(Pic credits to wikimedia.com)
Preparing for a post-Oil Brunei era requires us to look at the fundamental component of development: Public Transport. Our nation and our people are indeed blessed for the Oil and Gas resource. With such wealth, the Brunei government is able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Oil subsidies – in 2014, for instance, Brunei spent $400m alone for this form of welfare.
The continuation of the subsidy from 2014 to this year’s end (2017) would have meant that the government will spend over BND$1.2 billion ($400mx3 years) in this area alone. If the policy remains in force in the next three decades, provided all else remain equal, the government will have to spend BND$12 billion.
This is not sustainable. Therefore public transport should take top priority in the national development strategy. The fleet of buses we have now today is not enough. The infrastructures provided in BSB and other parts of town are run-down and ugly and are in need of a serious make-over.
May I advise the government of Brunei, or more specifically the Ministry of Communications, to work on renewing its strategy in the next five-years in this area.
Some recommendations includes pumping more investments to acquire a hundred new bus fleets, to make it mandatory for bus operators to run in the night, to build new infrastructural hubs to make it attractive for people to try the bus out, to identify new routes and strategic stop-overs for people to take buses, to hire locals to man these buses, to introduce a minimum wage in the sector, to make it free for children and students below 18 and elderlies above 65 to ride the transport, introduce the electronic ticketing systems (suggested name is Kupang) and much more.
Night buses are needed especially because this has become a point of contention among tourists, expats, and migrant works in the country. Without night buses, they are stuck in the country. The failure to solve this basic equation has many people complain about our country to their fellow compatriots. This has made Brunei a less attractive place to go to. Little wonder why tourist annual visits have gone down from its peak of a million people-plus in 2012 to only a mere 218,809 in 2016.
In light of the high unemployment rate in Brunei (16,000 are reportedly unemployed in Brunei) it would be best for the government to make it mandatory to hire local people as drivers and ticket holders (or alternatively install an electric ticket system, i.e. HK’s Octopus and UK’s Oyster). Even the buses in Singapore are driven by Singaporeans. To make it attractive for people to work the long hours for the job, a minimum wage between $500-$700 in this sector must be introduced. Over 400 jobs can be created easily within five years time.
The Brunei government, in order to secure the money necessary for these investments, must start the process of reducing the subsidy. A 10% reduction of subsidy – not a lot really – will release so much capital for the investments necessary to build up the public transport. If the policy is implemented, the government could have raised easily $40m needed to invest in public transport, a well as to provide jobs and infrastructural provisions.
Making the transport free for students below 18 and elderlies over 65 would start and enhance the behavioral change of people towards buses. The more young students are exposed early on, the more open they are to use it. For elderlies over 65, they would appreciate this simple gesture – in some parts of U.K., like Southend-on-Sea, elderlies over 65 can ride within and around their towns for free. Why can’t we?
People may argue that there is “no demand” for these buses, therefore, there is no need to throw money to buy more buses. We must realize that this is a matter that involves the preparation of Brunei in a post-oil era, three decades down the road. Next, chugging the people’s insatiable thirst for Oil through subsidy is more expensive and unsustainable compared to purchasing new fleets of buses and employing our locals to operate them.
Other arguments may include how buses can cause damage to the environment. Just watch the following gif (credits to Geekwire.com)
A car or taxi may transport four people from point A to point B, whereas a bus can transport up to hundreds of people. If there are ten rounds made, the bus can transport up thousands. It would take 177 cars to transport those quantities of people through the day. We can conclude that buses can dramatically reduce traffic congestion, air, and noise pollution. The same case if Bruneians were to switch to other transport alternatives such as bicycles and light train vehicles or LRT.
In the subject of traffic congestion, may I invite the ministries in charge of road-building to consider public transport as the alternative solution to solving the issue instead of building more roads. Brunei has to be smart in building its road system. It has to be a master of cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles and other transportation units instead of being a slave to it.
I remember talking to a friend (who is a policy-maker) in London last year. She said that building more roads, flyovers and other infrastructures for the sake of reducing congestion instead of general development (such as enhancing urban-rural connectivity) is like giving an obese person ice cream as his staple diet. No matter what, the person will still be obese.
What our country needs is the discipline to work itself out from the unhealthy addiction on Oil and Gas. Building up the Public Transport system is the answer to this.
What are happens if public transport is neglected? Congestion in this country will build up, infrastructural expenses to deal with the growing congestion will increase, the subsidy expenses will continue to grow exponentially ($12bn in the next three decades), the unemployment rate will remain high, and by the time Brunei reaches a post-Oil era it would already be too late.
We have to be prepared now. Prudence is key if we are ever to overcome the development obstacles we are facing today. These obstacles are fortunately easy to deal with. Thus the said recommendations which involve a revamping of the public transport system through continual investments made from money channeled from the subsidy cuts of Oil.
Investing in the public transport system marks an important stage of development that would make our nation and town (BSB) competitive. Other highly developed cities such as New York, London, KL, Singapore and Hong Kong have a robust transportation system and are continually evolving them to suit their changing urban landscape.
It is time for us to do the same. When others argue that we do not need to be like them, I reply them that that is not the spirit of the Golden Age that our people embodied. Our ancestors were never content with where they were. They were hungry for knowledge, progress, and development, Had they live now today, Brunei would have been the crown jewel of Borneo. Therefore let us remove the spirit of defeatism and pessimism and replace them with optimism and the spirit of progress once and for all.
We have the resources at hand and we have the power in our hands to carry out the project. It is time to get serious on this issue and meet them head on.