SMRT’s defense of hiring one ex-General to replace another as CEO leaves netizens with more questions than answers

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SMRT’s appointment of another ex-Chief of Defence Force to replace outgoing CEO Desmond Kuek certainly raised eyebrows. The new CEO, Neo Kian Hong is the same man who succeeded Kuek as Chief of Defence Force while they were both in the Singapore Armed Forces. The pair even took on a similar career route, after retiring from the military, becoming permanent secretaries in Government ministries before joining SMRT.

Criticism abounded over why SMRT did not select someone with prior rail industry experience, especially after the transport operator announced that the ex-General was selected after a global search.

For some reason, SMRT turned defensive in response to these criticisms and cited “personal values” and “leadership qualities” among the “key criteria and considerations” it relied on to appoint Neo.

SMRT’s explanation has left more questions than answers for netizens who are now asking what kind of public response the group was expecting after hiring someone who has a similar background to Kuek, especially since Kuek is leaving behind a nearly six year tenure at the corporation marked by controversy – from the deaths of two trainees who were struck by an oncoming train, to the unprecedented flooding of an MRT tunnel and a collision between two trains that injured over 30 individuals, besides countless train service breakdowns that have exasperated innumerable commuters.

One netizen, Qizhong Changtook to Facebook and wrote an eloquent, thorough post that points out how absurd SMRT’s defense was considering how commuters are truly helpless when it comes to making a difference in who they select to lead the company:

An announcement was made recently that Neo Kian Hong, an ex-army-general, will be taking over as SMRT CEO. Subsequently,…

Posted by Qizhong Chang on Tuesday, 24 April 2018

In case you cannot read the post above:

“An announcement was made recently that Neo Kian Hong, an ex-army-general, will be taking over as SMRT CEO. Subsequently, pro-estab/pro-govt/pro-PAP/pro-SAF/friends, relatives and previous subordinates of NKH alike went into overdrive defending the appointment. They simultaneously argued that domain expertise and experience doesn’t matter (although watch this argument get completely reversed when they actually hire someone with relevant experience for another position down the road) and that NKH had leadership experience in oodles (which is an argument that really falls flat when you look at his soon-to-be predecessor).

“But in any case, I don’t think anyone has anything personal against NKH. So, trying to big him up by mentioning all his past achievements doesn’t really work; in fact I thought it got a bit embarrassing when they tried to relate SARS contact tracing to running a public transport network. People who are defensive about the SAF and generals being criticised also have to take it easy. The public roundly criticised Saw Phaik Hwa when she left, and she wasn’t from SAF was she? She just didn’t do a good job, which is also what Desmond Kuek is being criticised for now.

“Ok, so can we agree that people are against the appointment because of the lack of relevant experience argument? I’m sure this particular point is appreciated especially by people who have been turned away for a job before, for not having the relevant experience. They see an inherent unfairness here, which makes this negative perception relatable to them. Why is it that generals and scholars can do a seamless switch from one industry to the next, getting a promotion and a pay raise in the process; while ordinary folk like us have to grapple with things like Continuing Education and Training, Workforce Skills Qualifications, the Adapt and Grow scheme, the Professional Conversion Programme, etc. and still settle for a lower position and lower pay when we switch jobs mid-career?

“I also don’t understand the personal sacrifice/stepped up to be counted/high pressure job arguments. Firstly, are we supposed to applaud the guy for taking up a position with such a high salary? How is that a sacrifice? Secondly, if he had remained in public/admin service, then maybe one can use the ‘serve the people’/’reluctant leader’ defense, but this is a private-sector position isn’t it? (Or at least, it’s supposed to be, despite SMRT’s impossible status as a public/private entity) I don’t see people using the personal sacrifice argument for other private sector CEOs. And pressure and sacrifice seems to me part of any job, not just this one. As for the argument that NKH could have stayed in a cushy Admin Service position rather than take up such a volatile appointment, guess what? There are absolutely NO consequences if he screws the pooch. Desmond Kuek is going to continue to have an awesome career somewhere else, I bet; and so will NKH after his time at SMRT comes to an end. We have already seen this. Again, no sacrifice at all. And lastly, the ‘stepped up to be counted’ argument only holds water if literally nobody else wanted the job. I read that a GLOBAL search yielded 20 or so candidates for this position, so that’s definitely not the case here.

“Most importantly, what else were you expecting as a public response? We (yes, I spend more than 2 hours on peak-hour buses and trains each day) experience first-hand the crowds and the breakdowns and the disruptions, we accept the constant price hikes, we swallow the reasons given for all the above. But what can we do? Can we boycott the trains and stop taking public transport to work? Do we have the power to ask for public transport fees to come down? No, we can’t. Commuters are really quite helpless in this whole situation, if you haven’t realised it by now. So can they not even vent a bit and have a bit of a whinge when trains break down, when CEOs change from one face to the indistinguishable next, when fares increase yet again later this year? It’s not like anyone’s comments or memes are going to stop NKH from being appointed, right? NKH is getting appointed, we don’t have to like it, but we will have to live with it.

“Let’s just put it this way: If we go back in time and they announce instead that someone with actual rail experience was appointed, NOBODY AT ALL, not even those people defending NKH right now, will be saying ‘Hey, what about NKH? Why are we not hiring him?’ or ‘Hey, what about the generals from SAF? I heard we have some real talents over there!’ Just be real for a second. Nobody. And if that’s the case, then that defense is simply an after the fact rationalisation, and that is usually the weakest kind of defense.”