What Will it Take to Get Singaporeans to Give Up Their Cars?

car ownership singapore

Joanne Poh



Many foreigners are baffled as to why a Singaporean would want to buy a car, paying several times the price of a car in their own home countries. After all, they insist, the MRT system is fantastic and so much better than the subway in New York or the Tube in London. Others argue that car ownership takes on an aspirational veneer in Singapore, and people are willing to pay a lot of money to realise the dream.

However, as any Singaporean knows, public transport can only get you so far if you don’t live near an MRT station and don’t go out after midnight. In order to really change Singaporeans’ attitude to car ownership, some changes need to happen first, like the following.


Increased accessibility to public transport

The occasional breakdown and daily shoving matches not withstanding, the MRT is fairly efficient. While it pales in comparison to its counterparts in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taipei, it does offer the quickest way to get from Jurong East MRT station to Bugis MRT station, especially considering the jams on the road.

But the problem is that most Singaporeans live in suburban areas quite a distance from the central zone, and unless you actually live within wallking distance of Jurong East MRT in the above example, getting to the station can be a big headache in itself. I can’t pretend I’m not just a little bitter about this, as I live in an area with only one bus, which has taken up to 1 hour to arrive in the past.

When you think about all that lost time spent waiting for the bus in order to get to the MRT station, it’s not hard to see why many Singaporeans don’t mind shelling out the cash to buy a car. Either driving to work or using the park and ride scheme to get to an MRT station can save you more than an hour each day—a life saver if you have to work long hours.


Cheaper late night transport options

While raising the prices of cars can deter people from buying them, those who routinely travel after midnight save much less, which then increases the attractiveness of having your own transport. Taxi fares in Singapore have risen quite a bit over the last ten years, and taking a 30 minute cab ride after midnight can easily cost you more than $25.

If you go out for late night suppers a lot, get the urge to shop at Mustafa at 3am or work the graveyard shift but have a meagre transport allowance, getting a car makes a lot of sense. While we do have NightRider and Night Owl bus services, these are limited and operate only only Fridays and Saturdays and the eve of public holidays, presumably to cater to partygoers.

I personally think the NightRider services are great, and if they could be extended to the other days of the week and serve a wider range of areas, going out at night would be a lot more affordable, considering the cost of two beers and a cab ride home with midnight surcharge could easily set you back $50.


More independence and free time for kids

Many Singaporeans I’ve spoken to seem to be of the opinion that a car becomes a necessity when you have kids. However, unless you ferry your kids around every single day, the odd taxi ride to the zoo or the clinic would probably still cost much less than a car.

The problem is that many Singaporeans actually do ferry their kids around every single day. I live just outside a primary school, and every morning and afternoon the road gets jameed by an insane number of parental cars just waiting to drop their offspring off at the school gates. Many parents prefer to get stuck in a neverending queue of parents’ cars than to drop their kids off a 5 minute walk away.

Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world and actually the perfect place for kids to learn how to use public transport on their own, since there’s little fear of their being kidnapped and sold as slaves.

On the other hand, very often it’s not that kids aren’t able to take public transport on their own—but rather that they have too many after school activities. Parents need cars so they can drive frantically from tuition centres to piano lessons to Young Genius seminars.

If kids are allowed to be independent and free up enough time in their schedule to remove the need for parents to become chauffeurs, more people might realise that it is indeed possible to parent without a car.


Greater comfort on public transport

If you’ve ever had a migraine, been pregnant or just damned tired after another 12 hour work day, you’ve probably sworn that you would either quit your job or buy a car. For many people, their biggest bugbear about having to rely on public transport isn’t commuting time—it’s comfort level.

To be fair, the MRT and buses in Singapore are actually quite comfortable on their own. Nobody’s asking for velvet cushions or free foot massages during their commute. But when the trains and buses are packed to bursting point, you have to stand throughout an hour-long commute and you’ve got armpits in your face and heels stabbing at your feet, a car looks that much more appealing.

Unfortunately, even if SMRT started being more generous about the air con on the trains and hiring smiling greeters to wish passengers a pleasant commute, the crux of the matter is that for those with a long commute, standing for an hour or more causes enough discomfort to send them running to car dealers. When you’re already exhausted from work, trying to balance on the steps of an overcrowded bus or having to grab for the poles as the driver makes yet another emergency stop can take its toll.

With office decentralisation already starting to happen and the government making efforts to improve the capacity of the public transport infrastructure, let’s hope this problem gets solved someday.

Do you have a car and why did you buy one despite the high cost? Share your reasons in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.

  • Anonymous

    After giving birth to my boy, I waited awhile before deciding to get a budget car and I only regret not getting it earlier. I no longer have to carry all the heavy baby stuffs around and try to squeeze our way through the heavy traffic crowd on the public transports. We also have more choices of places to go, more healthy activity options which we seldom did prior having a car. (We don’t really like the idea of taking multiple transports to get to a destination in a single trip, it’s tiresome with all those waiting times and a cranky kid.) I don’t mind spending the money for a quality life. Second baby can wait and even then, one is enough in this very expensive city!

