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Desmond Kuek’s resignation will not solve SMRT’s maintenance problem and its deep-rooted cultural issues

There seems to be an outcry by both the public and media for Desmond Kuek, the Chief Executive Officer of SMRT to resign for the constant breakdowns and lapses by the transport company that runs the East-West Line, North-South Line and Circle Line.

True enough, that as the head of the company and being paid millions of dollars annually, Kuek ought to take responsibility for the failing of the company in ensuring its operations does not cause inconvenience to its commuters. But the question here we ought to ask is whether will we be able to see a change should Kuek step down as CEO.

Let us not forget that the problems faced by SMRT started with Saw Phaik Hwa who as CEO prioritised retail expansion instead of maintenance effort for a decade. Since problems faced by the transport company has not gone away after she stepped down, what makes us think that Kuek’s departure can make things any better?

Managerial, structural, cultural and systemic issues

When Kuek first took over in 2012, one of the first things he did was to bring in his trusted colleagues from the military into the company. While some took it that he was promoting cronyism and bring in his khakis to nest in the company, some saw it as a move to weed out the management that had led to the failings of the transport company.

Kuek had raised the issue about the culture in SMRT a couple of times as CEO. In an interview with ST after some SMRT bus drivers from China went on an illegal strike in November 2012, Mr Kuek said: “There are clearly managerial, structural, cultural and systemic issues that need addressing.”

Again, at a press conference last month, after the flooding incident, Mr Kuek said: “Much progress has been made with the inculcation of a positive work culture in the workforce, but there remain some deep-seated cultural issues within the company that has needed more time than anticipated to root out.”

Though Kuek is the CEO of the company, that does not mean he has free reign over what can be done. End of the day, SMRT was partially owned by Temasek Holdings (TH) and currently fully owned by TH. In the case of Saw, it is no secret that she is a good friend of Ms Ho Ching, CEO of TH and spouse of the Singapore Prime Minister. As for Kuek, it is by the virtue that he is a three-star general that he is able to take some action based on his own discretion and not be a puppet.

The investigation into the flooding of the Bishan underground tunnel, revealed there were instances of falsified records of scheduled maintenance works by the assigned maintenance team for the Bishan portal sump pump last carried out corrective maintenance works on 13 July 2017. Several members of the maintenance team along with management staff were suspended following the findings of the investigation.

Frankly, it is funny how certain media are astonished at the maintenance lapses within SMRT, and how anonymous sources within the SMRT said that they are unaware of how  pervasive the lapses are.

For those who recall, we ran a story about a former engineer who spoke up on the issues of SMRT when he was with the company and the maintenance lapses that he was forced to turn a blind eye to.

In the dossier which the former SMRT engineer compiled, it can be seen from email conversations how Associate Engineers were being asked, for example, to “downscale” the status of incidents from “incident” to “routine maintenance” in the records.

In his resignation letter, the engineer wrote,

“The apparent lack of interest in resolving problems by the EPL (escalator, platform and lift) management have led to a serious fall in staff morale, with the inevitable drop in staff discipline as well, for verbal and even written letters of warning have been issued widely to many of the men. There also appears to be no consistency to the enforcement of disciplinary standard, for warning letters have been issued to some men for certain incidents, while no disciplinary action has been taken against some other staff for incidents of a similar nature. Orders are often issued verbally, with no follow-up memo, so that it becomes difficult for a staff member to check and clarify on any order he does not quite understand.

Often, when something goes wrong, the men have no way to defend themselves as there is no documentary evidence to back up their assertions.

We have even been ordered to alter reports to suit the EPL management’s view. As the conditions that the EPL rank and file staff have to work under, it is no surprise that there have been so many resignations as the conditions I have outlined in the preceding few lines make it difficult for us to continue working here.”

And guess what? Mr Ng Tek Poo, the former Vice-President of Maintenance who was replaced quite immediately after the flooding incident is actually the manager whom the former engineer was complaining about.

Ng was quoted by the engineer to have said, “You can argue till the cows come home, you can show me how good condition your equipment is in, but as far as I’m concerned the job is only complete when the paperwork is done.”

