In the time-honored tradition of car salesmen everywhere, James Chua powered up a 10-megawatt smile as soon as the customer set foot in his Toyota showroom. But just when you expected the hard sell, Chua began to apologize profusely.
"These prices are so crazy," Chua lamented to a visitor. "We gotta feel sorry for the car buyer."
Talk about sticker shock. A Toyota sedan, whose equivalent model would cost $23,500 in Southern California, rolls out of the Borneo Motors showroom for a mere $47,058, not including insurance. A Volvo here will set you back $88,000, versus about $25,000 in Southern California. And a Mercedes-Benz that costs $48,000 in Los Angeles is a dazzling $120,000 here.
Singapore is at war with the automobile. With a population of 2.6 million shoe-horned into an island of just 240 square miles, a third the size of Orange County, the government has embarked on a ruthless program to contain the explosive growth in car ownership that is now sweeping Southeast Asia.
In neighboring cities such as Bangkok, Thailand; Jakarta, Indonesia, and even Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a decade of economic growth has resulted in huge traffic tie-ups and oily gray clouds of pollution as newly enriched members of the middle class rushed out to buy cars.
Thailand last month announced a reduction of car import duties to 30% from 100%, causing Bangkok planners to complain publicly that they have no place to put all the new cars expected to flood the city's already gridlocked streets.
But Singapore has remained a rare exception. Despite a per capita income 10 times higher than that of Thailand and more than 20 times higher than Indonesia's, Singapore's tough policies have combined to defeat traffic even during rush hours and keep air pollution to a bare minimum.
Singapore residents have grown accustomed to a 15-mile airport trip that takes 20 minutes door to door. A traffic jam is an unexpected delay of a minute or two--almost always caused by an accident.
"The objective is simple--to keep traffic on our roads free-flowing so that people and goods can move," said Maria Choy, head of Singapore's Land Transport Department. "It's a simple objective but not that easy to achieve."
The campaign began nearly two decades ago when drivers were first required to buy a daily pass for $1.75 to enter a special restricted area in the central business district during rush hours. Traffic problems immediately improved, and the government began imposing harsher and harsher conditions on car owners.
First came import duties--45% of an auto's purchase price. Then there's a registration tax--now set at 150% of the sticker.
With nearly 200% tacked on to the car's price, Singapore now has the world's most expensive cars, according to a business survey issued this month.
But even the sky-high prices failed to work--the number of cars was expanding at 8% a year, according to government statistics. So last year the government decreed an absolute quota on the number of new cars--50,000--designed to keep new purchases at about 4% of the cars on the road.
To buy a new car, a driver must obtain a certificate of entitlement allowing him to register the vehicle. The certificates are sold at monthly auction, and with the supply fixed by government edict, prices shot up. Last month, a mid-size car certificate cost about $7,000 and more than 50% of the applicants failed to qualify.
Motorists became outraged when it was clear that a black market in certificates had sprung up among speculators who bought the permission solely for resale. So starting next month, every new car owner must go to the auction himself to buy his certificate, which will not be transferable.
Motorists must also pay a road tax--similar to the annual registration fee in California, which is 2% of a vehicle's sales price--based on the size of the car's engine. A small Toyota has an $800 annual road tax.
Gerald Ee, vice president of the Automobile Assn. of Singapore, said that most people in the country now end up paying far more for their car than for their homes. "It's a lot of money, but we don't want a congested road system where you can't get from Point A to Point Z," Ee said.
Ee noted that the boom in car ownership was fueled mainly by middle-class acceptance of car loans. While borrowing was formerly shunned, it has become mandatory for someone shopping for an $80,000 car. In addition to the purchase price, operating costs for a car average about $400 a month, with gasoline at $2.80 a gallon.
In another experiment to keep cars off the streets during rush hours, the government has turned into reality the old used car joke about the little old lady who only used her auto on Sundays. For a $9,000 reduction in the registration fee, a motorist can now register a "weekend car." Equipped with bright red license plates, the car can only be driven from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. on weekdays, after 3 p.m. on Saturdays and all day Sunday.
The sting is if you get caught cheating, you get a world record traffic fine--50% of the road tax. For a Mercedes, the fine could cost the driver several thousand dollars.
Apart from curtailing car ownership, the enormous fees--$428 million last year--have allowed the government to invest huge sums to create a mass-transit infrastructure on the island. There are almost 40 miles of train tracks in a state-of-the-art subway system, and a $600-million extension is being constructed. Fares range from 35 to 65 cents in the air-conditioned system, kept scrupulously clean. The island also has two public bus systems and more than 12,000 taxis.
"By and large, you can go anywhere in Singapore without a car," acknowledges Ee.
Beyond its efforts to beat traffic, Singapore also has enacted the toughest laws in Asia to control vehicle emissions. While Bangkok has one of the world's highest levels of auto pollution, including lead, Singapore has made catalytic converters mandatory on new cars from last month, and by next year, it will have the same pollution standards for cars as California.
The standards are so rigid that truck drivers in Malaysia recently protested that even new trucks from Kuala Lumpur were failing Singapore's spot checks after crossing the causeway between the two countries.
Every Singapore car must be checked for roadworthiness and emissions every other year. Under an incentive plan to keep the car population new, the government pays back 80% of the registration fee if a car is scrapped before it is 10 years old.
A driver's license is almost as hard to come by as a car. The procedure includes a one-hour written examination that is rarely passed on the first sitting.
The top speed limit on the island is 45 m.p.h. Taxi cabs have an alarm built into the dashboard that sounds an annoying chime when the speed limit is exceeded. Trucks have a yellow light on the roof that flashes when the driver is speeding. The speed limit is maintained, not only by police but by hidden cameras attached to remotely operated radar. Motorists often get mailed speeding tickets days after the offense was committed.
Drivers who double-park their cars have returned two minutes later, just in time to see their vehicle disappearing behind a police tow truck. Fine: $90 plus towing.
Singapore's latest scheme to beat traffic won't focus on getting rid of the cars but getting rid of the roads: Opening next month is a 1.8-mile expressway located in a tunnel beneath the central business district. Another 10 miles will be built in tunnels at a cost of $867 million.
"Every time I visit a neighboring country such as Thailand or Malaysia, the traffic gets worse," said Michael Lum, general manager of the Automobile Assn. "Singapore is about the only place left where you can still drive and enjoy it."
Times staff writer John O'Dell contributed to this story.