Over the past few years of which Mr. Guan Eng Lim was appointed as the Chief Minister of Penang, it’s fair to say that Chief Minister Lim was fairly ambitious and aggressive in showing that his government can bring prosperity, fairness, or social justice to the people of Penang. In his blog post titled “To Win The Future The Penang State Government Must Boldly Invest In The Future So That Our Young Do Not Become A Traffic Jam Generation”, he talked about the need to invest in public transport and construction of new highways and tunnels to help mitigate the pressing problem of traffic congestion happening in the island. He even held several town hall meetings to gather public opinions over the decision that his government is about to make. (to build new highways and tunnels)
Chief Minister Lim seems to be in favor of using public funding and letting his government provides services to the public in order to develop the economy or solve the social problems. To certain extent, I can understand Mr. Lim’s ways of running his government. After all, he and his party’s coalition has made various accusations against the long-time ruling party (still is in the federal level) and campaign promises in the past while he is still running as a candidate for state assembly member and member of the House of Representatives. It’s previously unthinkable for him to become the Chief Minister of Penang. In order for him and his allies to remain relevant or even someday take over the federal government, he was compelled to show the results to win the favor from voters. For someone’s who is on his quest to power, there are occasions that he cannot see past the end of his own nose.
The role of government continues to evolve over time. There is no consensus or even the so-called “majority-view” how a government should play its role, if any, in our lives. There is one thing that everyone will agree on, though. Government may help solving some problems but is never able to solve every problem. No matter what role government should play, its role is always limited in our society. Every member of the society plays his own unique role in evolving the society but it is combined actions of each member determine the path that a society takes.
When it comes to policy-making, policy-makers may make their decision based on established facts and best-available data, or personal beliefs, or the combination of both. For a politician who is in a hurry to get recognition, he may not make his policies based on extensive scientific study. After all, it takes considerable patience, time, and effort to understand the situations before making the plans, let alone implementing them. Solving the root problems take considerable more time; such a policy may not be politically-popular as the effects may not be seen immediately. In contrast, quick-fix is often politically-popular but leaving the fundamental problems remain unsolved. There is a classic example in modern life. The emotional instability may deprive sleep. To get some sleep, instead of learning to get more control over emotion, some people take sleeping pills. Sleeping pills do not stabilize the emotion and may cause drowsiness and other side effects. Although he may get some sleep, he may be less conscious the next day. Over the long time, he may develop tolerance to the sleeping pills, thus making them less effective to induce sleep.
Many real-world problems are often very complex and do not have quick fix. No, I do not suggest to walk away from the problems just because the problems are complex. I do not suggest to further push down the problems by choosing the apparent quick-fix. Many of these problems may not be solved immediately or by a single entity. It may require efforts of different stakeholders or even people of different generations. But no matter how gigantic the problems may seem, all solutions start with small steps.
First of all, I lauded that Chief Minister Lim even bothered to hold town hall meetings to show off his planning and gather feedback. But instead of asking whether we need another highways or tunnels, we should ask why traffic congestion happens in the first place. Georgetown or Penang is not alone with the problem of having traffic congestion. Traffic congestion is commonly seen in many densely populated metropolitan area around the world, including but not limited to New York, Washington D.C., Beijing, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, etc. There are common reasons for traffic congestion but each city is also unique. The study over how traffic congestion happens in a place would help us figuring ways to mitigate traffic congestion. For the town hall meeting to be truly meaningful, the government should let the people the reasoning behind policy-making. Have we seen a publicly available report of the study over the traffic condition in Penang or Georgetown yet? The government can seek help from relevant experts to make the report. We do not expect Chief Minister Lim to be all-knowing. But he can always employ experts from within the government and outside the government to get the best advice. Without knowing the whole story, the public cannot judge whether a particular policy makes sense. Such a report can be published over the Internet. That’s the transparency that Chief Minister Lim should be able to keep. Town hall meeting would make no sense if the government do not publish the relevant information first and expect some tough but relevant questions.
