Delivered in Parliament on 10 May 2021
While we agree with the Bill before us today, I have a number of concerns and clarifications that I would like to make in relation to three areas of the proposed amendments to the Road Traffic Act.
First, relating to certification and licensing. A major focus of the Bill is the licensing and certification of riders of “test-needed-to-ride-on-road vehicles”. These are power-assisted bicycles (PABs) that are prescribed by the rules under the Active Mobility Act 2017, and the new rules require that riders of such vehicles be certified to have passed a prescribed test of competence for that class or description of vehicle, and the test of competence will cover riding on public paths and roads.
The rationale for introducing such a test of competence is to improve road safety, and to make our roads and footpaths safer for pedestrians, riders and motorists. I agree that we must take action to reduce the number of accidents on our roads and public paths, and my Workers’ Party colleagues have spoken about this matter on previous occasions. My colleague Dennis Tan will share some further insights on this, but in the meantime I would like to raise a point of concern that I had relating to the introduction of licensing.
I would like to seek some clarifications relating to the requirement for a competency certificate for power-assistance bicycles that are test-needed-to-ride-on-road vehicles would take time.
First, how would the certification process be rolled out and the requirements phased in to ensure that all riders who wish to continue riding their vehicles are not left in a position where they are unable to obtain their certification before the requirements kick in. This is
especially important as many riders do rely on their vehicles for work and to move around.
Second, in relation to the requirements to obtain certification. The MOS mentioned earlier that there will be some form of safety code knowledge to be tested as part of the certification process, but how would the test be tailored to allow for the specifics of riders, as opposed to more conventional road users, particularly in view that some of these riders will be allowed on public paths and roads. Also, would there be a minimum age, and how will minors be regulated?
Lastly on licensing, I would like to raise some concerns about the requirement for certification in general. All of us in this House have residents who rely on these test-needed-to-ride-on-road vehicles for their livelihoods. Some of these delivery drivers rely on such vehicles as their sole source of income, and some are sole breadwinners for their families. Many older Singaporeans too rely on bicycles to get around, and they may not be so conversant in English.
Indeed I have come across residents who have shared with me their struggles in passing certification requirements in fields as diverse as chefs in the F&B industry to forklift drivers. Many of them have been doing these jobs for decades and excel with carrying out these jobs on a practical level, but struggle to pass the paper examinations. The result is often an impact on their livelihoods as they are unable to be employed in the very jobs they have been carrying out for years.
I hope that we learn from the experiences of our fellow Singaporeans who were affected by previous certification requirements and ensure that the certification process is simple enough so that it remains accessible to
all of our residents, and that they do not end up being unnecessarily tripped up by red tape. The overriding objective of certification should be to raise awareness of road safety and to educate, not to treat it like an exam to score road users on a sliding scale. Will there be the option to take the test in languages which our older Singaporeans are more conversant in? What provisions will be made for the small minority of riders who may not be so literate and able to sit a test? What assistance will they be given to learn and understand the safety requirements in order to be able to pass the test?
Next, I would like to move on to another large theme of the Bill before us: the theme of enhancing road safety. There are many provisions being introduced through this Bill, from enhancing safety for our road users to ensuring the security or safety of persons who use our public transport networks. Yet there is one area of safety which does not feature, and that is the safety of migrant workers.
Just last month two migrant workers lost their lives and scores more were injured in a series of accidents involving lorries. These workers were riding in the backs of lorries, in an area meant for cargo. Given that there are approximately 300,000 such workers in Singapore, this is a large number of our population who face dangerous commutes on a daily basis.
This issue has been under scrutiny for over a decade, with calls stemming back to 2009 being made — many by colleagues in this house
— to ban the transport of workers in the backs of lorries like livestock or goods. We mustn’t forget that these are the workers who leave behind their homes and families and slog for long hours under all weather conditions to build our homes and repair our roads.
Yet, Section 126 of the Road Traffic Act still has a provision banning the use of goods vehicles for passengers, unless, I quote, “(a) the person so carried is in the employment of the owner or hirer of the vehicle and is proceeding on his master’s business and is carried in accordance with rules prescribed under section 77(6); or (b) the person so carried is a sick or injured person carried in a case of emergency”. unquote
Such a practice is dangerous to not only the migrant workers themselves, but it also poses real risks to other road users. As mentioned previously, this topic has been debated as far back as 2009, and yet 12 years, and numerous other deaths and injuries later, we are still arguing about whether this is an appropriate way to treat migrant workers.
