MRT: No blame, no pain, no shame

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah



As 2017 lurches to an end, three images are already stuck in our collective mind. One is, of course, 38 Oxley Road. The second is the MRT train stranded in flood water in the Bishan tunnel on October 7. The third is the glum faces of the five head honchos of Singapore’s rail transport system in Parliament on Tuesday.

As one cynic told me, the five  –  SMRT Trains chief executive Lee Ling Wee, SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek, SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming, LTA chief executive Ngian Hoon Ping and LTA deputy chief executive Chua Chong Keng – looked like war criminals facing their accusers and awaiting their fate at the Nuremberg military tribunals of 1945-46.

But they got off rather lightly, I thought.  Where does the buck stop?

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan commended Seah Moon Ming for telling him that the SMRT Board will review the remuneration of its senior management, from the CEO (meaning Desmond Kuek) through the relevant chain of command: “This is as it should be…It is the responsibility of management to set the right culture of professionalism and excellence. It begins from the top. And if there is poor culture, the CEO is responsible. “

And yet, in the same breath, he said that Kuek had “volunteered” for his SMRT job:  “He wasn’t parachuted in or was asked to go fix this. As the former chief of defence force, I know his heart is in the right place.”

Throughout his speech, Khaw spread his unique formula of Teflon coating, along with no small amount of self-praise, just about everywhere. I don’t think he should get away with it.

“There has been no shortcoming or lapses in oversight by LTA staff in the present regulatory framework. “

“We have also begun to go beyond preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance.”

“The heavy-lifting has to be done by SMRT. But they will not be alone. The resources of LTA and MOT will be there to support them. That is why my Permanent Secretary is here, and the CEO of LTA. I handpicked the CEO of LTA and I persuaded PSD to post him to me when his predecessor Chew Men Leong decided to leave for personal reasons. And he is truly committed to this cause.” Khaw was referring to Ngien Hoon Ping who is the new LTA CEO from today (Nov 12).

“SMRT has replaced the vice-president Ng Tek Poo with Siu Yow Wee, a senior mechanical engineer within SMRT. Siu is known to be deeply committed and responsible, and I expect him to enforce greater discipline and process controls within his group.” Ng was overall in charge of the team responsible for the defective water pump.

“Not long ago, you may remember, we had people jumping from platforms, we put a stop to that with platform screens. We used to have all kinds of third rail problems, now no more because we changed it out. We had lots of sleeper related problems, now much less as we have changed it out. The signalling system has to be changed, and we have turned the corner for the North-South Line. The same is with flooding, it will not recur. As we keep going in this direction, there will be a major improvement in experience in the near future.”

“Our aim to cross an MKBF (Mean Kilometres Between Failure of more than five minutes) of 1 million train-km by 2020 is within our grasp.”

“I have done a lot in the last two years and I have aged five years along the way. I would like to believe that my biggest achievement so far is in creating this One Team. It is very different from two years ago.”

“In September this year, I shared with this House on our urgent plans to renew the six core components of the North-South and East-West Lines. These are the sleepers, third rail, signalling system, power supply, track circuits and the old first-generation trains. We are about halfway through this multi-year journey, with our destination in 2024. I will not be in this House by then.”

There we have it.  As Khaw put it:  “If each time something disappointing happens, and everybody is onto the troop or general, or calling for a switch of the general, this is a sure strategy for failure.”

And so none of the five has been suspended or even been blamed. They are still collecting good salaries, whatever penalties are in store for some. Whereas – and this is the big sore point – some of the hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans, who have to rely on the MRT to get to work, may not be able to keep their jobs for long, not to talk about getting bonuses or promotion. Which employers can tolerate staff who turn up late frequently? And, in terms of damage to the image of a country where things are supposed to work with clockwork precision and which is well-known for admirable forward planning, what our transport mess-uppers have done is unforgivable.

I also think none of the five uses the MRT to get to work as part of his daily routine, if he has a choice. We have to discount riding the train as part of his feedback duty, that is, to get first-hand feel of train usage. What do the five know about travelling in overcrowded trains, continually aggravated by delays and not infrequent bad air-conditioning, day in, day out? And we are told there is no end in sight till another two or three years.

Non-car owning commuters, who live in Yishun, Woodlands, Tampines and Jurong and cannot rely on long trunk journey buses, are the helpless victims of what appear to be a series of continuing and questionable big picture cockups:  overpopulation, poor choice of SMRT management leaders, wrong SMRT priorities and technical incompetence or shortcomings.

No blame, no pain, no shame.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.


  1. if maintenance not done properly from the start than it have lots of problem since it been running so many yrs wondering what was spolit and was not changed and they have keep in the dark about it . now the train like breaking apart with lots of problem causing lots of delay and break down almost everyday and still dare to talk about fare adjustments to raise standard

  2. Sometime statement and words gotto be clear and careful for example i think many people can also volunteer for the TOP job in smrt and can it work this way?? Don’t agree with the words volunteered for the job! Sounded like a joke!