Make no mistake. I do not have all the answers to solve the problems of traffic congestion. But that’s precisely why we need do some study first. In this digital era, there is one question I want to ask though. Do we actually need to commute as often as we do?
Roughly 22 months ago, we switched from the ADSL Internet service (known as Streamyx) to the more reliable and fast fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) with Very High Speed Digital Subscriber Line 2 (VDSL 2) Internet service (known as Unifi) at our home. Our package is business package without bandwidth cap (Fair Usage Policy). Ironically, we kept the ADSL Internet service at the office until this month. I only managed to convince my father after the disruption of the Internet service. Before the disruption happened, I was told by the clerk that the Internet connection was fairly unstable. It was especially obvious when I had video conferences with her, where I often encountered disruption of the video conferencing. Why do we keep fax in our office? We have to keep it when many of the customers / suppliers still use fax instead of email or SkyDrive.
As I walked in to TM Point to change Internet service, I noticed that many people still visited there to pay the bill. Understandably, not everyone has Internet access at home. However, even if one does have Internet access, it may often be underutilized. Just I waited for my turn, I looked at those customers and thought, “If those folks stayed at home, there would be fewer vehicles at the road.”
We may point out that in many cases we no longer need step out of our home to get our work done. Old habits die hard. Do our employers or superiors feel comfortable when they do not see us at work? How many existing brick-and-mortar have sold their goods and services online? In the cases file sharing, communication, etc., it’s true that we no longer need to be in one place at once. When the school starts and ends each day, that’s also when we see traffic congestion near the school. Students carry heavy school bags packed with books to schools. Yet, the amount of information contained in the books in the school bag of a student is probably much less compared with the available information we may get access to each day via Internet. Do our schools need to be reformed? Absolutely. But I will leave the details of reform to those in the field of education.
Of course, the availability of reliable Broadband Internet access in our metropolitan area remains limited at this point. However, to the ISP, the provision of Internet access is driven by commercial interests, more specifically, the demand of the people itself. If the people change the way they do things, more specifically, they commute less and “telecommute” more, there will be less vehicles on the road. We can try to build more roads to accommodate more vehicles or try to reduce the vehicles on the road. To realize the full potential of Broadband Internet access though, it will require digital literacy from our people, which is seriously lacking. Digital literacy of our people require willingness to embrace change from our people.
Another way to reduce vehicles on the road is to have a fully functional, interconnected public transport. After all, if the number of vehicles is equivalent of the number of people when a car typically has seating for five people, no wonder we will have traffic congestion on our road. Carpooling is also one of way of reducing the number of vehicles on the road. As Chief Minister Lim pointed out, public transport is the responsibility of the federal government but the federal government was unwilling to provide adequate public transport for the people due to political rivalry with the state government.
I can understand the frustration of Chief Minister Lim. But Chief Minister Lim has to realize that the role of state government or even federal government is limited in different ways. One way of changing our society is to raise public awareness thus pressurize those who are in power. One way of determining whether we need another road is to determine the purpose of commuting. Say, if we have access to reliable broadband Internet access and change the way we work, how many vehicles will remain on road? If we have a public transport system that is interconnected, how many vehicles will remain on road? Surely, not all these changes can be made by state government alone. It will however tell us the best possible solution for the problems that we are facing.
When we rally on the road to request the shutdown of Lynas factory, surely we can rally on the road ask for better public transport or reliable Broadband Internet access.
If we cannot eliminate reasons for commuting or continuing to use private vehicles, can we be sure that there will be no traffic congestion with new roads being built? Chief Minister Lim cannot make his policy based on frustration over the inaction of the federal government because the best possible solution for the people requires participation of various stakeholders. Is building new roads in the best interest of the people? Do Chief Minister Lim assume that we cannot hold our elected representatives and members of legislative assembly accountable to us? If we do, we should get what we deserve.