SMRT’s confirmation that they have appointed yet another ex-Chief of Defence Force after a supposedly global search has garnered criticism from several quarters.
The new CEO, Neo Kian Hong, who will be replacing Desmond Kuek is the same man who succeeded Kuek as Chief of Defence Force while they were both in the Singapore Armed Forces. The pair even took on a similar career route, after retiring from the military, becoming permanent secretaries in Government ministries before joining SMRT.
Neo’s appointment as the incoming CEO of SMRT comes after months of speculation that Kuek will be stepping down after a nearly six year tenure at the corporation that was marked by controversy – from the deaths of two trainees who were struck by an oncoming train, to the unprecedented flooding of an MRT tunnel and a collision between two trains that injured over 30 individuals, besides countless train service breakdowns.
The appointment of Neo has caused some netizens to raise their eyebrows since both Neo and his outgoing CEO Kuek do not have prior rail industry experience.
Exhorting the value of such experience and questioning why SMRT is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, social commentator Chris Kuan wrote on Facebook:
“The new man “met all the criteria” said the SMRT Board. Dare we ask what criteria? Seems like previous rail industry is not one of them. Never mind, no experience but supported by team of competent and experienced rail engineers in SMRT and LTA but so was old Desmond. He didn’t do that well, did he? One ought to be suspicious whenever a board proclaim the new CEO met all criteria because as a senior search consultant rightly pointed out no candidate will ever tick all the boxes. But given the ongoing problems with SMRT and the fact that the last 2 CEOs were neither engineers nor worked in the industry, one of the boxes that must absolutely be ticked is that of industry experience, don’t you think?
“Still not enough?. Here comes academia. “We have to look at the whole matter in terms of a leadership team… We’re not about to get like a chief technician (for the job),” said Assoc Prof Loh, who is the school’s director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations. He added that helming an organisation like SMRT calls for a familiarity with local regulations and norms, as well as interaction with key stakeholders such as regulators and commuters. So an industry practitioner who performs well in a certain metro system may not “automatically perform well when implanted into another system and context”.
“All sounds good and reasonable. Academically speaking. But in the context that absolutely matters, i.e. the repeated problems at SMRT, isn’t industry experience at this point far more important than all the other stuff? Besides who said someone with industry experience would not have experience dealing with regulators and stakeholders. One would bet these are even more hostile than the ones in SG and it is part of the job for crying out loud. More to the point we already have 2 strikes out with CEOs with no previous industry experience and common sense would have dictated it is time to go the obvious direction of industry experience. However it seems SMRT is trying to prove the old adage “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results””
One netizen, Vic Ho, commenting on Kuan’s post opined: “I don’t think the commuters are asking for much . A ceo with at least a few years of rail experience. This isn’t a unrealistic expectation, isn’t it?”
Kuan himself added in a subsequent comment: “indeed this is just a public view of what has happened for a long time, essentially Singapore is run by a members’ club.”
Meanwhile, another netizen opined that the appointment of another ex-SAF personnel sends out a different message to him. Facebook user Ab Di Lar wrote:
“The ‘appointment’ of another Chief of Defence to the same post after the failure of one sends out a different tone for me.
“That our Chief of Defence (or perhaps Generals) cannot thrive in an environment beyond a ‘Yes Sir’ system and thus, another one is sent in to correct the perception that SAF trains its soldiers well for life beyond the uniform.
“So, let’s see if this one can make the ‘cultural change’ required without the use of corporal punishments or implement SAF-type of punishments to get people ‘encouraged/motivated’ to get things done cos if he does to get things done, then it should serve as a lesson for all who wish to join the SAF that when you leave, you may not be able to thrive.”
While such views that replacing one ex-General with another may not make much a difference to correct the “deep-seated issues”, others noted that Neo is known to be a “ruthless” and “fierce” ex-General and have opined that his working style may be what SMRT needs:
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