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

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




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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).

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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.

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