On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Give public transport urgent attention

It may work, to some extent, in the civil service where the
majority finishes work by 4.30pm but
for the private sector, where most people stay back late to finish their work,
it doesn't make sense at all.

Perlis Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim has also
chipped in with a suggestion. He reportedly urged civil servants to cycle to
work to save fuel, saying it was a common practice in Holland.

The idea is unlikely to catch on simply because our roads
are not friendly to cyclists, unlike in Holland.
And our weather is certainly not as conducive. But if Shahidan is serious, he
should take the lead first to see if the idea is feasible. The roads in Kangar
may be a bit safer but he should try it not just for a week but over a period
of time.

The catchphrase now seems to be "Change lifestyle" but for
most Malaysians in the lower and middle-income bracket, there is not much of a
lifestyle change they can adjust to because it is a question of trying to make
ends meet with the essential bills to pay.

The fuel increase will be painful to most of us. The average
Malaysian is careful with his spending because the salary goes to the house,
the groceries, the water and electricity bills, payment for the car, children's
education, with a little set aside as savings.

But we must also learn to live with the fuel price increase.
We have been told by the Government that the almost 20% price hike was
inevitable and that our fuel prices still remain among the lowest in the world.

Upset as we may be over the 30 sen per litre price increase,
we have to acknowledge that Malaysians have had it good for many years. In
fact, the subsidy still remains as of now. The retail price could be even
higher if the subsidy were to be taken off completely as in Indonesia,
Thailand and Singapore.

But like it or not, the good times are over. The subsidy
cannot remain forever, especially when current levels run into RM14bil to
RM16bil a year. It must eventually go because we are not a welfare state.

Malaysians must accept the fact that we have been pampered,
in many ways, and we have to stop whining eventually. We talk about the subsidy
mentality and we readily say it must go, but we seem to be selective. If the subsidy
benefits us, we accept it but if it doesn't, we cry foul.

Nothing lasts forever – not even our oil reserves because at
our current production rate of 700,000 barrels a day, we will become a net
importer of oil before 2010 or even earlier. It doesn't help if we pump more
oil to increase our revenue because it will simply mean we deplete our reserves
faster.

What we should be concerned about should be how the RM4.4bil
raised from the fuel price hike would be used. We are told that it is a package
deal – there will be no increase for this year and the savings would go to a
trust fund for public transportation.

Malaysia
needs a decent integrated public transport system. Kuala
Lumpur may have the light rail transport but its
connecting system needs plenty of improvement. The feeder system, too, is still
not up to our expectations. Unless these teething problems are addressed, not
many people in the urban areas would be encouraged to use public transport.

Unlike Singapore,
where one does not need to wait too long for a bus to come, it is a different
experience for commuters in Kuala Lumpur
and Penang. In some states, a bus service is
non-existent. Well-planned bus routes need our immediate attention.

While it is relatively easier to get a taxi, we also know
that many pick and choose their routes during peak hours. Most of these
culprits, unfortunately, are able to get away with such action.

If given a choice, most Malaysians would take public
transport but it is not very attractive at this point. Its unreliability and
unattractiveness are the two main reasons. The LRT in the federal capital is
certainly no match for the subway trains in Hong Kong, London
and Singapore.

We believe that the Government needs to give public
transport priority if we wish to finally abolish the fuel subsidy. That serious
decision must be taken now and not until another round of petrol price
increase.

There is another contradiction – asking Malaysians to use
public transport and promoting the use of national cars like the Kancil at the
same time. It just doesn't gel.

A lot of money, which is now spent on roads and highways,
can be spent on other development projects if we take many vehicles off the
roads, especially in the cities. Not to mention, many lives saved too.

But to do that, we have to invest in a good public transport
system. Costly as it may be, it is something every major city in the world
needs, even if it operates at a loss because it is an essential public service.

But as we ask Malaysians to change their lifestyle, we also
want to see an end to government wastage. We have a right to be upset when we
read about wastage by government officials, agencies and government-linked
companies.

It is heart-wrenching to read about GLCs (government-linked
companies) losing billions of ringgit. Following its massive loss, Malaysia
Airlines has now asked for RM2bil funding from the Government as part of its
turnaround plan.

To put it bluntly, these government agencies must know that
the money is not theirs. It belongs to the rakyat and they cannot simply lose
it because of sheer incompetence, inefficiency or corruption.

It is better for us to now focus our attention on how to put
together a public transport system that really works – that is essential if we
want to encourage Malaysians to use less fuel in the long term.