SMRT: Why one general after another?

SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek (left) will see his role taken over by former chief of defence force Neo Kian Hong (right) on 1 August. (PHOTOS: Yahoo News Singapore / Getty Images)

Over the past five years, I’ve ribbed SMRT chief Desmond Kuek quite mercilessly in my ad hoc series, In the SMRT war room. I suppose I saw comedic potential in the idea of an ex-general who had commanded thousands being unable to get the trains to run on time because of bo chap staffers who couldn’t care less about standard operating procedures or engineering excellence.

So I created Des Quake hunkered down in an SMRT underground bunker trying to strategise his next move after yet another humiliating defeat.

Long and short delays aside, a flooded train tunnel is very Third World and not even 3G. A train hitting the backside of another, causing injuries to passengers being described as a coming “into contact’’ was simply too rich for words. The death of the two SMRT workers, however, was too grim for laughs. That wasn’t even a defeat, it was a debacle.

Now, Mr Kuek will no longer have a role In the SMRT war room. But I can still continue with the series because another ex-general has stepped into his shoes! I thank the SMRT board for allowing me to continue with the column.

I was somewhat surprised at the jubilance which greeted news of Mr Kuek’s departure. It made me feel sorry for him. I ribbed him, yes, but I don’t think anyone can take away the effort that he’s put in into a system that seemed to have ossified under his predecessor. I will cite just three things that happened under his watch:

  1. The privatisation of the SMRT (so that there’s less of that usual excuse about giving shareholders good dividends)
  2. The rail financing system which is an admission that it is better for the State to look after infrastructure and let operators handle the service and operations side
  3. The replacement, retrofitting and general upgrading of the trains and assorted mechanisms related to the rail network.

Despite such major moves accomplished in a span of five years, he wasn’t able to appease commuters who were more concerned with the travails of their day-to-day commute.

There were a few things that didn’t help his case.

First, he was an ex-general, in fact, ex-Commander of the Defence Force. A title like that encourages great expectations. A man who can move thousands in the defence of a country should be able to move a train for several kilometres. And when he can’t, the wags will start wondering if a military man is the best fit for a private sector role. Such rumblings are reaching a crescendo methinks especially after another ex-military man took over publishing giant Singapore Press Holdings. It will continue on an even higher pitch now that Mr Neo Kian Hong is taking over the SMRT job.

This has less to do with SMRT per se, than what to do with young ex-generals with short military lifespans. What would not be good is if the public looks askance at our best military minds, whenever one of them is deemed to have fallen short in the private sector sphere. It’s a perception problem that I think the 4G leaders should tackle. Quickly.

Second, there were Mr Kuek’s comments about “deep-seated cultural issues’’. It will dog him forever. That’s because of the expectation that a forceful personality, assumed to be a strength of an ex-general, would not have needed so much time to uproot or unseat such cultural forces in his way.

He might have been referring to the difficulty of getting his staff to do things his way but he didn’t elaborate. One can only assume he should have fired more people, moved them to a corner where they could do no harm or read the riot act more often to recalcitrants. We will never know now, especially since it is a “private’’ company which can use “internal company policy’’ as a shield against calls for transparency

Third, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had a part to play in pushing Mr Kuek down the popularity stakes as well. His revelation that Mr Kuek had “volunteered’’ for the job evoked more derision than appreciation, especially when coupled with a CEO’s salary. I was in Parliament when he talked about Mr Kuek came into the job and I understood the context: That this was a loyal public servant who had put himself forward for the hottest job in the land. He should be applauded for having guts, not shot down at every instance of a train breakdown.

Alas, the firing continued.

Which leads me to this question: Have we been shooting at the wrong guy?

We haven’t been talking much about the role of the past SMRT boards in allowing the messy state of affairs in SMRT to fester for so long. We’re supposed to assume that there were sleeping on the job because of the way new chairman Mr Seah Moon Ming has been profiled as giving his heart, soul and body to the company.

Then there is the role of the Land Transport Authority, which has escaped public attention even as the focus was on the decay of the SMRT. This, despite some rumblings about the adequacy of its auditing and its watchdog role. We know that the regulator and operator had a confrontational relationship, which Mr Khaw wants transformed into a partnership. How that confrontational relationship affected the role of the regulator in the past was never made clear.

I think we set our gun-sights on Mr Kuek because he is the most visible face of the train system; he’s even blamed when things go wrong on the line run by SBS Transit. On the other hand, we never saw the SMRT Board and we know of the LTA as a body of officials who speak in one voice, not in the form of an individual.

Fine, I can hear voices saying that we shouldn’t be playing a blame game now. I agree. Both the commuting public and the transport authority and operator should start afresh. Here’s where I have a problem. Why Mr Neo?

When ST first broke the news of his impending appointment, the reaction was typical. And cynical. Yet another ex-general with no transport engineering or management expertise. I was willing to hear out the SMRT Board on its choice of candidate because the board members cannot be so obtuse as not to foresee the public reaction. But we’re only told that it was a global search which looked at about 20 candidates, according to ST, before settling on Mr Neo. Is there no other person in the whole wide world, with some train management expertise, who would be better than him? Is he the best man for the job?

Mr Seah’s recommendation of the man was a mish-mash of big words: “The board was impressed with Kian Hong’s appreciation of interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as his vision and experience in leveraging new technologies for public service.

“I have had the opportunity to work alongside Kian Hong during the Sars crisis and witnessed his sense of mission, hands-on approach to problem-solving and decisive leadership. Kian Hong had also proven his operational leadership when he led the SAF contingent in East Timor. We are confident that he will lead SMRT towards operation excellence.’’

I suppose that’s a bit better than how ex-SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan introduced Mr Kuek into the role in 2012: “After an extensive search and selection process, we are pleased that we have someone of Desmond’s background and calibre joining SMRT as the new CEO. SMRT is undergoing considerable change, not just in the way we operate transport services and serve our customers, but also how we will continue to grow as a company. Desmond has the attributes and proven qualities to lead SMRT through these challenges.”

We now know that Mr Kuek volunteered for the job, despite the extensive search and selection process. So how did that old search process really go? And may we know more about this recent global search for the SMRT chief so as to be assured that the Mr Neo is the top choice? Private company though it may be, SMRT is providing a public service. It should give as much information as possible if only to ensure that Mr Neo does not start his new job with a “trust deficit’’ among the public, simply because he was a general.