On Tuesday, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said it is looking into taking action against SMRT Corporation for permitting its trains to be chartered by a school to convey students to a sports event. The LTA has taken the view that its permission should have been sought before SMRT agreed to the charter.
The LTA’s position has several points of weakness.
First, as a matter of principle, the chartering of trains is no different from doing the same for buses or cabs. Further, the chartering of trains has been commonplace for large-scale events such as the National Day Parade and its previews.
Second, the chartering of trains is more than simply novel. It helps ease the traffic on the roads by reducing the number of heavy-load vehicles and is arguably more efficient for transporting a large number of people, as in this case.
Third, it reflects and reinforces a permission-seeking culture that limits the behaviour of organisations — in this case both the school and SMRT — to find the best ways to utilise their finite resources.
Fourth, the news that the trains had been chartered was made public before the event and so the LTA had time to intervene if it truly felt chartering would degrade the provision of services to the public. It did not do so. Why not?
This episode has also put the spotlight on the regulatory culture adopted by the LTA and applied to all public transport operators.
If the issue boils down to whether permission is required, then it speaks of a low-trust, rigid culture between the regulator and SMRT.
This is worrying as it suggests there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the two parties, with the regulator more concerned about the appearance than the substance of operations. If so, it may make managing public expectations more challenging, as the public will be left questioning the rationale of the regulation.
Instead, the issue should be whether due care had been taken by SMRT in determining whether there would be a disruption in service before it agreed to the charter. This would indicate a high-trust, flexible relationship with the regulator that focuses on total merit rather than specific slices of interest in decision-making.
The LTA should not be second-guessing SMRT or other transport operators it regulates on every operational decision. This would introduce inefficiencies and also reduce confidence on the part of the transport operator to make decisions.
How we deal with episodes such as this tells us more about ourselves than about the event itself. Singapore and Singaporeans should be known for being rational in making assessments and not for making knee-jerk reactions or over-reading into impressions. In a complex space where trade-offs are a regular feature of life in the nation, we do not have the luxury of friction-free decisions, but that does not mean we need to be fractious on every issue.
Returning to the issue of the regulatory culture, much can and should be improved so that there need not be a public exhibition of regulation on each and every operational issue that appears to have the potential to invoke passing public interest. This is not to keep regulatory matters opaque, but to avoid tripping into a culture of appearance- rather than principle-led regulation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Devadas Krishnadas is the chief executive of Future-Moves Group, an international strategic consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore.
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