MRT’s chequered journey and the power of social media and commuters

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)


The first concrete step in long-suffering Singapore commuters’ journey to a decent, just a decent, MRT starts today (Sunday), hopefully.

Thanks to the undeniable power of social media and commendable public refusal to accept a forced down culture of we-can-do-no-wrong – and no thanks whatsoever to a state-controlled media’s largely compliant and shamefully collaborative role not to rock the boat.

Trains will not be in operation along the East-West Line from Tuas Link to Tiong Bahru and on the North-South Line at Bukit Batok and Bukit Panjang today and next Sunday. In addition, from Dec 8 to Dec 31, the 19 EWL stations will close earlier on Fridays and Saturdays (at 11pm) and open later on Saturdays and Sundays (at 8am).

The shorter operating hours will double engineering and track access time for engineers to “accelerate” re-signalling works on the EWL.

Besides Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s promise of heaven-and-earth statement in Parliament, a couple of other developments also showed a more serious and concerted effort to roll up sleeves and knuckle down to solving the problem of a malfunctioning system and allegedly poor work culture which led to the Bishan tunnel flooding.

The LTA and PUB have set up a committee to prevent flooding. The committee will study long-term measures “beyond our generation” and put them in place. Up came the name of Tan Gee Paw, Khaw’s special rail transformation adviser. The former PUB chairman was instrumental in solving the flood problem of Bukit Timah.

Temasek-backed Pavilion Energy’s CEO Seah Moon Ming will step down to focus on his role as SMRT chairman. A chairman’s role is usually that of ensuring corporate compliance, leaving the ground work and management to the CEO. An activist and hands-on chairman means CEO Desmond Kuek does not seem able to do the job alone and needs serious help.

Kuek will also have the services of LTA CEO Ngien Hoon Ping in whom Khaw seemed to have tremendous confidence, maybe because of his engineering background. Ngien studied at the University of Manchester where he graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (First Class Honours) in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. He won a Postgraduate Scholarship (Specialist Development) in 2002 to study at the NUS where he obtained a Master of Science in Industrial and System Engineering.

The Transport Minister said: “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.”

Voila. The public now expects – better delivery, greater transparency and less evasiveness.

All this is far cry from what took place in 2016.

In July that year, Factwire, a Hong Kong an investigative news agency, ran an exposé on the secret recall of 26 MRT C151A trains to their manufacturer, CSR Sifang Co Ltd. The trains had quite a few quality issues including underframe cracking, which could threaten the structural integrity of an entire train car. Factwire reporters filmed the trains, covered under tarps, being shipped out of Singapore at night, and later located them at the CSR Sifang plant in Qingdao. Khaw said the whole thing was blown out of proportion.  The LTA said the defects “are not safety-critical and do not affect the train’s systems or performance”, adding that it had been working closely with the manufacturer Kawasaki Heavy Industries and CSR Sifang after defects were found on the trains purchased under C151A.

Out of proportion or not, safety-critical or not, it took non-profit Factwire, funded by 3,300 Hong Kong residents in 2015, to draw our attention to the faulty trains. The agency was interested because the HK MTR Corporation awarded a HK$6 billion contract for 93 new trains to CSR Sifang in July 2015.

And it was social media in Singapore which quickly picked up this story and got the transport people here hot and bothered.

And because of social media – which I very proudly say would include all the commuters who have smartphones and are on Facebook, Twitter and are tuned in to the alternative media news websites – this time around, every unreported, unacknowledged  and even underplayed delay, shutdown, crash, collision and flood will be fully and properly captured and circulated.

They can see through the cosy wayang constantly being played out on MSM – let officially approved transport reporters downplay issues through neither here nor there “analytical” essays and state agencies praising such pieces while blowing their own trumpets.

Take this letter from Temasek Holdings (which owns the SMRT) which appeared in The Straits Times forum page: “He (the ST transport reporter) noted: ‘There is no reason why our MRT cannot be the best in the world’. We agree.”

The rah-rah got even more bombastic and fairy-tale like: “Taking SMRT private is part of our journey to support it in its focus to be among the very best in the world, through operational and engineering excellence.”


The reality check starts today with the shutdown, repeat, shutdown of 19 stations. Best in the world? Not according to commuters and the social media.  Not by a long, long shot.

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. It’s better to shut down certain lines to do a thorough repair.

    I note the SMRT only take care of problem when it arise.

    What is the top (highly paid) management doing?

  2. Enough of these jerks giving promises time after time but instead deliver hell warming their seats with big fat salaries!. Pleasw pay them in hell notes immediately. Sky rocket COEs to deter vehicle ownership and can’t even provide a decent island wide speed transport system. STEP DOWN & GO TO HELL STRAIGHT TO ANSWER TO HELL LORD!

  3. We are rather shameful facing our neighbors. Such a small island with an issue that takes ages to rectify.

    Back than If the state if Johor is included in the separation process we will probably be in the 70s to 80s and will be in catastrophic state till now

    So nothing to brag about being world 1st. A tiny dot yet still mismanaged!

  4. 2 portfolios MP cannot do the job. Chairman volunteers to step down.

    Now this is just for the time being from the pictures taken. (Period)

    High salary does not proof anything. With too many portfolio that beem assigned cannot handle all the job perfectly. Why should our Minister assign them with so many portfolio when we know human have its limitations.

    Don’t blame the one been put on this post but blame the one who Orchestra the whole team for their appointment. How many failure proven?
    Can he run the leadership by salary concepts?

  5. Miscalculation of Population increased too much out of sudden caused too much for smrt to digest and at the same times increased social problems due to mismanagement or no knowledge how to handle

  6. The solution to solve our MRT problem is to hire the right person to lead. Perhaps getting the CEO of Taipei MRT to lead our MRT and plus hiring another 20 Rail Engineers from Taiwan to help us.

    • I hope by the time Taiwanese counterparts have finished to help is, there will b no more problem. In retrospect, the govt should seek assistance when the breakdown occured in 2011 n they should not wait

  7. It all comes down to the root caused that is money was lost through multiple investments by GIC and HC….therefore money not enough and hence caused the many problems that is occurring now.

  8. System is managed by Human.

    So human should be responsible if human choose to manage a system or choose to use machine.

    Not managing the system or machine properly is definitely the fault of the human. The people managing the system should be ultimately responsible for the system to be in order.

    How easy and convenient for some people to blame the system and machine for human failure to manage the system properly?

    Having give ownselves supernormal salary, should have supernormal performance, and yet instead still perform less than counterpart that draw only average salary? How can this be considered justifiable?

    Still claiming to be world class?

    One’s blunder and incompetency, is another’s suffering?

  9. At last public pressure has revealed flaws in our trains operations & now being rectified by more time given to fully solve all present issues where possible. Good progress after this hopefully.

  10. The “power of social media and commuters” ?? Really?? For years social media and commuter gripes didn’t stop privatised public transport from focusing on returns and cost management while commuters suffered round after round of fare rises with long waits and crowded conditions. Social media and the so- called power of commuters didn’t stop the appointment of PTC members who told us that if you take public transport then don’t expect too much. So let’s cut the self-important self-congratulating crap about the power of social media and commuters. Social media is full of self-important walking egos and trolls. And 90% of commuters won’t have the guts to sign a petition for an independent international member BOI into how privatisation affected our commuting public.

Comments are closed.