As a daily commuter to work, if taking public transportation during the morning and evening rush hours is already overcrowded, frustrating, and potentially claustrophobic, how can making the service free to use (temporarily) be a good sign?
Last week’s announcement by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob came as a surprise to most but sounds like a textbook move by the elected officials to ‘unburden the Rakyat’, as it were. Though it seemed paved with good intentions, it didn’t take long for many Malaysians to see past the smoke screen.
Free Rides = Extra Overcrowded
In case you weren’t aware, June 16th marks the start of a month-long period where all public transport services that are part of the RapidKL network, such as MRT, LRT, KL Monorail, and RapidKL buses (including feeder buses and the Sunway BRT), can be used without any charge. How incredibly generous, isn’t it?
This announcement coincided with the opening of Phase 1 of the new MRT Putrajaya Line that stretches across 12 stations from Kwasa Damansara to Kampung Batu. Admittedly, it doesn’t stretch very far yet and we’ll have to wait for Phase 2 to begin operations in early 2023 to appreciate its full effect.
Getting To The Real Issues
Residents of the Klang Valley have been complaining for months that, since the start of the endemic period where a large portion of the nation’s workforce is returning to the office on a regular basis (as per ‘normal’ procedure), the act of getting to work is disproportionately more difficult than it was pre-pandemic. The roads are consistently clogged up and so is the public transportation network.
Somehow, Malaysia’s most populated area has ballooned in population over the past lockdown-laden 2 years, and they’re made to all be rushing into and out of their respective offices every day.
Flood Of People or Flood Water?
And just as greater KL was not (and continues not to be) adequately ready to shoulder and effectively disperse the torrent of water brought by a torrential downpour, so too are the road network and public transportation system overburdened by the ‘flood’ of people rushing into and out of the city in the mornings and evenings.
Is the solution, then, to encourage the people trapped in traffic jams to leave their cars parked at home and ride the buses and rail lines instead, despite the capacity being so high even now? Well, of course not.
Though it will no doubt urge people to use the RapidKL network at off-peak hours in addition to exploring new routes/destinations, it’s reasonable to assume that it could trigger even more instances of packed (claustrophobic) trains, long queues at stations, and in turn, result in delays to arriving at work on time.
Importantly, it is quite likely that those taking public transportation will arrive at their destinations even more frazzled and frustrated, subtly but significantly impacting productivity across a large cross-section of the country’s workforce.
In fact, this very reason is paramount to why people prefer taking their personal vehicle to work if given the option, and the ‘free rides’ may only reinforce this preference since the issue was never surrounding the cost factor of taking public transportation. Everyone can agree that taking the bus/train to work is cheaper, but rather everything else about the experience that was potentially problematic. We tolerate ‘driving to work’ despite it being significantly more expensive.
Again, ‘free rides’ don’t solve anything.
Who Does This Benefit?
Many Malaysians have also pointed out the political subtext of this announcement, characterising it as a way to earn easy points with the public ahead of a looming 15th general election.
Since Prasarana Malaysia, operator of the RapidKL transport network, is wholly owned by the government and funded by the Ministry of Finance, it is actually taxpayer money being spent to compensate for the lost revenue from this zero charge month.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. We’re still paying in a way but in a more collective fashion.
Not to be the bearer of bad news but there are much more pressing matters that need to be addressed as opposed to offering the public a supposed free lunch, which has been a routine tactic to distract from implementing more holistic, long-term solutions. For example, the country is facing economic difficulties amid an uncertain financial future, still carries plenty of debt, as well as losing strategic advantages and key investments to our ASEAN neighbours.
What the government must accept and address is that the current congestion issues, both on the road and public transport network, are symptomatic of a larger issue. Until that is properly analysed and a solution implemented, these short-term freebies will always be seen as a ploy.