Monday, 12 March 2007

How important are those five minutes?

I wrote this piece a couple of months back, but it was not published until now, because -- in the editor's words -- there were more newsworthy stories, ie. the Budget. That, and the fact that it takes a while to develop the argument fully, is why I didn't speak about this in Parliament.

To my mind, there is a bit of a tension when it comes to writing for TODAY, now that I'm an NMP. When do I raise it in Parliament, and when do I write about it? My view is that Parliament is by far the more important platform, so it should take precedence. But some arguments are difficult to develop in a speech, while other issues might not be important enough or appropriate for Parliament.

I'm still working it out. But I definitely do want to continue writing for TODAY.

And for the record, I'd give up those 5 minutes and take the National Library any day.

How important are those five minutes?

Was the Fort Canning Tunnel worth it, after all?

Monday • March 12, 2007

Siew Kum Hong

HOW much is five minutes worth to me?

That was the thought running through my head as I drove through the new Fort Canning Tunnel. The actual experience of driving through it was so anti-climactic that I couldn't help but wonder if that was it.

After all, so many Singaporeans had, in a rare display of civic activism, tried so hard to stop the demolition of the National Library at Stamford Road. It is only natural to have high expectations for what it made way for. From purely anecdotal evidence, many are as disappointed as I was. This gives rise to the question: Was the tunnel worth it after all?

Last November, when asked if the cost of the tunnel was justified by its benefits, the Land Transport Authority's (LTA) director for road development and management Yap Cheng Chwee told this newspaper: "I don't think it is fair to use a cost-benefit analysis to analyse the project. The main aim was better utilisation and parcellation of land around the area. We found that there was a need to redirect roads in the area and the tunnel was the solution. Benefits like time savings for motorists are a result of the primary mission to utilise land better."

I found that answer baffling then, and I remain baffled now. How does the LTA make decisions, if not through a cost-benefit analysis? Is there any other basis for decisions? Surely the LTA does not spend millions of dollars of taxpayers' money without considering the costs and benefits of such expenditure.

For the record, I do not believe that the LTA operates like that. Even Mr Yap himself, immediately after saying that a cost-benefit analysis was unfair, alluded to the benefits of the tunnel project. So let's put his comments aside, and consider the tunnel's costs and benefits.

The main benefit is the reported time savings for motorists of up to five minutes, by using the tunnel. But how important is five minutes to Singaporean motorists, especially when, given the route involved, it is likely to be leisure time? After all, many motorists are willing to spend more than five minutes to take a more circuitous route, to avoid paying ERP.

Furthermore, this time saved needs to be balanced against the increased time spent by motorists turning towards Serangoon Road, who now have to navigate an additional turn and a new pedestrian crossing. I've also noticed that buses leaving the Capitol Building bus stop now have to edge their way across two lanes to turn right before the tunnel, frequently slowing traffic along Stamford Road.

So even as motorists heading into Penang Road save time, those turning towards Serangoon Road spend more time.

The other benefit cited was the freeing up of a football field-sized plot of land, now made available for use by the Singapore Management University. This is prime land, and is certainly valuable.

On the other hand, the land surrounding and above the tunnel is now unavailable for development. Furthermore, there is the $34 million spent to build the tunnel, and the ongoing maintenance costs of the tunnel. The value of the land freed up must be offset against these factors.

When the costs resulting from the tunnel are identified and totalled up, the benefits look even less impressive than they originally did. And let's not forget the intangible and unquantifiable cost, namely the destruction of a landmark building cherished by so many Singaporeans.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan recently emphasised the importance of conserving Singapore's heritage buildings and places in light of the plans to redevelop the city, as "these are things that we all remember and want our children to remember with us". This is a very welcome acknowledgment of the intangible value of memories.

And despite the official stance that the National Library building had no special historical or architectural value and was not worthy of conservation, it certainly was a place that many Singaporeans remembered and were fond of, and I daresay much more so than many other officially sanctioned heritage buildings.

That being the case, and in view of Mr Yap's comments, the public — especially those Singaporeans who had argued so passionately against the project — deserves a full and clear explanation from the LTA as to why it decided to demolish the National Library to build the tunnel, and the cost-benefit analysis undertaken by it.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and corporate counsel commenting in his personal capacity.

14 comments:

Readymade said...