  • Jason

    Is it better to lease a car than buying one? From what I checked, leasing from say, authorised dealers, customers pay a deposit but lower than the normal 50% downpayment. Thereafter will be monthly payments as low as $1600. Can someone please advise me? Thanks a lot.

  • HarwiSingh

    I am a Singaporean and born in Singapore.
    My work takes me out of the country 7 to 9 times a month. I am basically out of
    Singapore 21 to 27 days a month. I own a car. When I am in Singapore the most
    important time was my family time, let it be a few hours for the few days.
    Driving around with the whole family gives us private time that is something
    that we may not enjoy in the trains.

    My family has a lot of relatives in
    Malaysia, where we visit time to time.

    The government acts and reacts when
    incidents occur, making drastic measures. When there were fewer cars on the
    roads, no one bothered and no one foresee anything in Singapore. But when they
    realized there were too many cars they made it impossible for Singaporean to
    buy them.

    Why tell Singapore to give up their cars,
    when 40% foreigners have cars. They are here working and some living alone.
    Sending less money home and using the rest to buy a car. STOP THEM FROM BUYING
    CAR. Why derive Singaporean with large family from the start to give up cars.

    A car levy should be imposed on foreigners.
    My father and the fathers of my follow Singaporean have with Mr Lee Kuan Yew
    build Singapore. The present government don’t understand this and works on a
    trail and error basis.

    We need leaders like Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr
    Goh Chok Tong who have seen hardship to navigate Singapore. Ministers born with
    a golden spoon in their mouth cannot understand the common Singapore as they
    have not experience the hardship.

    The ministers should not be offspring of
    the ministers as they, I say again would not understand Singapore.

    The question was, “What Will it
    Take to Get Singaporeans to Give Up Their Cars?”

    The question should have been, “What
    Will it Take to Get Foreigners and Minister to Give Up Their Cars?”

  • Jonn

    I had a road accident many years ago and it left me with permanent metal implants around my waist and hips.
    I now limb when I walk and occasionally it gets worst with pain if I walk over a certain distance or stand too long. People might not notice if I am not walking so boarding a bus and MRT usually doesn’t get me a seat which makes me frustrated and having to go thru the pain in silence. I don’t use a walking stick as its is making walk slower thus more pain before I can find a seat faster. I have asked for handicapped privilege but was told its not easy and my condition migt not qualify. How much worst does it suppose to get before I can qualify? So a car is best although I am struggling to make ends meet.

  • ST

    My grandpa 90years old, also family member suffering from Poliomyelitis. All we need is 1 car for transport not as a luxury….Please do not punish us with such high cost!!!!!

  • Gary C

    Hi I’m a working as a Manager in the construction Industry. I’m married and have a 4 years old daughter now.I was driving previously and now decided to try public transport. I’ve been using public transport from past 1year. The reason for me to shift to public trasport is to try out if it would be convenient for me in all aspects as in for work and even to go out with family. But regret to say that it is a tiring and a horrible experience. I stay at Bukit Batok and work at punggol. I take bus 985 from Bukit batok and change to train at Potong Pasir. Every single day I had to wait for bus atleast for 20-30 mins. You might be wondering why I can’t catch the bus on time. The reason being that the bus doesnt have a proper timing. Some days it comes at 6.45am, some days at 7.00am . If i miss either of these bussed guess when the next bus. Its only at 7:30am. At 7.30am there will 2 or 3 busses comming together. Ultimately at this hour PIE is jammed and i will sure be late to work every single day. If SMRT cannot have their buses scheduled on time or increase the frequency of buses during peak hours how can I depend on public transport. Secondly to bring my family out I have to take a cab becuase my wife is expecting. And even after having a new born baby do you think its easy to travel in buses and trains. So car is a requirement or need for families like us rather than showing off. If the COE is maitained at very high how can we afford to have a car. Can anyone advice. My stand is we prefer to have a car.

  • ^^

    I swore to the cats and dogs that i buy a car when i couldn’t get a cab when it rains. i cannot even call thru the hotlines. Imagine carrying documents and a heavy laptop in the rain & forgot your umbrella.

  • david d

    my wife and i used to take public transport when we were single. we worked out the best routes, etc.
    when coming home from the hospital with our new born baby, the taxi almost had an accident.
    we bought a car after that. we mostly use it when going out as a family or grocery shopping. we still take public transport to work.
    considered joining a car share club, but the car availability was just too inconsistent.
    yup, paying a high price for the (perceived) safety and convenience, but…

  • Tracy

    I will only give up my car when I decide to migrate. Other than that no way. The problem is not having too many cars on the road… The problem is our population. It’s disgusting