William Lim: Unhappy commuters, unhappy society

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Dressed in a blazer and knee-long skirt, Sherry got off her bus at Tanjong Pagar. She was heading back to her office after her lunch break when I approached her. Wiping of a bead of sweat, she said she no longer takes the MRT because it was so packed during the morning hours.

“Sometimes the bus takes longer for me to get to work [than trains], extra 15 to 20 minutes,” she said.

The Independent Singapore spoke to a group of 20 working professionals around Tanjong Pagar, Raffles and City Hall vicinities. All said they were unhappy about the jam-packed, body-to-body train rides in the morning and a number of them said, the rides got on “their nerves”.

Off to an unhappy start of a day’s work in the office, these commuters also find themselves facing similar rides back home during the evening rush hours. The Urban Redevelopment Authority has indicated that an average Singaporean takes one hour and 10 minutes to go to work each day, making a day’s travel time of two hours and 20 minutes.

William Lim, a well-known architect and urban planner, said we need to redefine what is a comfortable living standard in Singapore.

“At the moment it is not very comfortable here. We have to wait too long [for the trains]. There is a limit. Because Singapore is small there is a limit to the capacity, even if you improve the MRT lines,” he said at his home last Monday. “All this comes down to the number of people that can operate in the city.”

He said that Singapore’s economic growth today is too dependent on the increasing the number of people in the city.

“Do you want more [economic] growth or do you want more generally stable population and high quality of life?” he asked.

Lim believed that slower growth is the only way for developed countries. “That is something favourable by the younger people. So the government will have no choice but to deliberate on this.”

Lim gave a talk on 13 January at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), about a need for Singapore to move away from its attempts to be a ‘global city’ with lifestyles based on income and affordability. He advocates a more inclusive society that is accessible to all Singaporeans, regardless of their spending power.

“I think basically the ideological battle is: Are you [government] able to deliver happiness? Happiness is not related to materialism though you must have enough to survive. But having said that, a young professional has to work every night and has no time for his friends and family that create unhappiness. It is what time do you have for yourself and your friends. This creates unhappiness.”

Referring to the unhappy commuters of the working Singaporeans, he said that one way to ease the morning pangs is to create more bicycle lanes.

“Half the population cannot afford cars anyway, they all have to go on public transport. It is quite expensive for those who are earning less than  $2,000 a month. If they can cycle relatively cheaply then it might be feasible,” he explained.

“Not necessarily we cycle to point A to point B but even to MRT station you can just park there. Or take your bike on the train I think that is the sort of framework that should be re-examined.”
But when asked by The Independent Singapore, 19 out of 20 working class Singaporeans who currently use the MRTs to work said they would not consider cycling to work.The most common reasons cited are they could not ride a bike properly, the weather is too warm and the roads are uneven.
“I have to send my children to work. This is not feasible,” said Voon who works at Raffles.Wong, her friend, jested, “Are you going to provide us showers in the office? It is very hot”.