‘Deep-seated cultural issues’ behind disruptions – SMRT CEO Desmond Kwek explains

ST16062015-1516659486-Lim Yaohui/Christopher Tan BT/ //SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek, standing in front of the new SMRT train at Bishan MRT depot on June 16 2015. //For story on what he has achieved so far after 3 years in SMRT. (Photo: Lim Yaohui for The Straits Times)

SMRT’s president and group chief executive officer Desmond Kuek apologised to commuters for the Oct 7 20-hour service disruption on the North-South Line, one of the worst in the transport operator’s history. He also acknowledged that “many of our major disruptions in the past have been attributed in some part, or all, to human error or failure”. This is his statement in full:

On behalf of all of us in SMRT, I apologise to members of the public who were affected by last weekend’s disruption. We are all deeply pained by what happened.

Many have asked what SMRT has done since the Dec 2011 incidents. Please allow me to address these questions upfront. Since 2012, SMRT has gone into overdrive to address maintenance issues arising from age-related serviceability issues.

We beefed up and renewed the Trains team. Staff strength increased from 3,500 to 5,300 today, with nearly triple the number of Engineers to nearly 500 now. Our SMRT Institute was transformed to better meet the professional and vocational training requirements of the workforce that had been significantly expanded to meet the intensified demands. We also tied everyone’s performance incentives to a basket of measures, of which safety and reliability was given the greatest weight.

We subjected the company to an independent review for asset management through international ISO 55001 certification and have achieved level 3 (out of a possible 4) to date. This is a serious undertaking in our concerted effort to strengthen process discipline.

We set up a Technology Management Office in 2014 to develop condition monitoring tools for critical systems, and this year started a Future Systems Office to harness digital technology and data analytics for predictive maintenance so that rail excellence can be achieved and, more importantly, sustained in an affordable way into the future.

Structurally, since 2013, we have deepened the domain expertise in each functional component – rolling stock, track permanent way, signaling, power systems – and also looked into their system integration across maintenance, engineering, projects and planning. These were deemed to be of high priority for rail reliability, and multiple projects were launched to renew or replace each of them. Within the 3-5 hours of engineering time each night, we prioritized our work so that we could meet the most pressing maintenance needs, yet allowing renewal projects to progress at best speed, and for commuter service to proceed uninterrupted the next day at dawn.

Last year, with the more pressing reliability issues in hand, we turned our focus to address the other building infrastructure which were also aging. Many of these were under different supervisory heads. So earlier this year, we decided to place them under one division for better integration and supervision. These include platform screen doors, lifts, escalators, electrical and mechanical, fire protection and environmental control systems that have also aged and needed close attention. Their replacement also required funding support and track access priority, and we took the decision in September this year to proceed as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, it was not soon enough to prevent what happened last weekend.

There has been criticism about SMRT’s work culture. Indeed, many of our major disruptions in the past have been attributed, in some part, or all, to human error or failure. We regret that this is so.

Much progress has been made with the inculcation of a positive work culture, but there remain some deep-seated cultural issues within the company that has needed more time than anticipated to root out. It would be wrong to paint everyone in SMRT with the same brush – 9 in 10 of our people are incredibly committed, professional and commuter focused. They are Singaporeans too, with family members and friends who commute, and work hard under challenging conditions to deliver the best possible public transport service for all our commuters. We have a strong team and good people, and I deeply appreciate their steadfast support and leadership.

We are determined to get there and encouraged by the progress already made. But for the times that we have not been able to catch the falling balls in time, we are sorry for the inconvenience it has caused you, and resolve to learn the lessons and do better.

Over the past five years, we have made great progress but also some mistakes. Regardless whether our issues are viewed by others as inherited, structural or cultural, we make no excuses. I take full responsibility for all that has happened under my watch as the overall Group’s chief executive.

I hope you will continue to support the team in SMRT as we continue with our best foot forward toward rail excellence – to move people and enhance the lives of all our commuters.


  1. He dare to make meaningless statements like this! Service has been getting from bad to worse. First it was signalling problems, then track faults and now train faults. Where is the maintenance for the signalling system, tracks and trains? Are they applying breakdown maintenance strategies? Pathetic person. Take responsibility and resign the job. IF he is any good, he will be able to get a well paying job BUT if he is not any good then he will suffer the fate of all incompetents! George Yeo was sought after when he left the government. He could have gone on to a GLC but he did not! For this, I respect him.

