Debate over free school parking

Farrer Park Primary School compound.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Some argue teachers work long hours, others say it is akin to subsidising their driving cost

A government review that could result in school teachers paying carpark fees at their place of work has drawn intense debate, with most commentators criticising the prospective move.

They argued that teachers at national schools and junior colleges work long hours, and many stay after school hours to coach weaker students, doing this on top of their administrative duties.

But proponents of "no free parking" countered that allowing it is as good as subsidising the cost of driving for teachers.

Mr Phang Fook Ghay, 56, who wrote to The Straits Times' Forum Page about the issue, yesterday told The Straits Times: "How do we justify giving teachers this subsidy when other civil servants are not entitled to it?"

A check with 10 public sector organisations found that it is common practice for their employees to pay for carpark spaces at their office building. Six of them, including the Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Manpower and Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, charge staff a monthly rate of about $90 for season parking, similar to that of carparks in Housing Board estates.

This is typically less than what it costs to park in a private sector building, although this varies by location. It usually costs $200 or more a month for season parking in central Singapore. For instance, Funan DigitaLife Mall in North Bridge Road charges tenants $214. At Fajar Shopping Centre in Bukit Panjang, it costs $90 a month.

At some government offices, charges are higher than $90. Parking at the Symbiosis building in Fusionopolis, where the Media Development Authority office is located, costs $120 a month.

The Treasury building, which houses the Ministry of Law, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Trade and Industry, and is located in the City Hall area, charges $140 a month for season parking.

These payments are in line with the Government's "clean wage" policy, which stipulates that salaries are fully accounted for with no hidden perks and privileges.

As early as 2005, government agencies were told to stop giving carpark benefits regardless of whether the carpark is owned by the ministry or a commercial company.

But teachers at most national schools and junior colleges have always been able to park at their institutions for free.

However, this may soon change with the MOE reviewing carpark charges for schools "in accordance with civil service guidelines".

The review was prompted by the Auditor-General pointing out last year that three educational institutions were charging below- market rates for their carpark spaces. They were the Institute of Technical Education, Singapore Polytechnic and Temasek Polytechnic.

Doing so, the Auditor-General said, was akin to giving "hidden subsidies"to staff.

But many teachers interviewed said they drive to work as a necessity because their work day starts early and they work long hours.

Some use their cars to give at-risk students a ride to ensure that they attend school.

Said a 35-year-old junior college teacher: "Sometimes, teachers use their cars to take students to the doctor or hospital. And they do not make any transport claims."

Another junior college teacher said: "I don't see it as a subsidy, but a perk of the job."

His college has about 50 carpark spaces, which tend to be occupied on school days.

But economist Donald Low said giving free parking is generally inefficient. The associate dean of research and executive education at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said: "If teachers were given a cash subsidy instead of free parking, some may value the cash more and choose not to drive. This frees up space for other purposes.

"Just because parking is free doesn't mean it has no opportunity cost. What about the basketball court that could have been built if less space is given to a carpark?"

Additional reporting by Sheryl Lee

This article was first published on January 9, 2016.
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