COMMENT: SMRT fiasco – The art of shooting oneself in the foot

Rail operator SMRT has a history of appointing military men to its top position. (Reuters file photo)
Rail operator SMRT has a history of appointing military men to its top position. (Reuters file photo)

SMRT’s love affair with top military men is not new. It started way back in 1997, when former Chief of Navy Rear Admiral Kwek Siew Jin was moved into the organisation as the rail operator’s chief, followed by former Chief of Army Brigadier General Boey Tak Hap in 2002.

That was a time when social media was not even a figment of the Singaporean’s imagination. The two military men escaped the intense public scrutiny that SMRT’s new general-turned-CEO is facing. Kwek announced in 1997 that the North-South and East-West lines would be upgraded. But nothing was done; if those plans had kicked in, the storm that is blowing in the organisation might not have happened. Anyway, that is all water under the bridge now.

I had the opportunity to observe Kwek and Boey up close in 2000 when we launched the Today newspaper with SMRT as an investor. Both were members of the Mediacorp Press board, and although Kwek didn’t display any business smarts, he asked the right questions. But the man didn’t have a deep knowledge of the newspaper business to ask incisive follow-up questions. Boey, who lasted only 10 months in SMRT, was silent during board meetings. He seemed to be out of his depth in understanding a business that his organisation had invested in.

To add a sense of perspective to the rail pain the former chief of the military and outgoing SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek has experienced for the last five and a half years – the same suffering his successor, former military chief Neo Kian Hong, might face – here are two points worth considering. One, academic Cherian George has raised, rather obliquely, the intriguing possibility that the mess some of the military men have fallen into goes back to the PAP government’s desire to keep them within its tight embrace.

Post-military career cushioning

George said in his latest book, Singapore, Incomplete: “When scholar-officers leave the Singapore Armed Forces at age 50 or younger, the government doesn’t require them to fend for themselves and thus get into mischief. They are transplanted into ministries and government-linked companies (GLCs), keeping them safely within the family.”

The government narrative is that the military has to be kept young, partly because there are younger officers waiting in the wings and wanting to move up quickly. At one time, the retirement age for regular commissioned officers was 45. With the national retirement age moving up to 62, the military had to follow somewhat. The limit went up to 50 years and as a commentary by military analyst Ho Shu Huang says, “the truncated retirement age may still remain a psychological hurdle that many may still find hard to overcome.”

Former chief of defence force Neo Kian Hong (left) will take over from current SMRT CEO Demond Kuek on 1 August. (PHOTOS: Getty Images / Yahoo News Singapore)
Former chief of defence force Neo Kian Hong (left) will take over from current SMRT CEO Demond Kuek on 1 August. (PHOTOS: Getty Images / Yahoo News Singapore)

Over the years, more scholar-generals have been reaching retirement age, adding to the government’s urgency to find them top jobs in the civil service and government-linked companies. The active social media and the dog-eat-dog world of a disruptive business environment will only make these generals more unfit for the real world. Even many legacy CEOs from government-linked giants like Comfort Delgro are finding it difficult to survive in this bruising world, what more military men running GLCs. It is a muddle the government has dug for itself.

Before the situation worsens with more government-linked CEOs getting entangled in public fury, it is time for a rethink. The handcuffs put on the elite to keep these generals happy will have to be removed. They have to be set free to fend for themselves and prove their worth in the harsh business world.

Communications flub?

Two, the way SMRT handled the public relations part of the Desmond Kwek departure shows how unprepared it was in coming out with a water-tight statement. After being surprised by The Straits Times’ report of Kuek’s impending departure, SMRT had to react speedily. In its haste to get out a statement, it forgot to look at the what-if scenario: What if the mention of a global search in the statement, which said that another military general was picked from the 20 potential candidates, would create another round of chest-thumping? Even middle-of-the-ground commentators like journalist Bertha Henson asked what made Neo so special.

SMRT tried to answer that question in a letter to The Straits Times on Saturday (21 April) saying Neo was chosen because of his leadership qualities and his understanding of the local terrain. But that letter was too little, too late to douse the online fury.

The incoming CEO might just bring about a sense of normalcy to SMRT. Some of his achievements, like the role he played in tackling Sars, have been mentioned. With so much money and the sheer might at its disposal, it is a surprise that the government has not thought of showcasing these scholar-generals’ past work.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about their entrepreneurial ability in a speech in 2000. “Of the total pool of 206 SAF scholars, 75 have left service. Not all have thrived, but many have done well… A few have become entrepreneurs and founded highly successful technology companies. They have not faded away,” he said. How come nobody thought of highlighting these achievements?

That opportunity has been missed. All that is left to do now is to stop cocooning these generals in cushy jobs in protected industries. If this is not done, the generals who learn to shoot the enemy while in service will continue to shoot themselves in the foot.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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