SINGAPORE -- In the time-honored tradition of car salesmen )) everywhere, James Chua powered up a 10-megawatt smile as soon as the customer set foot in his Toyota showroom. But just when the potential buyer expected the hard sell, Mr. Chua began to apologize profusely.
"These prices are so crazy," Mr. Chua lamented to a visitor. "We've got to feel sorry for the car buyer."
Talk about sticker shock. A Toyota sedan, whose equivalent model would cost $23,500 in the United States, rolls out of the Borneo Motors showroom for a mere $47,058, not including insurance. A Volvo in Singapore will set you back $88,000 vs. about $25,000 in the United States. And a bottom-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz 200 costs a dazzling $120,000, compared with $48,000 in the United States for a similar model.
Singapore is at war with the automobile. With a population of 2.6 million shoe-horned into an island of just 240 square miles, the government has embarked on a ruthless program to contain the explosive growth in car ownership that is sweeping Southeast Asia.
In neighboring cities such as Bangkok in Thailand, Jakarta in Indonesia and even Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, a decade of economic growth in the 1980s has resulted in huge traffic tie-ups and oily gray clouds of air pollution as newly enriched members of the middle class rushed out to buy cars.
Thailand announced last month a reduction of car import duties from 100 percent to 30 percent, causing Bangkok planners to complain publicly that they have no place to put all the new cars expected to flood the city's already gridlocked streets.
But Singapore has remained a rare exception. Despite a per capita income 10 times higher than that of Thailand and more than 20 times higher than that of Indonesia, Singapore's tough policies have combined to defeat traffic even during rush hours and keep air pollution to a bare minimum.
Singapore residents have grown accustomed to a 15-mile airport trip that takes 20 minutes door-to-door. A traffic jam is an unexpected delay of a minute or two -- almost always caused by an accident.
"The objective is simple -- to keep traffic on our roads free-flowing so that people and goods can move," said Maria Choy of the Land Transport Department. "It's a simple objective but not that easy to achieve."
The campaign began nearly two decades ago when drivers were first required to buy a daily pass for $1.75 to enter a special restricted area in the central business district during
rush hours. Traffic problems immediately improved, and the government began imposing harsher and harsher conditions on car owners.
First came import duties -- 45 percent of an auto's purchase price. Then there's a "registration tax," now set at 150 percent of the sticker.
With nearly 200 percent tacked on to the car's price, Singapore ** now has the world's most expensive cars, according to a business survey issued this month.
But even the sky-high prices failed to work -- the number of cars was expanding at 8 percent a year, according to government statistics. So last year the government decreed an absolute quota on the number of new cars -- 50,000 -- designed to keep purchases at about 4 percent of the cars on the road.
To buy a new car, a driver must obtain a "certificate of entitlement" allowing him to register it. The certificates are sold at monthly auction, and with the supply fixed by government edict, prices shot up. Last month, a midsize car certificate cost about $7,000, and more than 50 percent of applicants failed to qualify.
Motorists became outraged when it was clear that a black market in certificates had sprung up among speculators who bought the permission solely for resale. So starting next month, every new-car buyer must go to the auction himself to get his non-transferable certificate.
Motorists must also pay a "road tax" based on the size of the car's engine. A small Toyota has an $800 annual road tax.
Gerald Ee, vice president of the Automobile Association of Singapore, said that most people in the country now end up paying far more for their car than for their homes. "It's a lot of money, but we don't want a congested road system where you can't get from point A to point Z," Mr. Ee said.
Mr. Ee noted that the boom in car ownership was fueled mainly by middle-class acceptance of car loans. While borrowing was formerly shunned, it has become mandatory for someone shopping for an $80,000 car. In addition to the purchase price, operating costs for a car average $400 a month, with gasoline costing $2.80 a gallon.
In another experiment to keep cars off the streets during rush hours, the government has turned into reality the old used-car joke about the little old lady who used her auto only on Sundays. For a $9,000 reduction in the fee, a motorist can register a "weekend car." Equipped with bright red license plates, the car
can only be driven from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. weekdays, after 3 p.m. Saturdays and all day Sunday.
A driver caught cheating gets a world record traffic fine -- 50 percent of the road tax. For a Mercedes, the fine could cost the driver several thousand dollars.
Apart from curtailing car ownership, the enormous fees -- $428 million last year -- have allowed the government to invest huge sums to create a mass-transit infrastructure. There are almost 40 miles of train tracks in a state-of-the-art subway system, and a $600 million extension is already being constructed. Fares range from 35 cents to 65 cents in the air-conditioned system, kept scrupulously clean. The island also has two public bus systems and more than 12,000 taxicabs.
"By and large, you can go anywhere in Singapore without a car," conceded Mr. Ee of the automobile association.
Beyond its efforts to beat traffic, Singapore also has enacted the toughest laws in Asia to control vehicle emissions.