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New SMRT chief Neo Kian Hong walks the talk to get trains running

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HE sold his car and take public transport to simply get to know the real ground issues that’s bugging thousands of Singaporeans who depend on quick daily transport.

And after three months of legwork, the newly-minted SMRT Group chief executive officer Neo Kian Hong feels he has identified some of the core issues irritating the smooth flow of the trains.

Using a military analogy to make his point, Mr Neo, the former Chief of Defence Force, re-emphasised that it boils down to teamwork bonding as the key to long-term success.

Hitting the nail on the head, he said there are no “deep-seated cultural issues” within the company as suggested by predecessor Desmond Kuek. Like a true soldier, he pounded home the hard truth that he will use a hands-on approach to engage staff and the SMRT management has to take responsibility for the company’s performance.

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“In some militaries, they use this term – ‘there are no poor soldiers, there are only poor leaders’,” said Mr Neo, who sported a blue cap and orange SMRT crew jacket to look every bit like an ordinary train-worker. “This is a team sport. The whole organisation is required.”

WALKING THE GROUND

Mr Neo who replaced Mr Kuek on Aug 1, also disagreed with the former CEO’s assessment following a tunnel flooding incident last year that there were “deep-seated cultural issues” within the company.

“I’ve been walking the ground for some months now and I’ve seen very enthusiastic people, very hardworking people,” said Mr Neo. “I don’t agree with the term ‘deep-seated culture’, because that’s not my experience when engaging with the ground.”

Like in sports as in government or even in dealing with the heartlanders in the community, Mr Neo emphasised that it was about leadership and “engagement on the ground”.

“If we are able to give them the tools, if we are able to support them to do their work, if we’re able to get them to see the bigger picture that they are actually appreciated…I’m quite sure that the people will perform.”

Away from his air-conditioned office and sweating it out for over 12 weeks doing the rounds at various little-known SMRT locations, he was also keen to stress that SMRT staff are “hardworking and motivated” even in “onerous” conditions.

‘PEOPLE THE KEY TO SUCCESS’

Giving the example of a team which was carrying out rail grinding works in a tunnel during the early hours of the morning, Mr Neo said that they did not switch on tunnel fans to avoid disturbing residents in the neighbourhood.

“When I see all this, I realise that our people are the key,” he said. “I thought that it was important for me to experience the MRT for myself. When I sit in a room and I listen to briefings about maintenance problems…and then I get feedback from commuters about…the heat, the smell, I don’t know what they are talking about. And then when I smell it, it’s totally personal,”

The tough-talking and quick-acting former general knows, in the coming months, SMRT has to regain the confidence of train-travelling Singaporeans. Not easy when there are teething technical hiccups cropping up every day but he’s sure he can finally plug the holes with a “sense of teamwork and commitment” with the staff, especially those who do the toughest night beat.

“It’s tough to work night shift and you know exactly how it feels,” he said. “I look at them in the eye, I know there’s commitment and I know that they are proud to do the work.”

In a nutshell, SMRT will be reorganised into five main groups, with a new engineering cluster to provide the transport operator with a “clearer focus of purpose” The reorganisation will see the formation of five main groups within SMRT – Trains, Engineering, Roads, Experience and Corporate Services.

“SMRT is a public transport service provider,” said Mr Neo. “Our primary business is to manage and operate train services. The quality and reliability of our rail services will have an impact on the quality of life of Singaporeans.”

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