Was previous rail industry experience not one of the criteria in selecting new SMRT CEO?

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SMRT’s confirmation that they have appointed yet another ex-Chief of Defence Force after a supposedly global search has garnered criticism from several quarters.

The new CEO, Neo Kian Hong, who will be replacing Desmond Kuek 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.

Neo’s appointment as the incoming CEO of SMRT comes after months of speculation that Kuek will be stepping down after a nearly six year tenure at the corporation that was 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.

The appointment of Neo has caused some netizens to raise their eyebrows since both Neo and his outgoing CEO Kuek do not have prior rail industry experience.

Exhorting the value of such experience and questioning why SMRT is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, social commentator Chris Kuan wrote on Facebook:

“The new man “met all the criteria” said the SMRT Board. Dare we ask what criteria? Seems like previous rail industry is not one of them. Never mind, no experience but supported by team of competent and experienced rail engineers in SMRT and LTA but so was old Desmond. He didn’t do that well, did he? One ought to be suspicious whenever a board proclaim the new CEO met all criteria because as a senior search consultant rightly pointed out no candidate will ever tick all the boxes. But given the ongoing problems with SMRT and the fact that the last 2 CEOs were neither engineers nor worked in the industry, one of the boxes that must absolutely be ticked is that of industry experience, don’t you think?
“Still not enough?. Here comes academia. “We have to look at the whole matter in terms of a leadership team… We’re not about to get like a chief technician (for the job),” said Assoc Prof Loh, who is the school’s director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations. He added that helming an organisation like SMRT calls for a familiarity with local regulations and norms, as well as interaction with key stakeholders such as regulators and commuters. So an industry practitioner who performs well in a certain metro system may not “automatically perform well when implanted into another system and context”.
“All sounds good and reasonable. Academically speaking. But in the context that absolutely matters, i.e. the repeated problems at SMRT, isn’t industry experience at this point far more important than all the other stuff? Besides who said someone with industry experience would not have experience dealing with regulators and stakeholders. One would bet these are even more hostile than the ones in SG and it is part of the job for crying out loud. More to the point we already have 2 strikes out with CEOs with no previous industry experience and common sense would have dictated it is time to go the obvious direction of industry experience. However it seems SMRT is trying to prove the old adage “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results””

One netizen, Vic Ho, commenting on Kuan’s post opined: “I don’t think the commuters are asking for much . A ceo with at least a few years of rail experience. This isn’t a unrealistic expectation, isn’t it?”

Kuan himself added in a subsequent comment: indeed this is just a public view of what has happened for a long time, essentially Singapore is run by a members’ club.”

Meanwhile, another netizen opined that the appointment of another ex-SAF personnel sends out a different message to him. Facebook user Ab Di Lar wrote:

“The ‘appointment’ of another Chief of Defence to the same post after the failure of one sends out a different tone for me.
“That our Chief of Defence (or perhaps Generals) cannot thrive in an environment beyond a ‘Yes Sir’ system and thus, another one is sent in to correct the perception that SAF trains its soldiers well for life beyond the uniform.
“So, let’s see if this one can make the ‘cultural change’ required without the use of corporal punishments or implement SAF-type of punishments to get people ‘encouraged/motivated’ to get things done cos if he does to get things done, then it should serve as a lesson for all who wish to join the SAF that when you leave, you may not be able to thrive.”

While such views that replacing one ex-General with another may not make much a difference to correct the “deep-seated issues”, others noted that Neo is known to be a “ruthless” and “fierce” ex-General and have opined that his working style may be what SMRT needs:

SMRT confirms Neo Kian Hong will replace outgoing CEO Desmond Kuek, drawing mixed reactions online

Didn't have enough fill of establishment bs, here is more to satisfy your hunger. Reported by Todayonline.The new man …

Posted by Chris Kuan on Wednesday, 18 April 2018

The 'appointment' of another Chief of Defence to the same post after the failure of one sends out a different tone for…

Posted by Ab Di Lar on Wednesday, 18 April 2018

29 COMMENTS

  1. Many ppl missed the point. It will continue to breakdown and govt will continue to heap praise on how well the CEO did to reduce breakdown vs past statistics. Then hand over to another paper general while the CEO will be invited to tea party and eventually becoming an MP.

  2. Supposedly a good CEO may not need to have the necessary domain knowledge but possess the ability to harness the capability of all resources available to fix issues . Obviously this trait wasn’t seen in the outgoing CEO and I can’t see how given the over 20 years experiences in the military can be found in all the rest . In all their prior roles , are they ever responsible for P&L? I doubt.

  3. From football to transportation. What can’t these guys do?

    They are our modern day X-men. ,If we need help in the healthcare sector they will be there to save our skins. From runaway budget spending to shortage of doctors.

    In a few years time I can see generals be chief surgeons or hospital administrator at minimum.

    Meritocracy is well and alive.

  4. All these generals are appointed puppets without choice & talent but covered with the superb salaries. Whoever’s not to agree will then eating grass…

  5. SMRT good for civil eng bcos all station very nice. But screwed up in automobile eng. After 30 yrs in service still never create expertise in this area. By now the poly n NTU should already have faculty for these.

  6. Obviously, the selection committee picked experience to mean (1) have travelled on subway train before (2) have managed crisis situation before eg those created due to cock-up by others (3) have managed people before even though it’s the army and civil service !

  7. They don’t have simple logic. That’s why govt keep failing. Doing the same thing don’t get a different results. Just like having the same govt don’t make things better.

  8. If I were a paper general and the gov appointing me to be a public service head or minister. The first few months I will learn about my office admin role well, then I will get my assistance/duty director/president to cover me when I being away for the next 3 years on the ground learning, monitoring and supervising.

    If I lack of experience of my organization that cannot be learn easily from work, I will take diploma/1 year master degree part time course, then I will equip with the basic knowledge to lead, to understand what’s going on and the public will not say that I jiak liao bee by sitting there all day long collecting free money by talking, shaking legs in the office and doing admin jobs only.

  9. Earlier this year, Mr Kuek was asked by ST if he was resigning or stepping down. He send an internal email to all the staff as well as in the press that he would not resign and that they are “purely speculative”.

    Less than 3 months later it was announced he would be replaced. So the amount of time from he deciding to resign to the time it took for the “global search” to find his successor took about 2 months plus.

    Something is not right. Either Mr Kuek knew he was already stepping down when he said he wasnt, or it was a slipshod work of finding the new CEO and not the extensive global search as claimed.

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