Open letter to incoming CEO of SMRT, Neo Kian Hong

An open letter from Dr Lee Siew Peng to soon-to-be CEO of SMRT, Neo Kian Hong who is currently the permanent secretary for defence development and former chief of defence force.

Dear Mr Neo

I trust that “Congratulations” are in order for your new appointment. Some people see this job as a kind of poisoned chalice. Hopefully your big risk will lead to big rewards. Not just for you, but for the Singapore travelling public.

I feel like I know you. I’m from Nanyang Junior College, you see, and very proud of it. I was one of the pioneer batch who spent a year at Westlake Secondary School. In fact, for some bizarre reason, the first picture on the NYJC Wiki page features an anti-drug-use sketch I “directed” in 1978 at Westlake.

Emboldened by our status as ‘pioneers’ we (I?) knew no fear, it seemed. We were young and idealistic, bent on being trailblazers. I challenged everything and everyone. At one point the principal got so well and truly fed up with the ideological circles I ran around him (metaphorically), he accused me of perpetuating a ‘platitudinous inexactitude’.

Ah! Happy days!

That was just to establish our common ground. I suspect we probably shared the same cultural capital. Aspirational. Hardworking. High five!

Much of what I have to say has already been said in

To reiterate, the army has a very unique culture that cannot be replicated outside it. Your SMRT staff will have a great repository of knowledge. Some could be dying to use their initiative. Others might even have grand ideas. You, on the other hand, will need wisdom.

What is wisdom? Knowledge is identifying correctly that a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable. Not adding said tomato to a fruit salad requires wisdom.

Think back to those Nanyang days when you were probably in some leadership position. Why did your equals let you lead them? Did they know you were going to achieve your current success? Probably not, but enough people saw that you had something, and trusted in your ability to lead even back then. Whatever that ‘something’ was, you will need it in spades.

A complex organization like SMRT requires people to prove themselves again and again. Previous achieved status alone does not make trains run on time. Organizations, so long as they require humans being to run them, cannot be run solely by engineers and robots. People, with their follies and foibles, do not conform to mathematical formulae.

Wisdom is also knowing – quickly – what you don’t know and being willing to learn from those who do. Be prepared to learn from those who have, as we anthropologists say, the ‘local knowledge’. This is information that has probably never been documented in handbooks and logs. This is where Mr Tan Kin Lian’s ‘feet on the ground’ advice comes in. Anthropologists call it ‘participant observation’.

Daniel (in the Old Testament) had his three wise men friends. I think they made him accountable, kept reminding him to keep his feet on the ground, not get too big for his shoes. I hope that you will find such wise men (and women), too.

Wisdom also means knowing when to think outside the box, and where to find people who could do this. In the spirit of open letters, let me, like Mr Tan Kin Lian, also offer my services for free. I’m rubbish at engineering, but I’m pretty shrewd with people and processes.

It leaves me to say that I take my hat off to your predecessor for soldiering on (pardon the pun) against all odds. Please pass my good wishes to him.

I wish you every success because I, for one, am hoping that you can make a difference.