The Realities Of Driving In Singapore

By James Wong

Night-time is the only good time to drive.

If you do not live in the city, you might not agree with me or wonder what the fuss is all about.

After all, with beautiful sweeping roads lacing acres after acres of greenery and stooping giant trees, what’s there not to like in a morning drive to get some coffee at the local bakery? Things are not so rosy of course, where I live.

Where I live, there are cars everywhere. Whether it’s 4pm in the heat of the afternoon or 4am at night, there is bound to be a car in any major thoroughfare. That’s okay if there are enough roads to contain them. But on an island like ours, with just 699 square kilometres to play with, that’s going to be a problem. There are 4.99 million people currently residing in Singapore, but even with the prohibitive taxes on cars there are more than half a million cars plying the roads here. That’s a lot of people and a lot of cars squeezed into a small island that is one of the smallest countries in the world.

What is more intriguing in all of this though, is the kiasu culture in Singapore. The word kiasu is from Hokkien, a derivative of the Chinese language, which means ‘fear of losing’. There is always this need of Singaporeans to be ahead in everything they do, and that includes being in front of the queue to the carpark, or the need to be on the overtaking lane of the expressway even though they don’t intend to overtake.

The result of that is this. You see the overtaking lane of the expressway curiously being the most crowded, because that’s where everybody wants to be. Consequently, it is often the second or third lane that might actually be faster than the overtaking lane, even though they are supposed to be for slower vehicles. In every country I have been to and every country I have driven in, I have not encountered this but in Singapore. This is just one of the many chronic irritations I face everyday when driving in my sunny island.

More about the overtaking lane of the expressway – most drivers here just cruise leisurely on the first lane without ever thinking about the overtaking lane and its purpose. As a result, they hog the road for a few hundred meters, seemingly unaware that they have made themselves into a sort of moving chicane, and are actually causing a lot of fury amongst the drivers behind them. But, that’s just kiasu-ism at work – and the laziness to change back to the second lane when not overtaking.

And, for any queue that stretches at least a dozen car lengths, it is not uncommon to see cars cutting in from the front because they do not have the patience to wait. Granted, I should give them the benefit of a doubt, that they missed the queue in the first place and genuinely want a place in the carpark. But why does it always happen, and more often than not you will see a taxi committing the act?

That brings me to another munchkin of the road. Taxi drivers.

They usually don’t signal, they road hog most of the time and they don’t know the meaning of the two words ‘give way’. When they are not playing the part of the road hog, the road is like their grand prix circuit. They invariably stop suddenly in front of potential passengers whom they somehow only get to see last minute.

But I have got to recount one incident which tops all of this.

I was waiting at a traffic light junction at the red light. Then I watch as the light for the adjacent road turned from green to amber and then to red. There was this taxi which couldn’t decide whether it wanted to stop or wanted to go, so it braked and accelerated a few times before it ended in the middle of the junction. That has got to be the most amusing sight I’ve ever seen.

Granted, not all taxi drivers are like that. And even for the ones that are, they drive for a living and usually for hours on end, so I have some empathy for them as they will be trawling the roads day and night, wanting to earn that extra dozen dollars or so to feed their families. As such, they resort to drastic measures to make sure they make the most of their time. That said, they should mind the safety of others on the road as well and drive courteously, no matter how tired, or, eager for a fare, that they may be.

Well, some of us workers have already resorted to extreme measures to escape the traffic crawl. I know of a person who reports to work everyday at 7:30 in the morning even though he only needs to report at 9:00. He does it to escape the gridlock that plagues his journey to the office everyday. There are some of us who plan imaginative routes to work which would promise less traffic, even though it is a longer journey. There are also some of us who work overtime so that we can go home later at night when everybody is already home.

Looks like we will need a bit of planning to enjoy driving. But like all who love driving, this is just a small sacrifice for enjoying our drives. Because for most of us, driving is not merely a mode of transportation – it’s a way of life.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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