Khaw Boon Wan on MRT flooding: 'If there is poor work culture, the CEO is responsible'

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan at a media briefing on 16 October 2017 where he apologised to commuters affected by the MRT tunnel flooding last month. Photo: Yahoo News Singapore

The Ministry of Transport (MOT) will not be convening a Commission of Inquiry (COI) on last month’s MRT tunnel flooding incident that affected some 250,000 commuters, said Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament on Tuesday (7 November).

“As regulator, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will also separately assess SMRT’s findings on the extent of dereliction of duties and falsification of records.

“While investigations by LTA will take a few more weeks to complete, the facts of the incident are not complicated, and the cause of the incident is clear. My ministry will therefore not be convening a Commission of Inquiry,” said Khaw.

The 64-year old was delivering a Ministerial Statement in response to a total of 15 Parliamentary Questions on the flooding of the tunnel between Bishan and Braddell MRT stations, which disrupted North-South Line services for some 20 hours. Top management from SMRT and LTA, including SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming and chief executive officer Desmond Kuek, were present in the public gallery as Khaw spoke.

Alluding to Kuek’s earlier statement that SMRT was grappling with “deep-seated cultural issues”, Khaw added that he looked to SMRT’s top management to set a “culture of excellence” and the right tone for the whole company.

“If there is poor work culture, the CEO is responsible. You set the corporate culture… growing the right culture is the responsibility of everyone,” said the minister, who also noted that Kuek had been “working very hard to try to change work culture” at SMRT.

Khaw revealed that Kuek had “volunteered for the job” of SMRT CEO following the removal of his predecessor Saw Phaik Hwa in 2012.

“He volunteered for this job, he wasn’t parachuted in or (was) asked to go and fix this… I mean as former Chief of Defence force, I know, I think his heart is in the right place,” said the minister.

Khaw noted that SMRT has suspended six members of its maintenance staff, who will face disciplinary action for their part in the incident. They include three SMRT veterans of more than 20 years’ experience.

An SMRT statement on 31 October had revealed that maintenance records for the anti-flood system at Bishan MRT had been falsified, with no actual works having been conducted for over a year leading up to the incident.

“SMRT is in contact with the National Transport Workers Union (NTWU) (and) has assured the union that these suspended officers will be accorded due process,” said Khaw.

“SMRT will take swift and stern action to root out any improper practices and prevent a recurrence of this incident.”

Khaw revealed that seven managerial staff at SMRT have also been suspended. They include Ng Teck Poo, the former head of the Building and Facilities Maintenance Group, who was replaced in the immediate aftermath of the tunnel flooding by senior mechanical engineer Siu Yow Wee. The other six were Ng’s predecessor, a chief engineer, a deputy director, and three managers.

Remedial measures

Alluding to Desmond Kuek’s statement that SMRT was grappling with “deep-seated cultural issues”, the minister also detailed other steps that both LTA and SMRT have taken in the wake of the incident.

On a micro level, these include tightening the flood recovery plans and plans to strengthen coordination with the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the Public Utilities Board through regular exercises. Both agencies played a key role in clearing the flood waters on 7 October.

At a macro level, a team of experts from the Taipei Metro has also been invited to do a “thorough and independent review of (SMRT’s) operations to flush out any gaps and recommend improvements in the areas of system management, engineering and maintenance”. The team will begin its work in December.

SMRT also aims to “develop and cultivate a stronger culture of accountability, ownership and open reporting across the whole organisation”. Further, the rail operator will be undertaking a comprehensive audit of its maintenance records and practices to uncover any lapses or impropriety.

To that end, ST Kinetics has released its executive vice-president and chief technology officer, Dr Richard Kwok, to head SMRT’s newly augmented audit team from next month.