Wee perfect fit for transport minister

Congratulations to Wee Ka Siong on his appointment as the new transport minister. Finally, Malaysia gets a professional who has had formal education in traffic and transport as the minister for the function.

I think this is the first time that the country gets a minister with the appropriate educational background and qualifications to head this important portfolio.

A minister must have a good knowledge of the subject matter as well as an understanding of what is required of the ministry he serves and the expected functions of his job.

In the past, many unqualified ministers were appointed to the post, which made it difficult for the minister himself to understand and carry out his functions effectively, let alone formulate and implement good policies.

The poor choice of ministers affects the roles and functions of the government. Previously, this made many ministries ineffective and, to some extent, dysfunctional.

Since traffic and transport (including logistics) can be technical and are considered a specialist area, a formal education in one of the fields will provide a clear understanding of the sectors involved under this portfolio.

Past ministers not only failed to administer but were also unable to grasp immediately the issues and problems of the transport industry, its rules and regulations, the market mechanics and economic drivers and the need to allow competition for the benefit of consumers in the provision of transport services.

For instance, the previous minister had difficulties understanding the role of SPAD, which led to its initial abolition, only to be resurrected a few months later. Similarly, there was high friction between two governing bodies in aviation.

The ministry’s inability can reflect badly on the state of the industry within and often leads to poor decision-making.

I am certain that would not be the case with Wee. He studied traffic planning in Singapore and therefore should be familiar with the kind of traffic planning measures taken and successfully adopted by the island republic.

Perhaps he can suggest a thing or two to the Penang government as well as many local authorities under the local government and housing ministry so that they will not overstep their transport planning functions.

Penang is stuck in the old fashioned approach of bringing more cars onto the island despite knowing very well that the road network capacity is restricted and that this network is difficult and costly to expand.

Construction of an undersea tunnel and a network of new expressways such as the Pan Island Link (PIL) will actually make the traffic situation worse. It will only work for a short period but will make road congestion worse in the long term.

Wee might as well offer some kind advice on the expensive Penang Transport Master Plan, which is linked to the Penang South Reclamation project. I’m sure that he, as a PhD holder in transport planning, would not agree to undertake public transport planning using this complicated land reclamation method.

This brings us to another important issue. Since he is the MP for the Ayer Hitam constituency in Johor, I am sure he will agree if I were to suggest that solving the causeway congestion between Johor and Singapore should be one of his top priorities.

I am sure Wee is aware that the Singapore government does not wish to receive more vehicles into the island because, like Penang, it has a limited road network. Building up traffic congestion should not be encouraged.

Therefore, proposing a third link in the form of a vehicular bridge or an underwater tunnel will not be appropriate and feasible for Singapore and also the Johor Bahru conurbation in the long term. Some other form of connectivity which can lead to improvement in passenger flows should be explored instead. This may include the Rapid Transit System (RTS) link, a rail link, a ferry link and even a cable car link between Johor Bahru and Singapore.

At the national level, there are also a series of issues which should require the new minister’s attention. Dealing with the high rate of road accidents should be at the top of his agenda. Some sensible targets must be set to arrest the unwanted growth.

The transport ministry is also slow in adopting and approving new technology such as electric bikes and electric vehicles (EVs). We should by now be operating a large fleet of electric taxis in many of our urban areas. New incentive schemes and a low tax structure should be introduced to encourage EVs, which are non polluting.

It was purely accidental that e-hailing came into being and has since filled the gap in the taxi shortfall. This was not designed by transport planning authorities, but the previous minister wanted to regulate the service and tax the operators. Perhaps a reversal of this policy would be in order.

Public transport facilities and services, by and large, still remain poor and low in ridership share. Complaints about poor rail services for both passengers and freight are still aplenty, and a major overhaul is needed here for strategic reasons. Perhaps a shift from finance ministry control to transport ministry control can help.

In that respect, other rail operators such as Prasarana and MRT Corp are also in a similar state.

Maybe, it is about time the many government-owned transport operators are placed under one roof.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.