SMRT: Just too many head honchos

Sense And Nonsense - by Tan Bah Bah

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English Premier League soccer fans would be familiar with the term “January transfers”. This is the one-month period when clubs can buy, sell or simply do exchanges of players.  Take Liverpool. It sold Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona. But before that, it signed on Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton. Other clubs are also strengthening or reshuffling their teams. Lots of movements.

In Singapore, the start of the new year has also seen the usual top executive changes. While we wait with absolutely no excitement or enthusiasm to find out who the next Prime Minister would be, a couple of changes which have already taken place plus some impending ones later in the year are noteworthy.

We start at the Cabinet level.

This is what PM Lee Hsien Loong promised in April last year. Commenting on the promotion of Josephine Teo and Desmond Lee to full ministerships, he said: “This one (reshuffle) is not a full set of changes, I expect to do a much bigger change next year. And then there will be more ministers, more changes by that time and then more new ministers will be helming their own ministries.”

So, expect some, more substantial, reshuffling. Because such ministerial matters are usually so carefully choreographed to the exact semi-colon, Singaporeans take it all in stride and do not even talk about them, preferring to kpkb about their CPF. What the Istana wants, the Istana gets. Mm xi li lang eh tai ji (Hokien for “not our business”).

This is Singapore Inc or, as Cherian George has it as the cheeky title of his latest book, Singapore, Incomplete. Top down, with no link to the ground or ground feel or feeling (this part is my own interpretation of incomplete, not Cherian’s). It’s like the appointment of a company CEO or executive staff, not political or national leaders. Corporate bottomliners all.

Talking about CEO, I am a bit mystified why any normal person who has been going by one name all these years now suddenly wants to be called by another. We are not talking about pop stars or well-known transgenders. Examples: The late American singer Prince once wanted to be known by some unpronounceable symbol. Or US Olympic decathlon gold medallist Bruce Jenner who changed sex and is now Caitlyn Jenner. It is all about being in the limelight or acceptability.

We just learnt that the founding CEO of Gardens By The Bay now wishes to be called Dr Kiat W. Tan. Of course, it is the right of the former CEO of the National Parks Board to choose any name he likes to be called, even at this late stage of his life (he’s now 74).  Perhaps he has many American friends or is seeking American citizenship. In the United States, Americans are used to a certain way of addressing a name/person. The family name is at the end, with the personal or “Christian” name in front and there is a second Christian name which can be dropped: Donald John Trump or Barack Hussein Obama. Hence, Dr Tan Wee Kiat would become Dr Kiat W. Tan. Soon, it may become Kiat Tan.

If your name is Yap Chin Tiong attending a seminar in New York, the placard at your table would have you down as Tiong C. Yap, whether you like it or not.

But we are not really here to discuss Dr Kiat W. Tan’s name or Dr Tan himself. He has fully discharged his duty in fulfilling the dream of another much bigger founding father. Lee Kuan Yew has always been keen to have some kind of garden on the Marina reclaimed land. White Elephants By The Bay – a high maintenance artificial contraption – unfortunately is a very costly vanity “imperial court” project with which few Singaporeans have any genuine connection. Thanks but no thanks for burdening future generations of Singaporeans with a totally unnecessary and bizarre garden when we already have a world-class, truly organic and much acclaimed one – the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

It is the person who “thanked” Dr Tan for his services whom we have some interest in. Gardens chairman Niam Chiang Meng, 59, who bade him farewell has  coincidentally just been appointed chairman of Mediacorp. He succeeds Ernest Wong. He is also current chairman of the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore.

Niam was a former permanent secretary in a number of ministries and a member of the Strategy Group in the PMO which drives whole-of-government strategic planning by identifying key priorities and emerging issues over the medium to long-term.

Step by step, every announcement properly made. Almost preordained.

Which is why, in total contrast, the movements at the SMRT/MRT/LTA seem so confusing and somewhat uncoordinated.

Is Patrick Nathan, SMRT’s chief spokesman, in or out? If not, is the SMRT so flush with funds that it can afford so many comms heads? Is Desmond Kwek continuing as SMRT CEO? Until when? If he is, why is Seah Moon Ming so superactive? Can the SMRT carry two CEOs’ salaries?

Welcome to the first month of the new year – to Singapore, Inc(oherent), at least by  SMRT standards.

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