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.