  2. if u are on probation, u be sack under LKY! LKY do not pay you ” to learn the lesson and to do better “. U making a fool of LHL to live up to his reputation for being called the ” Dishonourable Son”. SHAPE UP OR SHIP OUT!!!…PERIOD! LKY say Every Little Things must work if don’t work YOU are not working!

  3. “I hope you will continue to support the team in SMRT as we continue with our best foot forward toward rail excellence – to move people and enhance the lives of all our commuters.” – given a choice I won’t but alas unless I want to walk or cycle to work I’ve no choice but to take the train and hope for the best. Cab too expensive and no money to buy a car

  4. Ran out of excuse now blame cultural problem?!!! The statement is not even worth the paper it is written on. That’s how pathetic it is. Blame here blame there but nvr blame himself for being incompetent. That’s the best we can get out of the highly educated person??!! BE A MAN FOR ONCE, TAKE RESPONSIBILITY AND ADMIT YOU ARE NOT CAPABLE. GO RUN SAFRA OR SOME NON ESSENTIAL SRRVICE LAH.!!!!!

    • He has been CEO of SMRT for nearly five years and earned at least S$10 million during this period. It is a damn expensive ‘sorry’ when SMRT’s service disruptions have gone from bad to worse. The deep seated cultural problem in SMRT is its failure to fire an imbecile CEO.

  5. It’s not his fault actually, the system is 30 years old even if u replace him with the best professional engineer for this job it will continue to breakdown. This public transport needed a panel of professionals with decades of experience. It’s not as easy as everyone thought n even newly launched train lines breakdown. Anyone unlucky to replace him will b cursed for no reason as it’s beyond his anticipation. Only can say good luck la. If religious leaders can do magic we don’t need engineers la. God is laughing alrdy.

    • All reasons need to be given and release to public slowly so they can drag it till the day they retire. From external to now, the internal issue.. didn’t all these issues exists when we have train fault etc? Yes, it does but he mention it only today. Clearly he is saying it is a leadership failure.

  6. A few questions must be asked. When $8 emphasized that the pit is designed for 5,000 m3 capacity, and the rain fall on that day was only 700 m3. So the pit already filled with 4,300 m3 (or 86% filled) of shit, sludge or smelly effluent before the rain start. Thus 86% filled pit gave away that the pump wasn’t working since the last 7 heavy rain falls, if this happen once in 5 years, the pump not working for the last 35 years.86% filled pit before raining sound extremely ridiculous. So the remaining two possibilities are the switch failed to activate pumping or that the pit is under designed. $8 also mentioned that on 20 Sep, they decided to replace the pump, did he not already given out the fact that the pump has not been working and need replacement! In conclusion, the pump has been out of order for a long long time and no one really care as they assumed that the pit is bottom less! ! !

  7. If these happens in Japan … you guess who will have to apologize….not the CEO or the GM …..the Minister will be doing the apologies and than step down or resign ….Look …at our Minister KBW …shifting all the mistakes n blaming the maintenance team….disgraceful and shameful….
    Very sad and disgusting to see them on channel New Asia …
    The whole World will be laughing…..
    Be a MAN…step down n resigned…

