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Speech By Deputy Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong At The Official Opening Of The North East Line And Sengkang LRT System on 28 August 2003

28 Aug 2003 Speeches

Mr Yeo Cheow Tong
Minister for Transport

BG George Yeo
Minister for Trade and Industry and Advisor to Kembangan-Punggol

Members of Parliament

Ladies and Gentlemen


1.     I am happy to join you today for the opening of the North-East MRT Line (NEL) and the Sengkang LRT.

2.     The NEL is important and unique in many ways. It significantly improves our MRT network. We have developed the NEL underground, because the Northeast corridor is already very built up, and we have to minimize disruption to existing developments. At the same time an underground system preserves our city and streetscape. Like modern airplanes that can fly on autopilot, the trains on the NEL are fully automated, which improves the safety of the system. The stations are better designed, both in terms of user-friendliness and aesthetics. The LTA project managers even added a nice touch, featuring local artwork in the station, to enhance the overall travelling experience for commuters, and also to do their part to promote local art.

3.     Together, the NEL and the Sengkang LRT cost $5 billion and took seven years to build. The development costs will not be recovered by the Government or the operator of the train systems. The fares collected will only cover day to day operating costs. If we divide that $5 billion between the 160,000 passengers who use the NEL daily, the capital cost that the Government invested in each rider is about $30,000. But it is a worthwhile investment, because the NEL will improve the lives of Singaporeans, give businesses a boost, and help our economy by making better use of our limited land.


4.     Since the NEL started operations in June this year, commuters have experienced more pleasant journeys. For example, for someone who used to commute to work from Sengkang to the city by bus, journey times have been more than halved, from one hour to less than thirty minutes. It means another half an hour of sleep in the morning, and another half an hour's time with the family in the evening. That is a significant improvement in quality of life.

5.     MOT tells me that one bank officer who lives in Sengkang saves so much time on travelling that she is considering preparing home-cooked meals for her family, instead of eating out or 'da bao' as she did before the NEL came along. I hope she goes ahead to do it - I am sure her family will enjoy the home-cooked meals.

6.     The NEL has also had a significant impact on businesses along its route, such as in Chinatown, Little India and Dhoby Ghaut. For example, one week after the NEL started running, the customer traffic in Plaza Singapura jumped by 45% on weekdays and 60% in weekends. So the opening of the NEL is most timely, just when the retail sector is recovering from SARS.

7.     And more shoppers are frequenting Sengkang New Town too. Singaporeans used to refer to Sengkang as being 'far away'. But now, CompassPoint, the neighbourhood shopping centre in Sengkang, is bustling with shoppers from all over the island.

8.     The Singapore economy as a whole will benefit from the NEL. Our workers will become more productive, as they save time and energy on commuting, and hopefully become more willing to travel to distant parts of the island to work. The NEL will help ease congestion on the roads, which makes delivery of goods quicker, and our logistics and supply chain more efficient. It will also enable the Northeast Corridor to support a higher population, and allow us to use the land around the NEL MRT stations more intensively. I am sure the value of homes near the new MRT stations will go up, if they have not already done so.


9.     So by pooling the resources of the nation, the Government can develop public projects that benefit our people and prepare Singapore for a better future. That is how over the past decades, the Government has progressively and systematically built up the country's infrastructure.

10.   Our approach is prudent but far-sighted. We do not squander money on big white elephants that become financial burdens for our future generations. Every project is evaluated carefully to make sure that it yields a net gain to society, and that the revenue stream covers at least the operating expenses. Conversely, we do not hold back strategically important projects because we are temporarily short of funds, or have not built up the capabilities to develop or operate it.

11.   Such an approach has given us an advantage in the global fight for economic survival. We have developed critical assets, in our airport, seaport, IT network, expressways and MRT network. They connect everyone within Singapore, and connect Singapore to the outside world. Many foreign investors cite our excellent infrastructure as a reason for investing in Singapore. This sets us apart from other emerging economies, and gives us a critical edge to compensate for our other limitations.

12.   Moving forward, the Government will continue to invest in and upgrade our infrastructure. We can do so because we have maintained a prudent fiscal policy, running a modest surplus in good years to offset budget deficits in bad years. It is not easy to maintain fiscal discipline during an economic downturn, when revenues are low and demands for spending are numerous and pressing. But even then we must still maintain the discipline to spend only on worthwhile projects, and to keep an eye on what we can afford. If we spent profligately, we would soon exhaust our reserves and become chronically short of money, like many other countries.


13.   Residents all along the Northeast corridor have looked forward to the NEL for a long time. That is why the opening of the NEL is an occasion for celebration. Overall, LTA and the operator - SBS Transit - have done an excellent job, completing an extremely complex project within budget, with only slight delays to an ambitious timetable.

14.   With a project of this magnitude, there are bound to be hiccups and teething problems. We should attend to them and sort them out, but we should not let them cloud our perspective of the whole project, which overall is a great achievement and a boon to commuters.

15.   I hope you will not mind me mentioning on this happy occasion one problem which has attracted extensive attention over the last few weeks, and that is Buangkok Station.

16.   We need to separate two issues: the substance of the decision, and the handling of the problem. On the substance, the delay in the opening of the Station is the right decision. There are not enough developments within the primary catchment area of the station to justify opening it. I gather that some residents living near Buangkok station were thinking of bringing a statue of a white elephant to the station as a gift when the trains started running. Luckily they did not do that, because if we had opened the station, and then found it empty of commuters with staff manning it and lights and air conditioning running, the residents would have needed to bring an even bigger white elephant.

17.   But given that we could not open Buangkok station, we should have handled the issue much better. We should have prepared the residents living near the station early, and explained to them the problem and why we had to defer the opening. Instead the residents were left thinking that the station would open, till just a few days before trains started running. So it is not surprising that they feel disappointed and short changed. The MP and grassroots leaders too, have been embarrassed, because they had earlier reassured the residents that the station would open. This is most unfortunate.

18.   I am sorry the matter has turned out this way. We will make sure that we do not repeat these mistakes, and do better next time. The question is now how we can solve the problem. One step is to provide adequate feeder bus services, so that residents have good connections to the interchange and to other NEL stations. This has been done.

19.   Another priority is to build up the population around Buangkok station quickly, so as to create enough traffic to justify opening it. As the Minister for National Development has promised, HDB will give priority to building flats around Buangkok station. LTA's estimate is that once there are about 2,000 housing units around Buangkok, it can justify opening the station. Hopefully we will be able to reach this critical mass within 2 to 3 years.


20.   From conception to completion, the NEL and the Sengkang LRT involved a decade of hard work by many people.

21.   I would like to thank the Members of Parliament who advocated and supported the project. I recalled their passionate appeals, years ago, to the Government to start work on the project. Many of them are here today. I am sure they are very happy for the residents in their constituencies.

22.   I would also like to thank the residents and motorists, who have had to endure the various inconveniences because of the construction of the NEL.

23.   We should also not forget the LTA project team for their many years of hard work. Many planners, designers, engineers, architects, technicians and workers, have devoted their time and energy to deliver the NEL. We owe them all a big thank you.

24.   We should also thank LTA's partners, namely the contractors and SBS Transit, for their inputs into the project and their professionalism.

25.   It is now my pleasure to officially open the NEL and Sengkang LRT.

Issued by: Ministry of Transport
28 Aug 2003