Friday, January 22, 2016

Interview with a Singaporean car nut

I met Benson by happenstance while he was vacationing in California. Enjoy the interview!

1. Singapore has a reputation for extremely expensive cars. Like, a Honda Civic pushing $100,000 US. Is there any truth to this? What makes the cars so expensive? Tariffs? Taxes? Something else?

Definitely a lot of truth to this. I previously wrote about this in 2011. Since then not much has changed, a Toyota Corolla is slightly cheaper now at around 100k SGD (70k USD, USD has strengthened against the SGD as well since 2011).

I don't really blame the Singapore government for initiating such a scheme, yes granted it is a monetary based scheme. But other alternative car control schemes end up costing more taxpayers money to implement and end up not being fair and accessible to people who need it.

There are about 3 layers to owning a car in Singapore. The first and foremost is a piece of paper called the Certificate of Entitlement (COE). They release these pieces of paper according to number of cars scrapped and an annual growth rate. I.e. if 1500 cars were scrapped in Jan 2015, then in Feb 2015 the number of COEs will be 1500*(3%/12). The paper will then be released for auction to the general public, further broken down in engine categories. So Cat A (1600cc engine capacity and less) will have the most number of such papers available for auction. Whilst Cat B (1600cc engine capacity and more) will have the least. Taxis and Commercial vehicles also have their own set of papers to auction for. So this auctioning system is highly dependent on demand, since supply is restricted. During a strong economy there will be high demand, which explains the price for the paper at 90k SGD for Cat A at one point in 2015. 

The 2nd layer are some miscellaneous car taxes, including import duty and other things that altogether add up to 250% of the market value of the car (determined by cost of purchase and market cost in the market of import). 

The 3rd, less visible, layer is the actual financing for the car. 

Cars are seen as a link to economic needs. For example if you are a sales agent doing real estate then the monthly installments for the car should be offset by the commission from the sales of the real estate. But even if you loan the car there is a 20% deposit that is required. So you would still need to put up 20k for the Corolla upfront, before you can drive it away. And pay off the remaining 80k within 5 years. It's definitely not a right, but a luxury. 
2. Is there a vibrant car culture in Singapore? What is it like?

Yes, there is a vibrant car culture, but much less diverse and in much smaller numbers. But when you do find a rarity, you will find it to be the most ridiculously maintained car in the world. I saw a pristine Jaguar E-Type Coupe in completely original form, I dare say it would not be out of place in a Pebble Beach event. But the most amazing aspect of living in Singapore, is that seeing high-end exotic sports cars like Aventadors, Californias, Enzos, 911 Turbos, etc. are so commonplace that I barely turn my head nowadays. But instead my interest is piqued when I see a RX7 FD Efini, 22B STi, CRX, etc. simply because they are much rarer to see.

There are a lot of secret meets throughout the island, as an outsider it would be very difficult to find such a car meet. And when there is a meet you see a wide variety of cars in the same meet, JDM, exotica, sleepers, classics... it's always different. 

3. Singapore is a tiny city-state. Where do people drive if they want to go fast for long distances?

Well, usually it's the North South highway to Kuala Lumpur along with a stop at Sepang GP track for a blast around. Other than that we don't really have much alternative. Often people go on driving holidays in Australia or New Zealand. It's our outlet :)

4. I understand that you recently had some military obligations. What is expected of Singaporean men and women with respect to the National Service?

All Singaporean males above the age of 18 need to serve in either the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police Force or Civil Defence Force. It's 2 years of full time obligation during which you are given a very small allowance and spend a lot of time in the camp. After the 2 years you will still be called back every year for a maximum of 1 month at a time to do refresher training for 10 cycles (basically a cycle is about 7-14 days of training and usually only once a year). You are also liable for National Service until the age of 40 for ranks up to NCOs and 50 for officers. The ladies do not have to serve, but lately there has been discussion about doing some sort of national service like in healthcare, social welfare, or even the armed forces. Failure to serve when you are 18 leads to an automatic criminal offence. A lot of people have been caught out by this.  

5. Does Singapore have any defense treaties or agreements with other countries, like Australia?

Definitely. Singapore is a resupply base for US naval vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines. And has a permanent station of 2 LCS vessels here. Singapore is part of the 5 Power Defence Treaty, which includes the US, Brunei, Malaysia and Australia. Singapore outspends all other ASEAN countries, this to me is amazing for such a small country, Singapore even outnumbers and is more modern than the Australian airforce. Singapore participates in RIMPAC as well and has been asked to be exercise commander on more than one occasion. Interestingly Singapore does not have much military ties with either China or India, other than once in a while goodwill port visits and smaller exercises (usually rescue situations). 