Bravo! Your column really made my day.

family man said...

As an aside, I feel the same level of discomfort when parliament discussed so briefly about the defence budget of $10bil, and we do not know how much goes to hardware, how much to personnel pay, reservist pay, property maintenance, food etc. It seems like a blank check and no one knows how much of such funds are wasted, but all we know is that the poorest of the poor gets $290 per month. That $290 is fully accounted for alright! Are we really having a 'caring superb' budget that caters to the poor after the 2 percent GST raise? I do not think so.

palmist said...

Actually the tunnel is very inconvenient. Plus the fact that roads signs are not properly put up. I have made wrong turns and still haven't figure out how to get to serangoon road and at the mean time I keep paying for ERP because of the wrong turns I've made. I think it very poor planning. The only purpose I see is to collect revenue.

thegreatsze said...

This was a very good entry - subtle but cutting, polite yet full of conviction.

While all this surely proves your political acumen (and this is by no means an outright compliment), this entry also shows that you are a Singaporean first and foremost, and a politican second.

Bravo. The institution of the NMP has gained some credibility through this entry, this blog and you. I hope you keep writing.

dagger said...

You forgot the cost of the old parks where the School of Business and School of Accountancy are right now.

I remember watching people kicking a ball around in those open spaces on weekends. Always did wondered where did they go for their weekly get-togethers after it was boarded up for construction.

Pkchukiss said...

LTA once referred to the North-east MRT line as a competitor to the East West line. Even till today, I still fail to see how taking the East West line would get me to Punggol any faster, or the North-east line to Tampines.

Digression aside, I really enjoyed your column, even if it wasn't published. You are on my favourite reading list!

Siew Kum Hong said...

To pkchukiss: Actually, it was published, in yesterday's edition of TODAY. Just two months after I wrote it.

And I completely agree re NE Line vs EW Line. In fact, I had written about it in TODAY in October 2003 (seems like ages ago!), in a piece that talked about the illusory benefits of competition for the sake of it.

To thegreatsze: Thank you for the encouragement.

Siew Kum Hong said...

To readymade: And thanks to you as well! Sorry I missed that. This column seems to have resonated quite a bit with people -- I've been getting a lot more favourable comments than I normally do (and trust me, sometimes it seems like my pieces go completely unread by the world). So that's been quite nice. :)

nofearSingapore said...

Hi,
I am gutted that the govt seemed to ride roughshod over the feelings and memories of a whole generation of children.
We, pre-65's had precious little to look forward to on Saturday afternoons except to go to the National Library and read,
and of course to eat at the foodstalls located next to the drive-way/carpark afterwards.

Many notable Singaporeans , including Mr. Tay Kheng Soon, tried to make a plea for a saner approach to development but we failed.

Now in exchange for a childhood of fond memories at the red-brick National Library, we get some some abstract 5 minutes saving!

Sigh! Save our heritage !

Dr.Huang Shoou Chyuan

Barffie said...

I started falling for the internet within the premises of the old National Library. Somehow the new one seemed too sterile, like a hospital. I'd take the red bricked former any day for its aura which smells of knowledge all the time.

Lion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lion said...

i really agree with you on the loss of the national library because of the tunnel. I been through that tunnel a few times and all I can say now is ,"what.. that's it?".
The library holds a very special place in my heart. spent many a day there in my school days only to see it closed down and broken for this tunnel. after reading your arguments i am even more incensed. how could they ever justify it ?

Gregory said...

Great article! i was wondering for the longest time what benefit was there for building the tunnel. It kinda moved the roads a few hundred metres laterally, created a more scenice route for those turning right but that's about it. You hardly save 5 min. Besides, the jam into Orchard was gone the minute the ERP gantry came into place.

I always believed there has to be some deep dark secret to this :) Maybe somebody important lost his childhood toy there and they had to dig it up to go find it.

Its called whim and fancy. Period. While everyone gets stuck in jams for half an hour or more just to get to town, they spend millions to save you that 1 min just before you hit the ERP.

BTW, not sure if you remember me but this is GrEg from a long time ago.

Glad to see good commentary in our blogsphere / media. Keep it up!

www.gr3g.com

Siew Kum Hong said...

To GrEg: D00d! Of course I remember you. :) Hope everything's good with you, and thanks for coming by!