Short circuit

Singapore has a seemingly schizophrenic approach to electric vehicles (EVs).

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Singapore has a seemingly schizophrenic approach to electric vehicles (EVs).


SINGAPORE has been toying with the idea of electric vehicles since the 1980s, when Singapore Power thought they would be a good way to increase demand for electricity.

After more than 30 years of what must have been reams of reports and thousands of man-hours spent on the viability of nurturing a population of EVs here, there is nothing to show for it. To be fair, the world has also been rather hesitant in adopting EVs as an alternative to conventional vehicles. That is, until the dawn of lithium-ion batteries.

These batteries have a high energy density, allow repeated recharging without significant degradation, and are relatively compact and lightweight. Together with sophisticated battery management systems, lithium-ion batteries make EVs more viable today than they have ever been.

Along with heightened environmental awareness, governments the world over are introducing financial incentives to promote the adoption of EVs.

Research by consultant William Sierzchula found that several countries have incentives in place for such vehicles (see chart on the next page).

Sadly, none of them are in South-east Asia or any of the so-called developing economies. Conspicuously, Singapore is not on the list either, even if it is one of the most economically advanced countries in the world.

Why? The conspiracy theory is that Singapore, being a major oil refining hub, would not want to do anything to undermine oil’s role in the economy.

Singapore is ideal for EVs, thanks to its excellent infrastructure and typical daily “driving range” of 50km.
Singapore is ideal for EVs, thanks to its excellent infrastructure and typical daily “driving range” of 50km.
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The theory does not make much sense. Because EVs require electricity from power-generation companies, and these firms in Singapore use predominantly natural gas as fuel stock. Most oil companies are in the business of supplying natural gas as well.

There is another popular theory, which has to do with Singapore’s underlying anti-car policy. We are a small island state, which has spent billions on public transport infrastructure. Hence cars are frowned upon – no matter what their power source is.

Well, it is true that the Singapore Government does not look kindly on cars. But as long as the COE system is in place, there is no worry about a runaway car population. Said system is an absolute control on vehicle population, and it matters not what form of propulsion vehicles in the population we adopt.

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So why aren’t there more EVs in Singapore?

To be sure, Singapore is an ideal place for EV adoption. The daily average mileage of a car here is 50km or less. That is well within the range of even the worst EV around. As for charging infrastructure, it does not take much effort or money to set up power outlets in carparks. In any case, being a highly urbanised country, power outlets are everywhere.

Yet, electric vehicles make up less than 1 percent of the entire vehicle population.

The irony is that the Government has spent tens of millions on electric vehicle test-beds, with little to show for. It has even granted tax-free status to a fleet of Chinese BYD electric cars that are used as on-call taxis.

It is now embarking on another experiment with dubious value: an electric carsharing scheme, which is going to cost several more millions.

Yet Singapore is one of the worst places to buy an electric vehicle. Take the case of the individual who imported a used Tesla Model S recently. He not only failed to get a tax break for his car, he was slapped with a carbon surcharge of $15,000. A brand new Model S qualifies for a carbon rebate of $30,000.

Apparently, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) based the $15,000 surcharge on the results of an emission test that it conducted. All imported used cars must undergo such a test. (New imports, however, do not.)

Now, here’s another irony: If a car fails a mandatory vehicle inspection test, the owner is required to fix the problem that has led to a degradation in performance, and turn up for a re-test. The car is deemed roadworthy only if and when it passes the inspection test.

The treatment for an imported used car is completely different, however. The owner or importer does not have to fix any degradation in performance. He merely pays a surcharge and the vehicle is allowed to be put on the road. (We are not assuming the Model S suffered a degradation in performance, by the way.)

LTA levied a $15,000 CEVS surcharge on the used Tesla Model S imported from Hong Kong to Singapore.
LTA levied a $15,000 CEVS surcharge on the used Tesla Model S imported from Hong Kong to Singapore.

The LTA was unable to explain the difference in treatment.

The other thing that penalises EV owners is the way road tax is calculated for these vehicles. For EVs (as well as plug-in hybrids), the environmental cost of power transmission is included in the road tax calculation.

Which may explain why the Tesla Model S mentioned earlier attracts an annual road tax of over $6000 - nearly equivalent to what a 6-litre petrol-powered car would attract.

The thing is, we don’t account for the cost of how oil is refined and transported to refuelling stations. This biased treatment makes Singapore one of the worst places to own an EV.

It is hard to understand the logic of this disparity in light of Singapore’s overall vehicular policy. As mentioned earlier, the COE system is already an absolute control on vehicle population. The types of vehicles we have within the population do not matter.

But from an environmental point of view, EVs are certainly more preferable than vehicles with internal combustion engines. For one, they are more efficient in converting energy into motion. Also, they remove the source of pollution from population centres.

The significance of that is evidently lost on our policymakers.

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