a switch of the public transport ticketing system; (b) how will the cost of maintaining or enhancing any future systems be viewed in respect of administrative efficiency and ease of convenience for commuters.

This is one of those rare times when the public has pushed back on a nationwide upgrade. Most times, we get with the programme because we are told it is good for us and for the nation. Most times, we’re also not given deadlines and no choice.

Develop systems that cater to the majority

Mr Chee did not reply directly to MPs who asked about “lessons learnt’’ and “learning points’’.

Besides a better feedback mechanism, I would say that one lesson is that new ways of using money and digital devices for public services should attempt to cater to the lowest common denominator. We are an inclusive society, not a business interested in bottomlines.

Mr Chee described the S$40 million as “a cost that LTA wanted to avoid incurring’’ by phasing out the old EZ-Link system.

I wonder if the Government considers S$40 million a waste of public funds or the price of a mistake it made in judging public opinion. In my view, having a choice is always a worthy expense.

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

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 Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) on YouTube and SBS Transit

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