I am glad to hear that NTUC is looking at this matter. However, the reason always given whenever such calls are made, is that to allow any safer ways of transporting migrant workers would mean increased costs. Leaving aside what it says about us as a country where we can argue that “increased costs” are a good enough reason to turn a blind eye to lower safety standards for “lower tier workers”, I believe this argument is flawed.
First, because it ignores a more fundamental problem in our labour system that we are still struggling to address, and that is our addiction to cheap labour, often at the expense of productivity. Despite many pointing out the danger and unsustainable nature of our approach of importing cheap labour in sectors such as the construction and marine industries, little has been done by enterprises to shift away from this model towards a more productive, less labour intensive model. While this is a topic for another day, it would naturally flow that any increased costs by more
stringent transport safety standards would have less of an impact if we are not so reliant on employing a large force of cheap, low-skilled workers in our building sector.
Additionally, as we have been looking at our ITM 2.0 roadmaps, is this not a good time for us to start looking into the entire way the construction industry is structured, to really find long-lasting, sustainable solutions that maximise productivity and minimise labour input?
Second, this argument is also problematic as we did not shy away from mandating safety measures such as seat belts on all school buses when an accident which killed an 8 year-old boy in 2008 saw a retrofitting of seat belts on all school buses. A sum of $35 million was set aside by the government to help owners of small buses implement this.
Finally, it was reported last week that the number of people injured or killed while on board lorries has been falling in the last ten years, and indeed comparisons are drawn between the lower number of casualties involving accidents on lorries compared with all motor vehicles. This is a non-starter, as the statistics quoted include the number of injuries for ALL road users, and crucially include motorcycles, which have a higher casualty rate. Additionally, as SMS Amy Khor said yesterday, each life lost leaves behind a family that is grieving, and each injury has the potential to leave a worker unable to continue working to support his family.
Referring to other countries where such similar practices are allowed should not be our first reaction. Why do we not instead compare ourselves to countries which better respect the safety of such workers by holding ourselves to the same high safety standards of those countries?
Why can we not learn from them how these countries address the very same concerns that we have, while at the same time mandating that workers are transported in a safer manner?
We must seriously consider mandating that all migrant workers are transported in buses or mini-buses. The drop in tourism due to Covid-19 has resulted in many buses and mini-buses with spare capacity — perhaps this is a good time as any to start the transition, with some kind of government support. The re-purposing of such currently idle or underutilised buses and mini-buses would be welcome.
In any event, we should have a proper study of the costs (both as an absolute number across the industry and as a percentage of total construction costs) associated with enhancing safety measures for the transport of our migrant workers, together with a good look at the labour model for our construction industry in order to have a more meaningful conversation on this topic, rather than have vague statements being made about costs each time the topic is brought up. I am glad to hear earlier from SMS Khor that this will be one of the matters to be considered.
Last but not least, I turn to the extension of frisking powers to “authorised persons” mentioned in Paragraphs 20, 24, and 31 of this bill. Subsection 9 of the new Section 23A of the bill defines these “authorised persons” as:
- an officer or employee of the Authority;
- an employee of an auxiliary police force in uniform;
- an employee of a licensee authorised to operate a rapid transit system using train or railway premises;
- a security officer (within the meaning of the Private Security Industry Act) engaged by a licensee mentioned in paragraph (c); and
- an outsourced enforcement officer.
This is a wide group of persons. While there are good reasons to step up security due to persistent concerns about terrorism and the security of our transport networks. This amendment, however, continues the trend of expanding key police powers to persons who may not be fully trained in law enforcement. As in previous cases of extending police powers, such as to National Environment Agency (NEA) volunteers, the language of the bill does not discuss the training that these “authorised persons” will receive to exercise their powers with sufficient care and due diligence.
Police powers must be wielded judiciously and carefully, and adequate training must be given to counter the risk of abuse, including but not limited to excessive enforcement, harassment and even sexual assault, particularly in view of the inclusion of frisk searches. In view of these concerns, could we not directly build safeguards into the relevant provisions? For example, in view of the expansion of powers to include frisk searching, we could, as earlier suggested, mandate that only female authorised persons are allowed to frisk search other women. Another example would be to use body cams to reduce the likelihood of abuse and overly vigorous use of such powers.
Some further concerns that I have include confusion or lack of awareness by members of the public should they be stopped and searched. This may lead to such incidents accumulating and ultimately will prove damaging to social cohesion in Singapore, while undermining
trust in actual law enforcement officers. What steps will need to be taken to ensure that this does not happen?
In conclusion, while we support the measures put in place by this Bill to improve safety and security across our transportation networks, I hope that the Ministry can consider my concerns and suggestions to further improve our transport system and to make it a safer and fairer one for all.
Despite these concerns, I support the Bill. Thank you.