Driven by desire

Singaporeans may love their food, but they also love their cars. Previous attempts by the government for an annual 'Car-Free Day' in 2001 were far from successful. Undeterred, the government replaced the initiative with a less short-sighted 'Green Transport Day' in 2003, hoping to encourage the use of public transport.

This year, the green event, which had previously taken place in April, was overlooked - although a Ministry of Environment official told me that an event was still on the cards, but was unable to say when.

Owning a car in Singapore is an expensive affair. Still, Singaporeans are willing to tighten their belts so they can afford the Certificate of Entitlement (a piece of paper you must 'purchase' to be able to buy a car), the Electronic Road Pricing, and the fuel, which is heavily taxed. It's not filial piety that keeps a lot of young men living at home but the fact that they would prefer to borrow to the hilt and spend the next 10 years repaying their loan on a Toyota rather than get their own place. So, asking them to drop their cars, even for a day, to promote environmental awareness is obviously going to meet heavy resistance.

The government has long tried to dissuade its citizens from buying cars by making them so expensive to own that, for the price of a luxury car you could buy a flat, and property is not cheap here, either. As a result, Singapore may have avoided the traffic gridlock that many other international cities face (although anybody on Orchard Road at the weekend might dispute this), but land transport is still responsible for about 20 per cent of Singapore's greenhouse-gas emissions.

The reality is that money or not, most locals see their precious four wheels as the ultimate sign of financial success (it is, after all, one of the ultimate '5Cs', along with credit cards, cash, condo and country club).

Yet, one paradox is that the higher up the social ladder you get, the more expensive the car and the more discreet the owner. At the launch of the new Rolls-Royce 101EX, a prototype coupe, I was pointed to some Rolls owners, but when I asked what they were driving, they went all coy.

The local market's interest for high-end cars is, however, strong enough for Rolls-Royce to have decided to unveil the coupe in the Lion City ahead of Hong Kong and Japan (even though Japan is where the company is now seeing the second-fastest growth in terms of sales, and there are about 700 of their cars on the road in Hong Kong).

'Singapore's appreciation of leading automobiles is second to none,' said a senior Rolls-Royce official. You can't argue with that when a Roll-Royce Phantom will set you back S$1.5 million ($7.4 million), the highest price in the world for such a car.