6. How would you describe Singapore’s relationship with nearby Malaysia and Indonesia?

I think ties with Malaysia have been great as of late. A lot of joint projects and developments. Even things like a High Speed Rail link between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore by 2025 and joint development of multi billion projects in Singapore and Johor Iskandar. 

But with Indonesia I think there will always be some tension. It's a product of Konfrontasi, but with ASEAN there will always be a joint sense of purpose in the greater arena of South East Asia. But this is what happens in an area with such ethnic diversity and multiple languages all spoken at the same time. There will always be an element of distrust when your neighbour does not know what you are talking about when they don't speak your language. 

7. Back to cars. What kind of cars do you like? What have you owned?

I don't particularly have a type of car that I especially love, except maybe kei sports cars (simply because of the amazing engineering). But to give you an idea I would say this is my 10 car dream garage, as of now:
a. Tesla Model S P85D
b. Weld Toyota Chaser JZX100 Tourer V
c. Honda S660
d. Toyota Sports 800
e. Singer Porsche
f. Citroen DS (with working hydropneumatic suspension)
g. Lancia Integrale Evo 2
h. Buick Grand National GNX (reinforced transmission from GN1)
i. Jaguar XK120 
j. Walkinshaw GTS W507 (VF)

I have owned a Honda Civic EG6, Nissan Skyline R33 (unfortunately the GTS variant and a 4 door), Toyota Mark II JZX90, Honda Prelude BB4, Toyota Chaser JZX100 Tourer V and Toyota Corolla AE101 (with AE111 BZR suspension, engine and gearbox). 

8. You’re also interested in exporting cars from Japan. Tell us more about that.

Actually that is for the 7Tune Group business which Adam and I started some time back to try and give 7Tune a more sustainable future as a content provider. So we have utilised our contacts in Japan to offer great prices on not just exported cars, but also parts like engines and gearboxes. But more importantly we wanted to give the community a viable alternative to faceless corporations, we give back to the community with our coverage of the community and organising events. We are also able to secure parts and cars that you normally wouldn't be able to find, like a pristine Devil Z 240Z or a low-kms Championship White Honda NSX.  

9. You recently visited California. What are your impressions of the cars here, based on what you saw on the streets and freeways?

I feel like the States seems to lack diversity in the day-to-day driving. I see Priuses and Odysseys everywhere. But at the same time the number of classic exotics that you see as well as Teslas are amazing. So there seems to be a large trough between real car enthusiasts and normal daily driver purchasers. Why aren't daily drivers more enthusiastic about the choices they have? Surely there are a lot more choices in the North American market than anywhere else in the world. 

10. Why do you love cars?This is a tough question to answer, I guess I could have the cliche answer of it being a part of my DNA since early childhood. But I don't just appreciate the cars as objects by themselves, but also the culture behind them. I've grown up appreciating different aspects of car culture, from observer to driver.  It's always been a part of my life, even as I moved around from country to country. It was the one constant that I felt passionate about. 

I've always been the kid with that playmat with the road on it. Endlessly moving them around on a playmat for hours, imagining different scenarios. I remember sitting in the car watching cars drive past and naming all the cars. Knowing that the cars were taking people to different locations. But this was all the theory, so I was really excited when i got to take my driving test. 

When you get behind the wheel the experience is different again, you are in control and you are free to go anywhere you want. I think this has been my favourite experience with car culture so far, that feeling when you get behind the wheel. 

And finally getting the modifying, customising and tuning aspect of car culture, this is a great exercise in truly appreciating cars, because you are forced to understand how components come together to form this amazing machine. You start fiddling, adding, taking away and sooner or later you are hooked on the process. Then you come to interacting with fellow car enthusiasts, swapping stories of your journey with the car, your plans and discovering new parts and techniques. Car enthusiasts speak in a lingo unlike any other, talking in chassis codes, engine codes and random numbers. I enjoy that camaraderie, regardless of language, race, religion or nationality. When you go to a car show you don't need to understand what he is saying, because looking at how a car is done up will tell you all you need to know. 

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