‘Blame SMRT’s corporate culture, LTA’s lack of regular checks'

(AFP file photo)(AFP file photo)

It is becoming clearer by the day that the way the transport chaos was handled has exposed major cracks in SMRT's company culture and the regulator's inability to act on these loopholes early in the game.

Both are national embarrassments and need immediate attention.

The outpouring of anger by Singaporeans and the swift political reaction that followed the disruptions, with even the Prime Minister returning from leave to announce the formation of a Committee of Inquiry, reflect the awakening that the country is experiencing.

But if the post-chaos focus is mired in technical jargon like collector shoes, steel support brackets and claws, then the lessons will not be learnt.

The scrutiny that follows should also ask these two questions: Why SMRT's management failed to get its act together during and, more importantly, after the two major disruptions? Why was the Land Transport Authority not rigorous enough in detecting the defects in a company culture that go beyond the disruptions on Friday and Saturday?

It was the Shame on Sunday that is more worrying and has long-term implications for Singapore Inc.

The corporation knew that its trains would start running on the North-South Line only after the compulsory checks ordered by the LTA were over by about 10am on Sunday. Yet, it was found wanting in providing an efficient shuttle bus service on that day. The buses were late (unpardonable), some drivers were clueless about how to get to their destinations (again, unpardonable), signages were only in English in some stations (unpardonable, for sure).

The saddest story to emerge from that episode was that of a senior citizen. The Straits Times reported that truck driver Chan Chun Meng, 68, was at the Ang Mo Kio station at 5am to catch the bus to his workplace in Tanjong Pagar, but had to wait one and a half hours to get his transport. He reached his office late and lamented that his daily rated pay of $78 was cut by $10.

It is this inability to realise that you have an emergency on your hands and get it fixed quickly that needs urgent attention by the SMRT board and LTA. This inability seems to have seeped into its corporate culture. Take, for instance, the two security blunders that happened within two years. A concerned organisation would have taken the first breach at its Changi depot very seriously, instituted  a zero-error system and instilled it down the ranks. Obviously, that didn't happen because another similar incident took place, this time at the Bishan depot.

And now, four months later, you have two major rail breakdowns.

Look not just at the top

The populist and sensational thing to do is to call for SMRT's CEO, Saw Phaik Hwa, to resign. I say, look deeper into why these things are happening. The company's operating model needs a re-examination. Is it possible for a company to please two masters at the same: Shareholders and commuters? Saw's stellar track record in opening up a new and major source of revenue from retail outlets in MRT stations is commendable. But did she take her eye off the ball when it came to the other part of  her job, running an efficient and reliable public transport organisation?

The way the events of the past two years have unfolded, the answer must be a yes. Thus, the time has come to look into how the train operator's twin roles can be managed by two different bosses -- one to go to back to the basics of running a public transport company and the other to make money that will pay for the running of the system.

As for the LTA, it had failed to spot the signs, as early as two years ago with the first security breach and more recently with the second failing. That, together with the pressure on the train system brought about by overcrowding and increased frequency of train timings, should have alerted the regulator to insist on thorough and regular checks.

Such health checks were eventually forced on the operator after the event and they unearthed danger signs in three areas: 21 dislodged brackets that keep the third rail in place to provide power to the trains, damaged collector shoes in 13 trains; 34 damaged protective covers in the third rail.

To find so many faults, although not fatal, is like opening a can of worms. Obviously, there was something wrong with the maintenance framework at SMRT which the regulator could have identified if it had carried out its part of the deal.

These failings, together with the mistakes of the past three years -- terrorist Mas Selamat's escape, the floods at Orchard Road and the supply squeeze on HDB housing  -- show a malaise creeping into a country that has matured too fast. A bold examination of the root causes of these incidents is needed quickly to stop further cracks from appearing in a system built up assiduously by the Merdeka Generation.

The PM has his plate full.

P N Balji has more than 35 years experience as a journalist. He is now a media consultant.

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