Home News Open letter to the new CEO of SMRT

Open letter to the new CEO of SMRT




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Obbana Rajah

The former CEO of NTUC Income, businessman and social activist Tan Kin Lian has written an open letter to the new CEO of SMRT, Neo Kian Hong.

It reads:


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Dear Mr. Neo,
I congratulate you on your appointment as the next CEO of SMRT.

I wish you success in managing this challenging job. It is difficult but it can be done.

Do not worry too much about the comments of netizens who have already written you off. They said that you did not have any experience in driving a train all your life – how can you manage a train company?

It may be some comfort to you that the same comment could be levied against me when I took up the job as the top person in NTUC Income exactly 40 years ago. I did not have any experience in running a life insurance company or in managing an agency force, which was the lifeblood of the company.

Fortunately for me, there was no social media at that time to write me off.

As it turned out, I did a fairly good job (if I may say so myself). I was able to build NTUC Income into a large and successful insurance company.

If I may, let me give you three tips that you may find useful for you to face your daunting challenge. The first and second tips are based on my 30 years of experience in facing similar challenges.

First, you have to build a good feedback system. In the old days, I had an intranet where the employees and agents were able to give their feedback on what was happening. Often they provided the feedback from the customers. I paid attention to the feedback and made sure that they were attended to.

It was the best way of identifying the real problems that faced my business. What’s more, many of the people who provided the feedback were able to offer the solutions.

My task was to use their contribution and make the judgment on what could be done. In many cases, I had to try out the suggestions to see if they could work.

Today, we have the internet. It would be an excellent channel to handle the feedback system.

I know that you may be wary about having to handle several thousand feedback every day. Don’t worry. It can be managed. You only need empowered people at two levels to sort out the feedback.

But you have to personally pay attention to some of the feedbacks that are escalated to your level for your personal attention. This is what makes the feedback system works.

In case this sounds “easy to say, hard to do”, let me offer the following services to SMRT for free.

I will build the internet website, which I can get ready in two weeks, and manage the feedback process for SMRT.

I only need you to identify the SMRT people who will assist me in handling the feedbacks. Some are customer relations people, but the others are the operational people who can implement some of the suggestions.

I repeat. I am offering the internet system FREE and what’s more, my personal time to manage the process. I will do it for at least three months. I will also train a SMRT manager to take over from me.

The feedback can be provided by the public and the staff of SMRT. It will be an open channel for the feedback.

I can stake my personal reputation that this approach will work. If you do not know or trust me, talk to your chairman, Mr. Seah Moon Meng. He knows me personally.

Second, we need a culture of senior people getting their “feet on the ground”.

It will do wonders to have the CEO and top managers of SMRT visit the maintenance teams and see how they work in the early morning.

You and your managers do not have to do it all the time. But you can do it some of the time. Have a coffee with them. They will know that the managers care. More importantly, they will also know that they cannot “skive” and get away with it.

Where do you visit? The feedback system will give you the clues on where your managers and you should be visiting.

Do not prepare these visits in advance. Just drop it. It will build a new “work culture”.

Third, I have some common sense suggestions on how to deal with the issues that SMRT face daily, i.e. the delays and breakdowns. I believe that they are largely caused by the complicated Thales signal system.

Actually, you do not need a complicated signal system. It is not difficult to operate a MRT system. Each line is dedicated to the trains running on that line. You do not get trains on several lines merging into one line.

The trains on each line are about 2 km apart, based on an average speed of 60 kph and an average interval of 2 minutes between the trains.

This system can be run entirely using people, i.e. train drivers. The driver can stop the train at each station, open the train and platform doors and, after a minute, start the train to proceed towards the next station. It is easier than driving a bus on a congested road.

There is really no need to rely on a complicated signal that gives signal faults now and then.

If you want to be safe and avoid a train collision, you can install a collision avoidance device at both ends of the train. This will detect a train or obstacle ahead and stop the train to avoid a collision.

This type of device is already installed on many cars. They should be effective and inexpensive.

I am aware that SMRT or the Land Transport Authority have already spent $195 million installing the Thales signal system on two NS and EW lines. As this money has already been spent, we should continue to use the Thales system. However, when there is a signal problem, we can switch immediately to manual operations. It should be all right.


I am aware that I might be over-simplying the problems. Engineering may be different from finance. I agree.

However, my 30 years of experience tell me that the key elements of problem solving is the same.

You have to identify the problem; you have to understand what the problem really is. After that, you have get the technical experts to provide the options. As the manager in charge, you can take the decision.

Furthermore, many of the decisions will not work as you had expected. Often, you need to fail in order to get information that were not available before. You may have to try a few times before you finally succeed. Right?

I am suggesting a new work culture, one that is more entrepreneurial, more risk taking.

I am not talking about big risks involving people’s lives or large sums of money. I am talking about the smaller risks that need to be taken every day. We will learn to use our common sense to distinguish between big and small risks.

Okay. Here is a test of the new culture that you, Mr. Neo, can bring to SMRT.

Will you send an e-mail to me at kinlian@gmail.com or call me at my mobile: 81685845? Will you offer me a cup of coffee and talk to me?

Tan Kin Lian


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