Safety First, Murphy’s Laws & SMRT’s safety protocols

By Law Kim Hwee

My Malay friends have shown me how resilient they are. When an unexpected death occurs, family members and friends will close rank, grief deeply but not showily – and then move on with life. As Muslims, they believe anything that can happen is Allah’s will.

Still, may I extend my deep condolences to the families and friends of Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari and Mr Nasrulhudin Najumudin. It always saddens me when lives are needlessly lost, especially young ones.

Sometime back, I noticed that SMRT began to use a lot of our Malay compatriots in their ‘We’re Working On It’ PR posters.


In fact, in all 3 posters showing maintenance in action, all 3 ‘poster-boys’ were Malay. I was really pleased to see that. To me, it was a sign that my fellow Malay citizens are taking another step up the ladder of skilled, instead of staying in mostly unskilled, jobs.

The other thought (cynical one) that I had was; well, when it came to bonus payouts, the maintenance staff were not forefront in the minds of SMRT honchos. Instead, they got the misery crumbs off the tables of Desmond Kuek, his top managers – and, no doubt – also Temasek managers

I hope the tragedy will spur the many other MRT maintenance crew to pull together and demand, without exception, that their safety – and not customer satisfaction – must come first and foremost.

Safety First 

My sales and marketing background always strive to live by the adage, ‘the customer is always right’. My first job at a local outfit, safety was never discussed with sales. My 2nd job at a Swedish subsidy had no direct visual contact with the factory. It was only in my 3rd job at a German manufacturer based locally that “Safety First” made a lasting impression on me. It is not ‘Cost’, not ‘Quality’, not ‘Design’, not anything else but “Safety First”.

Based on CEO (ex-SAF general) Desmond Kuek’s assertion that  “it was ‘standard’ procedure and routine for people to be on the track to investigate a fault when trains are running, but with permission sought”, it appears that keeping trains running trumps “Safety First” when lives of the rank and file are on the line. Perhaps, the CEO’s own KPI cannot afford to have another train stoppage due to yet another fault during operating hours.

Dear Mr Kuek, “SAFETY” is always FIRST. Nothing else comes close. Not your or your management team’s KPIs. Get that into your head before more lives are lost.

Murphy’s Laws vs SMRT’s safety protocols

The first law is, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

Never mind your protocols.

Murphy’s second law reads, “If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the FIRST to go wrong.”
Never mind your protocols.
What can be more damaging than a life lost? Well, how about 2 lives, young lives?

A little down Murphy’s list is this one, “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”

Never mind your protocols.

As I like to say, “Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet!”

Protocols without common sense

From what has been revealed thus far, some commonsensical questions come a’begging’.

All 15 maintenance staff were walking in single-file, along the side of the train tracks, on the walkway.

Why the need for 15 staff ‘to investigate an alarm for signalling equipment’? 15 people to look at a faulty alarm which, if faulty, needs 15 sets of hands to rectify? We assume it’s an electronic alarm, built with modular parts, no need for 15 to fix.

Walking in single-file is an accepted norm for moving along a narrow path. Or, during military training, in low visibility. But the risk lies in one tripping either forward or backward, the reflexive action is to pull the other nearest to you or reach out to catch the one falling (except for the first and last person). That was most likely what happened to result in two, not just one, being hit by the train.

The 15 were walking along a 0.5m wide walkway…The train in the incident was just pulling into the station, travelling at about 60km per hour.

Doors and residential stairways are normally 1.0m wide, basically wide enough for 2 persons to pass one another. So, 0.5m appears sufficient to walk in single-file. But have you ever tried walking along wider-than-0.5 m paths, about an arms-length away from the line of and facing oncoming cars heading towards you at 60kph?

How do you think it feels like to walk with 14 others along a 0.5m narrow path that is just also about an arms-length from the side of – not cars, but – long train carriages and hurling towards you at 60kph? Will you be reflexively affected by the metal-against-metal screeches, the windy force and the tremors under your feet?


Desmond Kuek’s million $ job is safe. He has only to quote his boss’ boss, “This was a lapse, what to do, it’s happened.”.

And move on.

To all the SMRT maintenance staff, do not count on your bosses or their political bosses setting things right for you. The SMRT “We are working on it” posters should already tell you something. You were not there when it came to bonus time. But you conveniently served the purpose to appeal to your fellow citizens’ empathy with your tough maintenance work when it suited them to hide their neglect or incompetence behind your weathered faces and dirtied overalls.

Mr Law also blogs at

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