Singapore’s Love Affair with Cars and the COVID-19 side effects

by Zainab Osman

Owning a car in Singapore is more than just a form of transport, it's also a symbol of social status as it is often associated with the upper class/middle class. This is why despite having a COE price which is skyrocketing, you still see a rising demand for cars. It has been loved so much that it has been included in the five ‘C’s representing the ‘must-haves’ for Singaporeans - Cash, Car, Credit card, Condominium and Country club membership. Imagine being able to avoid all the crowds during peak hours on public transportation and being able to travel safely in the premises of your own car! Yet recently, with the way the world has been changing shape due to the coronavirus, are these the early signs that Singapore’s love for cars is starting to fade away? 

The effects of COVID19 can be felt by the entire world and a sector that has been most impacted by the pandemic in Singapore is the automobile industry. During Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period, several showrooms, car dealers and motor shops were ordered to close down and this had led to dealerships bleeding money due to months of closure and slow sales. As orders had already been placed and shipments continued to come in, stocks started to pile up. Car dealers were faced with the reality that cars stagnant in warehouses started to depreciate. This caused even more expenses and losses for them.

But that’s not just it, apart from Car dealers, the transport industry has also been very affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the Singapore Government urging Singaporeans to stay at home as much as possible and thanks to the integration of online meetings and classes, the little red dot (Singapore) saw a huge decline in the number of people who commute. This drastically affected the amount of private car rentals or hires and taxis present on the road, mainly because no one was willing to travel. A few months ago, we saw the ever bustling Orchard Road become a ghost town; as walkways, roads and expressways became deserted and test drives were prohibited in hopes of containing the virus. The only movements we saw were just from the cute little otters vacationing with their family in Singapore. It was during this point of time that people realised the negative effects these private vehicles had on the environment and this has even led to the rise of Singapore’s first “car-free” town centre at Tengah. Does this mean that people have realised the importance of reducing emissions and will be switching over to other forms of transport? Recent findings suggest otherwise.

The Changes in Singaporean's Relationship with Cars
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have incited the following changes to Singapore's relationship with cars: 

Decline in Purchase but Not In Usage

  • Due to the volatile economic situation, it is more likely that fewer Singaporeans will make big-ticket purchases, such as a car. The fear of unemployment and the unknown end of the pandemic are the main reasons behind this. 
  • Though it may be true that people are still thinking twice about getting a car due to the unstable economic conditions, more people are now conscious when taking public transportation where plenty of people gather, due to the increased health risk. It seems that Singaporean’s preference for cars has increased and they are now depending more on cars than before. They feel safer in it nowadays as it offers a way to minimize their exposure to others. More Singaporeans are now less inclined to take public transportation such as buses and ride-sharing cars. With the advent of phase 2, Singapore saw a rise in car usage, prompting the reintroduction of the ERP at specific gantries to manage congestion. Moreover, with Singapore moving towards Phase 3, we are probably going to see an increase in car usage. 

Automobile Selling Practices 

  • With the current pandemic teaching us the importance of digitalization, Singapore's automobile industry is looking to adapt to the current situation's demand. An example of this is seen in how a few dealerships have launched digital showrooms and are now offering virtual tours. This enables both to fulfil customers' demand for safer car purchasing and allows dealerships to sell their inventories. 

The changes that we are witnessing now is only the tip of the iceberg and as we’ve seen historically from the SARS period, that it is only a matter of time before we see the numbers rise again. Undoubtedly, the current situation's uncertainty will make Singaporeans think twice about spending their disposable incomes on cars. Which would result in a major hit in the future of Singapore's automobile industry. 

But, this does not mean that Singaporeans' love affair will be diminished. Those who already own cars are more likely to use them more frequently rather than take public transportation because it is deemed to be a more safer alternative. Perhaps there might be a shift from normal cars to electric vehicles in the future as more people are becoming environmentally conscious. One thing is certain that the love for cars is not one that will be erased easily.