SMRT CEO Neo Kian Hong rallies staff on the ground in mission to regain public trust

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
SMRT Group CEO Neo Kian Hong addresses reporters at Kim Chuan Depot on Friday, 16 November 2018. PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore

Three months into the job, SMRT Group chief executive Neo Kian Hong has unveiled plans for a sweeping reorganisation of the rail operator, while emphasising the need to keep staff motivated and imbued with a sense of mission.

Speaking to reporters at the Kim Chuan Depot on Friday (16 November), the 54-year-old revealed that SMRT Group will be reorganised into five main departments, with Trains at its core. It will be focused on maintaining the reliability of train services.

An Engineering group will also be established to build local engineering capabilities in operations and maintenance, in order to sustain reliability for the long term.

In an acknowledgement of past criticisms that SMRT had failed to invest in proper maintenance of the rail network, Neo referred to what is called a bathtub curve: a 30-year life cycle for the rail system that has to be carefully managed. The bathtub curve is commonly used in the engineering field to assess reliability.

“If we are slow in system renewal efforts and in staying ahead of the curve, we will compromise reliability, which we have all witnessed in the past,” said Neo. He noted the rail system renewal programme, which started in 2012, is only halfway through but improvements could already be seen.

The other three groups are Roads, Experience and Corporate Services. Neo did not give a timeline on when the reorganisation would take place, but said, “What we want to do is slowly evolve the organisation to be more responsive and also to strengthen the areas that we need to strengthen.”

Asked whether this would mean an increase or decrease in SMRT staff, he did not elaborate.

On the ground engagement

SMRT Group CEO Neo Kian Hong (second from left) observing signalling maintenance works in October 2018. PHOTO: SMRT

Reporters were shown a slideshow detailing the efforts by Neo and his management to engage staff on the ground. The former permanent secretary at the defence and education ministries has visited all 58 stations on the North-South East-West Line, and also consulted with numerous staff doing “onerous work” in the tunnels, train depots and upcoming stations.

“Every time we do a review of operations and maintenance issues, they will tell me that there are certain challenges, and I will go down and they will show me exactly (what they are). Because there’s no point in describing it in the office, might as well go down and see exactly what is going on on the ground…it gives the guys on the ground an opportunity to explain some of the issues that we have.”

“This is like a crash course for me,” said Neo, who is currently visiting stations on the Circle Line.

Asked about his predecessor Desmond Kuek’s comment that SMRT suffered from “deep-seated cultural issues”, Neo said he did not agree with the sentiment. “Based on my engagement, my experience is that our people want to do well. I’ve seen very enthusiastic people, very hardworking people, quite innovative people giving a lot of suggestions.”

When asked by a reporter if staff didn’t feel a sense of mission previously, Neo stressed that the engagement of staff has to be continuous in order to keep up with “changing situations” and prevent staff from feeling disengaged.

Perhaps mindful of some scepticism that his military background has attracted – like Kuek, Neo is a former Chief of Defence Force – he acknowledged his lack of relevant experience.

“Obviously, I’m new in the industry. It’ll be too much to assume that just because I’ve done certain things in other sectors, doesn’t mean it’s immediately applicable. I come in with great humility and respect for my professional colleagues…so that we can do the work properly.”

Listening to feedback

Upon taking up the job as CEO in August, Neo said that he had given up his car and will rely on public transport in order to better understand issues on the ground. Asked about his experiences on the train, he admitted that he did not previously take the MRT, but experiencing it was “very important”

“(When) I get feedback from commuters, certain complaints about the heat, the smell, I don’t know what they’re talking about. But when I’m inside and I stand at the gap between the train from the North-South Line, I can smell it, and then…it’s totally personal.”

Does he get recognised by commuters on the train, who then complain to him? In response, Neo quipped that he gets the most feedback at his church. “I was a leader, so I was going to them. Now, it’s the other way round: I stepped down as a leader, but they come to me: one queue, everybody giving suggestions.”

Neo noted that two developments had given the rail operator some much-needed breathing space: the government taking over the renewal of rail assets, and SMRT being de-listed from the Singapore Exchange in 2016. More importantly, he said, the Land Transport Authority has been working very closely with the operator.

“A lot of effort has been put in to lift the pressures off us, to allow us to singularly focus on reliability…at this point in time, we are measured in reliability, not measured in profitability.”

Ultimately, SMRT’s people will be key to its success. “We must take care of our people, so that our people can take care of our mission…I think (commuters) recognise effort. (They) need time to be convinced. I’m quite confident that we will be able to do it.”

Quoting former Foreign Minister George Yeo, Neo added, “If you can get the last bricklayer to see that he’s not a bricklayer, but he’s actually building a cathedral, something would have changed.”

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