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SMRT: Know when to go

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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At his press conference to announce his retirement from politics in 2015, one of the earlier Transport Ministers Raymond Lim made an interesting and somewhat revealing remark.  He said Lee Kuan Yew once told him helming the transport portfolio was “a thankless job…but someone here has to do it”. Obviously, Lim fast discovered he was not that someone. He served as minister from 2006 to 2011.

His successor Lui Tuck Yew also found he was not cut out to be Transport Minister. He took over from Raymond Lim and left in 2015 and is currently Singapore’s ambassador to Japan. But not before he showed glimpses of how leaders in difficult appointments ought to try and get the public on their side, however tough the job. Communicate, communicate and communicate.

Those news pictures and spot coverage of Lui riding the MRT helped a lot to show angry commuters that the minister did make an effort to go to the ground as part of his duties, to check out the situation, taking the trains and talking to passengers. Commuters expected those running the system to feel their frustrations and understand the daily problem of coping with delays and overcrowdedness. The trains are still overcrowded, by the way.
Lui came across as sincere and willing to serve. When he resigned, few cheered.

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Compare that with the era of ex-SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa. I quote Christopher Tan who wrote in The Straits Times: “…complaints of packed trains and rising frequency of breakdowns started as Singapore’s population soared. SMRT tried to cope but the ride had turned massively. In 2011, after two serious breakdowns, Ms Saw left the SMRT.”

She was with the SMRT for nine years, nine years too long. I doubt she left voluntarily. The public outcry against the breakdowns and the way Singapore commuters were treated as sardines or cattle in the corporation’s obsession with profits – at the expense of basic human comfort – raised the question of why she was not sacked earlier.

The Saw era was when most of the major MRT problems started to surface, almost with a vengeance. Coupled with maintenance issues was the opening of our floodgates to foreign workers to put impossible pressure on a system meant to cope with a smaller population.

Commuters were stampeded over in the scramble for profits.

Another sign that the top-down and secretive attitude may be becoming a thing of the past is the greater willingness to engage the public in the thinking, operations and developments of the SMRT and LTA.

The full frontal press conference in November last year following the Bishan tunnel flood was unpleasant but necessary. Assembling the five head honchos in charge of the Singapore mass rapid system to face the angry public was somewhat cathartic.  The quintuplet  –  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.

The new SMRT CEO Neo Kian Hong will take over in circumstances still daunting but different from those confronted by Saw Phaik Hwa and Desmond Kuek.

The first came to an SMRT not quite aware of the disastrously wrong turn the organisation and the government were taking at that time. And when the system was hit by a perfect storm of problems – poor maintenance and an avalanche of commuters – she was swept out mercilessly. And to this day, she has become an archetypal example of a corporate wrong fit.

The second arrived at the SMRT with most people recognising he had a tough assignment. Just how tough, we all did not know until a faultline of failures showed a history of almost unbelievable neglect and unchecked omissions.

Outgoing CEO Desmond Kuek’s career at the SMRT finally sank together with the train stuck in the flood waters of Bishan in October last year. Six months later, his exit has been made official. No surprise to anyone. If indeed it is true, as has been speculated, that he already wanted to go then, that is to his credit.

Accountability and a sense of honour. Our upper echelons – in the political, public and corporate sectors – should always have these as part of their code of conduct.

The same applies to Neo Kian Hong and the current Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

If you have tried your best and could not quite do the job, do not overstay any second longer: move on and let others do it. No one is indispensable.

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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