  3. why??????不是(反屁。。。人士)。。。(淫淫不代志)。。。(是小小。。。孩。。。有杀错。。。没放过)。。。(金钱万岁。。。万岁。。。万万岁)。。。(国之将亡。。。征兆)。。。呼呼。。。。

  4. there was a very interesting article in Sunday Times last week about SMRT – however I wished the reporter would have gone one step further and report on the number of SAF officers that were brought into SMRT and the number SMRT officers that were being replaced by these SAF officers since Desmond took over. Could our present predicament be because of his action..??

  5. First create a maintenance issue then reason to pump in money for maintenance to justify fare increase.
    N the world go round n round… Next maintenance… Will go with Next fare increase…..hmm.
    Good money… Good money.

  6. The source of the flawed culture is none other than Lhl, our act-blind PM. The more you study this MRT saga, the liklier you will conclude that he is the one who enables the preservation of inept, hopeless smd even shameless people at the top. We should all start to miss Lky, who somehow failed to pass on all his best traits.

    • Alex Yap he is busying himself with hobnobbing with Trump and Xi Jinping. He thinks he could be the top influencer on geopolitics from this region, like his dad. Actually he could not even give commuters at home the peace of mind. No wonder more and more see him as a dishonourable son. I am one of the latest converts. More should join the indignant camp.

  7. Come 2018…all the same. Part if daily routine. Breakdown announcemenf is getting less when it recurs. Who knows, all the talks will be too. What can commuters do? Nothing! But we can feel it!!!

  8. Yeah. When zero car growth announced, MRT cried, I have enough of these monkies torturing me with loads and start giving them hell!.


  9. Good management is all about giving away your authorities but you never give away your Responsibility, this is not the case in smrt, the govt as the boss should be tough n nice not nice n tough to the top management team instead of nice to management n looks for options options options but dont fire, what a shame LKY must be up there somewhere wondering… Someone have to go then we sit around n look at solutions n options.

  10. The whole chain of system. … starting from top to the bottom.

    Same like the whole chain of maintenance lacking since day one. Now we see how these paper general know only to react on the battle field. But not for the jobs of train. … They work on the present situation fault but lack of preventive measures of the following set of trains.

    Here we see the NS (Red) lines common breakdown. Now we see another set of train Green starting to take effect. Last week Tiong Bahru MRT to Queensway MRT station and following with Pasir Ris station Green lines again reported fault and time delay.

    This show the whole chain of defects will take effect again and again. This is the whole chain effect when we don’t practise from the mgmt system. It is clearly take effect on the ground.

    Likewise the anticipated chain effect on the next MRT lines. Red line is first. Green Lines just started last week. Now …just mentally prepare for next lines of chain effect. coming.

    So … Nothing can be done to the Rooster Cock Fire year.

  11. LTA come clean, what causes the COE bubble burst?. Tell the public how many new COEs are issued directly to GRAB & UBER and how many are sitting in the yards including taxis!

  12. One of many images one sees everyday but not easily pictured (but always heard) are the glum faces of ordinary citizens who are bearing the extraordinary recent 2017 surge of price increases catalyzed by the govt.

  13. PAP say they pay themselves high to prevent corruption n get result. Now we are let down. So ask them to cut pay by 50% until system improve. Or they should call for snap election putting MRT in forefront. Let citizens decide. If Sinkies still want to die for them then rest of us must zip our mouth.

  14. Only little people get the sacking and asked to owned up their mistake! The 6 shameful high ranking individual get to keep their MILLION DOLLAR salary!! One of them get to talk cock in Parliament to praised some individual instead of asking for their resignation!! Lots of Bullshit going on here and that is the root caused of all Singapore problem you see today!! Gets millions in Salary take NO Ownership and Responsibility!!!

    • They masked themselves before they go out.Their wives dare not go market even , their children also dare not face their classmates, feel like wanting to commit suicide , have this kind of Land Pirate father or husband so very Suay , Suay for whole life. Oh , God , help to get rid of robbers. Amen .

  15. Why when singaporeans need jobs they need to go for interview ,need to apply, than get low salary. These people just volunteer get job and high salary and dont have experience for that trade. Double standards. I thing it is better to get rid of the whole bunch. Even the high paying ministers that do not need to be there

  16. This is a ‘head’ problem so solutions have to come from the head, when u allow yourself to be emotional n said the guy volunteer we r in trouble because its emotional now n the problems will not go away, even if its your father u have to let him go, again i said this a few times already it management by objectives nothing personal.

  17. Continue the debate in Parliament, news medias for another year MRT operation won’t improve.
    Act immediately the train will function just as good as good as Taiwan and HK.

  18. Aiyah… can’t even sort out what he wants from 38 Oxley with 2 younger siblings. U want him to comment on SMRT? Next thing u know will be another ministerial committee.

  19. Generals should stay in the army. Why go into the corporate world and reveal what you actually are – WHITE ELEPHANTS ! Singapore is too small an island to accomodate so many of these elephants.

  20. Its alritez Mr Khaw as the SMRT Maintenance team has “let you down” and we can understand.Bcos when you and your croonies LET US DOWN the 70% “fans” of you still supported you and your Pappies team…So this is not so “shocking” afterall.

  21. Just wonder what would be their excuse had the train driver been less observant and missed the electrical arcing, and the entire train caught fire or becomes electrically charged, leading to passenger casualties.

  22. I salute to the type of excuses he can come up with…
    Got bad luck, got track fault, and not MRT fault.. and still have blind followers believing in their party..

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