  8. I think all of us who are affected by the breakdowns, have lambasted SMRT more than enough. Frankly, the model of privatising subway transport in Singapore is wrong and untenable. Unfortunately, if we are to witch hunt, this will bring us back 17 years to the time when the IPO was made. Whoever is the consultant or agent, from the financial industry, sold the government, which is totally inexperienced and naive, a big Lemon. Then the previous CEO tried hard at raising revenue, using her retail experience, so that SMRT has enough money for maintenance, for keeping shareholders happy, etc. Then the military came in, thinking that there was a lack of discipline. Out goes the original team, came in the military officers. As if the deep culture quagmire is not enough, there was, I am sure we vs them. Sure, we can bring in more military officers. But subway maintenance is a specialised job, maybe they think it is like maintaining tanks and missiles. Well it is not, because subway is real time and live. And rockets can misfire without anybody knowing. So how to go forward. As a Singaporean who, like all, pride on being Number 1 for this and that, I don’t know the answer. Maybe KBW should face up, representing the government, and apologise for the cycle of vicious decline all this while. And ask the people to forgive and give it some slack. After all, it is the government who direct the listing, the appointment of MOT, the PS (MOT), CEO (SMRT), etc. That so many MOT managed to hold the roof without bursting is really a political trick. No worry dear the previous minister quit and became ambassador. He is really smart and far sighted to see the shit falling down. And the previous CEO was fired but she probably thankful not to ride the roller coaster. Ahead, the subway in Singapore is getting so complex in a densely populated small place, where the citizens are promised good government in return for more PAP votes, I think it might make sense to have dedicated team to handle the entire subway thingy – maybe a Minister of Mass Rapid Transit ?

  9. Wow ! Now suddenly the operation personnel are all Singaporean urh??
    Take responsibility? But never show how you take responsibility???
    Every Singaporean commuters can also say to take responsibility for all the cock up that happened , can the chronic issue be solved ??
    Nahbeh ! bui pai seh taking Million dollars salary from tax payers and come out with this lame excuses of due to deep rooted cultural issues !?? expounding ISO crap ! That piece of commercial paper stuck on the wall solve no problems ok!!
    Get real ! Technical issue need engineering solution ! Telling the public that SMRT gotten so many QMS Certification does nothing to mitigate the train system technical issues and on the contrary, if with ISO certification, you claim delivery of quality services, then with the extreme chronic issues budding the mrt operations , it goes that your acclaimed ISO certification has failed SMRT badly !!!!

  10. You should resign and don’t make Singapore shameless like you. Be a man of principal not a puppet. Your million dollars salary can feed a lot of poor and destitute families. How many stars you have is still useless and it won’t bring your any glory to your family, to your children. It just useless brain and shameless face you have wear it on to your future generation.

  11. This another useless paper general, 郭木材should call himself, 郭廢材 is forever hiding under KBW’s smelly underwear. He will never apologize immediately, instead he expect commuters to forget before he steps up to apologize, exactly one week after the tunnel flooding incident and he continue to earn his fat shit salary!

  12. The type of ‘company culture’ they got is the type that they wanted to set up in the first place and that is putting technically incompetent military people and political cronies in top positions in management and keeping their fingers crossed that these useless people will somehow rise to the task of running such a highly technical organization.

  13. Social media won. To each report, the past four months, Lee debacle, President election, MRT disruption, SPH retreachments, comments came in swiftly. One a minute, 60 responses the 1st hour. Anytime of the day or night, 1pm or 1am. The government/CEO bowed (literally) to pressure, ST gave prominance today, flooding in MRT tunnel preventable, says Khaw. Our replies do count. However, let’s us be responsible, civilised in the debates. Because we are right, the arguments are pointed, comes easy, sometimes funny (ticketing, no breakdown?). To the platforms, advantage this, increase eyeballs, advertising revenue. Remember, 9 years ago, Barack Obama won the Presidency because MSM elevated, carried him all the way. With the entire machinery supporting her, Hillary Clinton lost. Donlad Trump narrowly won because of social media. Our 1st victory. Cheers.

  14. Could the deep-seated cultural issues point to the relationship between LTA and SMRT? LTA is both regulator and builder/upgrader while SMRT operates and maintains. If LTA built a crappy system, can the operator be solely responsible? Maybe it boils down to the typical civil service attitude of “taichi “.

    Khaw hinted about the adversarial relationship between operator and regulator.

  15. When there are plenty of problems causing frequent breakdowns of MRT, the CEO should be the first person to be held account able for the inefficiencies and must be sacked. Strange, why the Minister of transport did not ask this ineffective and inefficient CEO to resign. Is it nepotism or this CEO has a powerful PAP connection?

  16. WTF…you should resign gracefully before u get a kick out which I doubt so. In Singapore, no minsters die when something happened under their watch. Only their little Indians get a sack or demoted. Everything back to normal after that n the ministers still getting their obscene monthly pay plus bonuses end of the year. We Singaporean get the shits and have to put up with their incompetence.