Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I once had a car, and the beast owned me

Mar 03, 2013

The experience of ownership has scared me off buying another car, I hope, for life

By John Lui

I once had a car, which I owned for 10 years. Or rather, it worked as a car for five of those years. For the other five, it was more like a car-shaped lump.

It sat in the carpark, forlornly collecting bird poop because of a leaky radiator, or in a workshop, because the air-conditioning unit kept flipping to a mysterious mode I called "Korean rotisserie".

I had to explain to passengers why, despite interior temperatures high enough to melt tooth fillings, the windows could not be rolled down, because the window motors were also broken. At traffic stops, the driver in the car behind mine would see my passengers open the doors, stick their heads out, and pant like dogs.

No matter what was repaired, by the following week, another hose would disintegrate, another bit would unscrew itself and plop off, probably out of shame. It was as if the car wanted to get away from me, piece by piece.

I didn't put it on the market because I feared there might be a law against selling a vehicle that was slowly exploding from inside out. Also, because of my enormous loan, selling it would put me in a "negative equity situation", as experts call it. What I would get for it in a sale would not even begin to cover what I still owed the bank. That heap owned me.

To make my joy utterly complete, the loan was fully paid off only in the final months of ownership. It was then that I had had enough. My self-disassembling car would have to go to a dealer. The certificate of entitlement (COE), held by the bank, was sent to me after the final payment cleared. I held that paper in my quivering hands for the second time in my life, just weeks before the date on it would run out.

The first time I touched it was 10 years earlier, at the dealership, as my pen hovered over the loan contract. The salesman snatched the COE away before the ink was even dry. I heard a cackle, there was a cloud of sulphur and then he, with all the papers, was gone.

The experience of ownership has scared me off buying a car, I hope, for the rest of my life. It was living with a real-life PowerPoint presentation of why owning four wheels in Singapore is on a par with sleeping on railroad tracks as one of the least constructive things a person can do. It is like moving around with a giant "Kick Me" sign in glass and steel.

With interest, I had given the bank twice the car's original price. In other words, I had opted for the world's worst mode of transport (outside of, say, shoes made of cactus), when I could have saved up for a more decent vehicle later.

Or just not bought one at all.

Last week saw the latest in moves by the Government to put a lid on the number of vehicles on the roads. To sum up, the higher the car's naked street value is, the greater the Additional Registration Fee. Previously, everyone paid the same percentage. The maximum loan repayment period has been halved, from 10 to five years, and buyers can borrow only up to 60 per cent of a vehicle's purchase price, when in the past they could drive away with a loan for the full amount.

For many, the car they have today may be the last one they ever own.

I've learnt from my brush with the pleasures of car ownership (and one court appearance for ignoring parking fines) that when the law is trying to discourage you from doing something, it's best not to struggle. It only prolongs the suffering.

That said, I think that the campaign message of Stop At Zero for the number of cars a person should have could be made a little stronger. It could take the form of public service announcements, for example, television commercials.

Right now, the car dealers pump out alluring dramatisations, all with images of clever, handsome men looking cool behind the wheel, undoing the work of legions of hard-working bureaucrats. There should be an opposing voice.

I see a male driver, tearing out his hair, stuck in traffic, holding his bank car loan statement, while a voice-over says: "Hey, at least you got the model with the turbo. Look at how fast you're not going anywhere!"

Cigarette packets have grisly photographs; car showrooms should have demotivational posters.

There could be short educational plays for children in school. I call this one Why Is Mummy Angry?:

Why is Mummy angry? Because she waited a long time for that parking spot. Then a bad man cut in and took it. Oh no! Mummy just used a bad word.

Conversely, using public transport could be portrayed as really sexy, an act performed by manly men and thin women with expensive handbags. On second thoughts, forget it. Not even Steven Spielberg could make that concept fly.

If a person thinks that she absolutely needs a car, and can afford one, or two, or three vehicles the size of cruise liners, more power to her. She should spend her millions the way she wants.

The rest of us will applaud the small things in life, such as the just-announced plan to put more handrails on trains and do away with the obstructive grab poles at the doorway.

May I suggest another improvement? Move bus exit doors to the rear. Where they are now, in the middle, is exactly right for causing three-way collisions between people coming into the bus, those exiting and those descending from the upper deck. I could not think of a better place if my goal was to give a bus complete constipation of movement.

I'll admit that for a few moments over that decade, it felt good to be in that club of owners. Even if membership requires that one be in complete denial of reality.

Still, each time I run into that knot of humans trapped in a bus aisle because no one will give way, or try to fold myself in half to fit into a train carriage already fit to burst, and wish I were the master of my own four-wheel domain, I remember the times when that beast made me its slave.

The despair goes away quickly.

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