Speaking to the former engineer today, he alleges that Mr Ng is the culprit behind the pervasive culture of cover-ups in SMRT but protected because he is the blue-eyed boy of Saw. The protected status of Ng might hold some water, given that he was only replaced to another department instead of being dismissed despite the grave mistake which had been committed.

Speaking to some current technicians within SMRT, it is said that the middle management does not care about the feedback of the ground technicians but simply push them to complete tasks that are seemingly impossible, leading to poor morale on the ground. On the other hand, TOC understands that ground staff like Kuek because when faced with problems such as the bus strike, he actually looks into their grievances and acts on them

EWL and NSL constant breakdowns

It probably takes no genius to figure out that the bulk of breakdowns along EWL and NSL, the oldest lines of the MRT system break down during peak hours. And why so?

According to accounts of political insiders, first Elected President and former Minister of Communication Ong Teng Cheong had wanted to build an eight-train-carriage MRT system. which is similar to the one used by Hong Kong’s MTR system which comfortably supports its 7 million population. However, due to the lack of support from the then-finance Minister, Tony Tan who is also the former President who just stepped down, Mr Ong had to downsize his plans to a six carriage system which was then built to accommodate a population of 3 million.  While this does not have public information available to prove its authenticity, but it is public knowledge that Mr Tan denied Mr Ong’s initial budget, forcing him to go back to the drawing board to rework the budget before it was finally approved.

So moving forward to the Singapore today, at its peak during the morning and evening rush hours, SMRT is forced to pack more trains on its EWL and NSL rail lines than what it was built to support. Even with the new signalling system, it will not solve the issue of train faults as the signalling system merely seeks to address the issue of over-packed carriages. In fact, the new signalling system introduces a new problem because the fundamental flaw of the system is that once a train along the line breaks down, the other trains will stop as a safety precaution.

However, as a government-owned company, it will likely not be able to raise this as a problem because it exposes the poor planning by the government in response to the sudden growth in population in the 90s and early 2000s.

While LTA is ramping up construction of the MRT system to create better rail connection between different parts of Singapore, but from now till then, Singaporeans and its foreign residents have to live with the constant breakdowns due to the overburdening of the transport system.

Transparency and accountability needed, not fall-guys 

With Kuek stepping down, he will be essentially taking the brunt of the public anger on behalf of the authorities in charge of the transportation system. Bear in mind, EWL and NSL are given to SMRT to run by the LTA. They are not owned by SMRT per say, and SMRT will not relinquish its operations of EWL and NSL after the resignation of Kuek. By then, when the breakdowns repeat itself, will the public ask for another fall guy from the top management?

In fact, Kuek as a former Chief of Defence who outranks the current batch of political leaders in military has more latitude in making positive changes to the company compared to some civil servant who will be tasked to replace him once he is gone. The case of Charles “Chip” Waterhouse Goodyear and his supposed take over of Temasek holdings, reminds us that in Singapore, corporate credential alone does not make things work.

Kuek’s point of “deep-seated cultural issues within the company” cannot be ignored if Singapore is serious in resolving the MRT issue, and he cannot do it alone. Citizens have to know that it is a problem which take political strength and the identification of the root cause and culprits for the matter to be addressed. An amnesty has a short-term and minimal effect especially when many might have grave problems which cannot revealed even if they can be forgiven.  Therefore, a commission of inquiry has to be convened in order to ascertain the extent of rot in SMRT’s management and the damage caused by Saw’s leadership. Even if the government does not wish to carry out the COI, the newly “elected” President Halimah Yacob can choose to do so.

What the public should be calling out for action is to have a system of accountability by the transport companies, for it to have transparent and real-time reports on the breakdowns, a fair system for commuters such as free transportation after each disrupted service – fines from transport companies to government is merely from a pocket to another without benefiting the commuters and for the government to allow private operators to step up to address the transport issue, such as allowing parallel bus services along the train routes.

So before we sound the drums and call for Kuek’s resignation, let us remember that with Kuek’s resignation, staff such as Ng will still happily and gainfully employed within SMRT despite the damage that they have done to the transport system and nothing concrete will be changed by the government to address the above raised issues as blood has been shed to appease the angry crowd.