Earlier this month, Singapore online television channel RazorTV conducted interviews with Vin Diesel and other stars of The Fast and the Furious 6, quizzing them about the cost of cars in the Southeast Asian island city-state. Upon learning that forking out $154,000 for a Prius is the norm there, an incredulous Diesel exclaimed, “Is the moral of the story, don’t buy cars in Singapore?”
For most Singaporeans, it’s not a story but a reality—and one that tends to mean they simply can’t afford a car. Singapore’s government makes owning a vehicle extremely expensive through high taxes (a car is taxed at least 100% of its open market value, for instance) as well as requiring something called a certificate of entitlement. The price of obtaining a COE has risen considerably over the past few years; a recent article in the local auto-buying trade website SGCarMart.com cites a COE for a Mitsubishi at $62,600, and $74,075 for a BMW. Cheryl Tay, a Singapore-based motoring and motorsports journalist, says that while in 2008 a Toyota Corolla purchased in Singapore would run you about $48,000, today the price for the same car is closer to $96,000.
This system means that only about 15% of Singaporeans own a car. It keeps the roads fairly clear for such a small island—Singapore is slightly larger than three and a half Washington, DCs—and helps keep it one of the greenest, if not the greenest, urban areas in Asia.
All would seem to be well. Yet the high price of cars is causing tension in a city-state that has one of the widest divides between rich and poor in the world. Only a select few have enough disposable income to afford a vehicle, so everyone else must use taxis, the MRT (Singapore’s subway), or buses. And while Singaporean public transport is generally well-maintained and well-run, there are plenty who resent being forced to use it. Part of this resentment has to do with the prestige that a car brings in Singaporean culture, where people joke of the prevalent goal of gaining the “5 Cs”: car, condo, cash, credit card, and country club.
Early this year, tensions rose even higher when the government issued a “white paper” that predicted that Singapore’s population could reach 6.9 million by 2030, with citizens comprising only a little more than half that number due to liberal immigration policies and a low birth rate. The paper sparked an outcry from Singaporeans who already feel that the island is overpopulated and that foreigners are causing overcrowding, including on public transportation.
The thought of adding almost two million more people to the mix prompted what’s been described the largest political protest in Singapore, where demonstrations are banned by the authorities, since independence in 1965. Three to four thousand people gathered in a downtown park in February to express their displeasure at the ruling party’s immigration policies, with a familiar refrain of how foreigners take jobs and space from citizens.
With a sizable number of Singaporeans feeling marginalized by the government’s car and immigration policies, anger and bitterness over class tensions appear to be on the rise. Even though Singapore’s subway will expand greatly over the next 20 years, from 178 km today to 360 km by 2030, the problem remains that culturally, public transportation is not seen as an attractive option compared to a car.
According to Paul Barter, an adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore and an expert on urban transport policy in eastern Asia, this is the key issue that the government must turn to. “Singapore now needs to make the alternatives—taxis, car sharing, bicycles, and walking—much more attractive than they currently are and hence car ownership less attractive,” he says. Barter notes that the government has mainly emphasized efficiency and commerce rather than environmentalism and livability in its policy of curbing car ownership. Shifting the tone of this “tough-minded pursuit of efficiency” might help bring more citizens on board.
Mimi Kirk is an editor and writer living in Washington, DC.