On Oct 13, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak officiated at the introduction of a programme at UiTM that is meant to improve the quality of public transport operations in Malaysia. The same day, a friend sent me an article about a city that was facing serious traffic congestion problems, all thanks to the effects of privatisation and deregulation of public transit.
The article described the problems with sentences such as 'congestion may stifle growth' and 'A stream of buses, many old and belching out thick fumes, clogs a key arterial road', and my favourite, 'At least six operators are vying for trade, with a variety of cut-price offers. At times, the stench from exhaust fumes is overwhelming, with a diesel-induced haze hanging in the air'.
This article could very well have been describing many Malaysian cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown, Klang, or Johor Bharu. Many Malaysians might have read this article and commented on the 'Third World mentality' of the bus drivers and the local government.
But the city in this article is not Kuala Lumpur but Manchester, UK.
It is easy to blame the public transport companies for a poor quality of service, but the problem is not always with the companies. Poor quality of service can come about because the regulation of public transit is poor or ineffective. Unregulated, free-for-all, competitive markets may sound like a good economic theory, but these principles do not work for public transport which is a social service.
The Malaysian government has announced a cabinet committee to improve public transport and raise usage to 40%. It is ironic that in Malaysia, public transport use is growing in the Klang Valley but declining in other areas. The same thing has happened in the UK where public transport use is increasing in London but declining everywhere else. Hopefully the Malaysian government will learn from the examples of Manchester and Penang. In these cities, public transport service actually deteriorated with increased competition and fewer and fewer people are using public transit.
I would like to humbly ask that the authorities to start focusing on improving the regulation of public transport instead of just talking to operators about good service. Our cities need less operators and a better quality of public transit service.
This will only come about if there is a national public transit regulatory body that is directly responsible to the cabinet, replacing the Commercial Vehicles Licensing Board (CVLB) and Puspakom in the area of public transit. This new body should set high standards, maintain those high standards and enforce those high standards throughout the country, not just in KL. Good public transit and public transport services are a right for all Malaysians, not just the residents of the Klang Valley.