SMRT is facing multiple problems today as the train operator has to make money for the government, said Aljunied GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Low Thia Khiang in Parliament on Tuesday (7 November).
“The core of the problem is money. The government wanted to have the cake and eat it, expecting profit from the train operator and at the same time also expecting efficiency [and] tip top maintenance work,” said Low, who is also the chief of The Workers’ Party.
Low was the last of 15 MPs to respond to a Ministerial Statement made by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament regarding last month’s MRT flooding incident.
On 7 October, heavy rainfall led to Bishan MRT station being flooded and caused train services on a section of the North-South Line to be halted for some 20 hours. The disruption affected around 250,000 commuters.
Khaw was quick to slam Low’s statement, saying that he disagreed that SMRT had to make money for the government. He said that the reason for restructuring SMRT to a commercial entity with oversight by the government was so that the “best cost-effectiveness” of train operations could be achieved.
“We could have done [SMRT] as (a) government department, but I think the decision was not wrong to put it as a corporatised company,” said Khaw. SMRT should have “financial discipline” so that it does not make a loss, he added.
Khaw said to Low, “There is no free lunch, Mr Low. He knows it, he runs (a) town council. He needs to balance the accounts too, and he knows the importance of governance, so when your team fails him, what does he do?
“So those things are important lessons for everyone. What happens to SMRT has application to others as well,” Khaw added.
Low also asked how the Land Transport Authority (LTA), SMRT and the Transport Ministry could achieve Khaw’s vision of working together as “one team”, and yet maintain a “structural system of checks” that ensures “efficiency, honesty and integrity”.
In response, Khaw said that while individual roles will be maintained, it was important for the three entities to work together.
Meanwhile, other MPs raised issues ranging from the cultural issues that have been plaguing SMRT, the low morale of its staff, to the focus of SMRT on the bigger projects instead of smaller issues.
MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, Christopher De Souza, noted that lapses still occurred despite SMRT being a rail monopoly that is able to apply to the LTA for asset replacement grants. He suggested pegging the renumeration of workers to the reliability of SMRT and for the operator to adopt a more proactive approach in dealing with problems.
MP for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah expressed concern that current SMRT staff would suffer from low morale as a result of an ongoing maintenance audit and asked how to reward those who have been diligent in their work.
Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Dennis Tan asked if it was a “grave oversight” on SMRT’s part to focus on the bigger project of rail reliability given that it was a smaller component – the pump system – that caused the disruption last month.
Khaw replied that the operator has to set priorities as there is not enough time to do “so many things”.
While there is no excuse for SMRT not to do extensive checking, Khaw said there are “millions of small things” for the operator to deal with. Given limited time, SMRT has to focus on “big-ticket items” that can cause severe problems before it handles the “small things”, he added.