A few weeks ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the famous speech given by Martin Luther King Jr entitled “I have a dream”. He said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The goal of his speech was to open the roads to advancement for his fellow black citizens. I too have a dream for my fellow Singaporeans. However, while the goal of his speech was to open the roads to advancement, my goal is to close the roads to advancement for my fellow citizens. The only difference between him and me is that while he was speaking metaphorically, I am speaking literally.
One undeniable hard truth of Singapore is that we live in one of the smallest countries in the world. This is also why we have one of the most expensive land costs in the entire world. Apart from Monaco, no other United Nations member state has land as expensive as Singapore has per square foot.
To be fair to our road planners, they are caught in a bind because Singapore is continuing to grow its population of cars. If we expand the number of cars, we have no choice but to expand the amount of roads to carry more cars. So the real solution is to reduce the demand for more cars in Singapore. How do we do this?
The problem here is that a car remains an essential part of the Singapore dream. Yet, if every Singaporean achieves his or her dream, we will get a national nightmare.
Paradoxically, the high prices of cars have made them even more desirable as status symbols.
So what is the alternative solution? The solution is obvious: Change the Singapore dream!
Yes, almost every Singaporean reading this article will laugh out loud at this suggestion. How can any well-off Singaporean deprive himself of a car? It serves as the most reliable form of transportation as well as a powerful status symbol. The minute you own a car, especially a Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Lexus, your friends know that you have arrived.
But for 10 years of my life, I have actually lived on another even more crowded tiny island where it is not rational to own a car. In fact, it is considered downright stupid to buy and own a car if you live in Manhattan.
The eco-system of public transport that Manhattan has created with a combination of subway trains, public buses and readily accessible taxis meant that in a crunch you could get anywhere in Manhattan using public transport.
The former mayor of Colombian capital Bogota, Mr Enrique Penalosa, put it very well when he said: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation”.
Mr Penalosa is quoted as saying: “When we talk about car-free cities, we’re not talking about some hippie dream. Not only do they exist, but they also are the most successful cities on the planet.”
There was a time when Singapore’s experiments in improving its urban environment would get global attention. Today, it is a man like Mr Penalosa, with bigger dreams than our dreams, who is described by Latino Fox News as a man whose “work and ideas have gained him international attention and a loyal fan base that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg”.
Mr Paul Steely White, executive director of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, has also said about New York City that “the way the streets of the greatest city in the world are being used is changing fundamentally… People are beginning to understand that it’s entirely possible and really very desirable to lead a life without being tethered to an automobile”.
We therefore have to replace the Singapore dream with the Manhattan or Bogota dream.
We have to give up this insane dream of owning a car and replace it with an ecosystem of a public transport system that makes it irrational to own a car.
And this is probably one of Singapore’s biggest failures in its first 50 years: We have failed to develop a world-class ecosystem of public transport. We do have a good public transport network, but this has not kept pace with the population’s expectations.
So why did we fail? The answers must be complex. But one fundamental error could be simple. We expected every artery of this ecosystem to be financially viable. The disastrous result of looking at each artery and not looking at the ecosystem as a whole is that while each artery made sense in isolation, the combination did not result in a good ecosystem. Even more dangerously, by looking at each unit in isolation, we did not consider its impact on the island or the nation as a whole.
This is why we need a new dream. Does this mean Singaporeans will stop driving cars?
Absolutely not. My dream is to walk out of my house, use a smart card to pick up an electric car on rent and drive it anywhere I want to. We can replace car ownership with car pools. In fact, other cities have begun trying this. In Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, 70 per cent of residents choose to live without private cars due to excellent city planning and a car sharing system. Before you scoff at electric cars, let me tell you that electric cars have faster torque than petrol-driven cars.
In short, we can have an alternative dream for Singapore. Let us dream of an island with fewer cars and fewer roads. It will be closer to being paradise on earth.
The writer is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
This edited article first appeared in full in The Straits Times