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The story of SMRT is the story of Singapore

protest SMRT
(Image - Terry Xu)

By Ravi Philemon

I still remember as a young boy, in the 70s, waiting for more than an hour for the bus to arrive. I also remember that if you wanted to go to Sembawang (where some of my father’s friends lived), there were no bus services.

In the 80s, I was in secondary school, and I remember the transition from a two-man operating system to the one-man-operating system and finally to the cashless system. The buses were often late and when they arrived, they were crowded.

When the trains finally arrived in the mid 80s, it was a wish come true! We had air-conditioned public transport. There were places to sit. But most of all we zipped through from point A to point B quite quickly. Suddenly there was a quantum leap in Singapore’s transport capacity.

The effective and efficient trains were symbolic of Singapore. There was a certain pride in calling yourself a Singaporean – a city which had the will to make quantum leaps.

Fast-forward to the year 2011. ‘Competition’ injected into the public transport system by the government – to ensure that the public transport operators would not fall into inefficient operations and to minimise wastage – had spiralled out of control, because there was no real competition. The public transport operators operated like unregulated monopolies in their areas of operation. The PTOs quest for profit maximisation probably led to SMRT losing its “core competency in the management of train network while it was developing new and alternative revenue streams” (see Kumaran Pillai’s speech).

“This is the reason why the profits of the two operators have risen manifold since 2003. In 2003, SMRT’s profit was $72 million, as at 31 March 2011, SMRT’s net-profit was $161.1 million. Comfort DelGro’s profit in 2003 was $134 million, its net-profit was $228.5 million, as at 31 December 2010.

Despite these high incomes, generated by the PTO, PTC has never not approved applications for fare adjustments by the PTO. PTC has been heavily criticised repeatedly because of this and also because the regulator is perceived to be more pro-PTO than pro-commuters.

For example, commuters who do not pay the correct fare on public transports, will be fined S$20, while those who abuse concession cards face a penalty of S$50. An additional penalty of S$1,000 will be imposed if the cheating commuter does not pay the fine; and repeat offenders may be fined S$2,000 or be jailed up to six months, or both.

These penalties are many times more than the value of a single trip on the public transport, and it is meant as a deterrent for the fare cheats.

The PTO however have no such effective deterrent for failing Quality of Services (QoS) standards. The penalty for each non-compliant day on each non-compliant route for both headway adherence and loading is only $100; which means that it is more profitable for the PTO to breach QoS standards instead of investing in capacity/infrastructure to meet QoS requirements.

The PTO have enjoyed the carrot, but have never enjoyed the stick of punitive sanctions.” – TOC Editorial dated 26 July 2011

From 2010, there have been over 40 disruptions in train services. Vandals had broken into SMRT train depot to vandalise the trains on two occasions, raising concerns of security. SMRT has never taken responsibility for any of these failures. In fact, SMRT has tried to shift the blame to the security company when they were questioned for the security lapse in their depot.

The question TOC editorial raised in July 2011 seems louder today, “Why are Quality of Service standards not linked to fare increases?”

In light of all these serious lapses in Quality of Service (QoS) standards by SMRT, the Public Transport Council (PTC) should reverse the 1 per cent fare increase they approved in August of this year. PTC should also tie future fare increases to QoS standards. And all future fare revisions must be tied to QoS standards.

TOC’s head of Chinese section, Goh Meng Seng, said on his Facebook that SMRT perhaps spends only about 8 per cent of their revenue on repair and maintenance, while train service operators in other countries spend about 18 – 30 per cent of their profits for this. There is an absolute necessity for SMRT to give the people of Singapore a full accounting of what it spends on maintenance. SMRT must also release its maintenance records for the last 5 years with comparison to industry standards.

Why do I say that the story of the SMRT is the story of Singapore? Because the early leaders of the country put in place various rigorous systems for governing the nation, and the leaders who came after them assumed that these systems are fool-proof; that you only need to put in place trusted aides to maintain these systems and everything will be fine.

From Mas Selamat to the flooding; and now with the serious failure of the mass rapid transit system, we know now that these assumptions are flawed.

But the real sad news is that almost everybody seems to have no courage to say that ‘the emperor has no clothes’. At the media interview with Saw Phaik Hwa a couple of days ago, it was a journalist from the foreign media who asked her if she would resign. The reporters from the local media were all too happy to print her response without asking her all the hard questions.

The trust in the infallibility of the old systems is so deep that it seems to have contributed to the lack of regulatory oversight. I mean, how can the Transport Minister say, “I do not know if these are isolated incidents or whether there are systemic and more serious underlying issues causing these breakdowns.” How could he not know?

It is the safety and the health of the commuters that are at risk! A TOC reader wrote to us that her heavily pregnant sister-in-law was trapped in the train for 45 minutes. Two were hospitalised. Countless others were trapped in a train with no lights and no ventilation. People are walking on the train tracks…

This is not the Singapore I know! These trusted aides who are not doing what they ought to be doing have (in the words of a friend), “contributed to the system rot and atrophy”.

Somebody must take responsibility for the failure of SMRT. At the media conference on Friday, SMRT’s CEO, Ms Saw said that she will see to it that there will not be a recurrence of such breakdowns. But on Saturday morning, there was another such recurrence and services were disrupted from Ang Mo Kio to Marina Bay.

The CEO of SMRT must do the right thing, take responsibility for the failures of SMRT and resign. Her resignation will be highly symbolic and will go a long way in restoring the confidence of the people in the system – not just the MRT system.

And while they are at it, SMRT should not only refund the fares of the commuters who are affected by their service disruptions on Thursday and Saturday; they should also (as Eric Tan rightly pointed out in his speech today) give free, complimentary rides to all the affected commuters for one whole month.

And SMRT can certainly afford it!