Thursday, July 16, 2015

The root cause of the SMRT debacle

It's a truism that in a privatised organisation like the SMRT, the priority is to maximise profits for the shareholders. The major shareholder of SMRT is Temasek Holdings. It follows that SMRT commuters are placed very low in its priority and as a result maintenance could not have been placed in a very important position.

The rot really started with the appointment of Ms. Saw Phaik Hwa as CEO. Her only experience was in the retail business and she knew next to nothing in the running of SMRT and its maintenance. She was however successful in making hugh profits for the shareholders, especially Temasek Holdings, mainly through rentals of SMRT properties and for a time she was able to ride high in the organisation. Although there were rail disruptions under her watch, they were not thought serious enough to warrant any Governmental attention. However as luck would have it, a massive rail disruption occurred in December 2011 which necessitated the setting up of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) by the Government. That massive disruption and the  rather harsh verdict of the COI  made it impossible for Ms. Saw to continue as CEO of SMRT. The irony is that she was handsomely rewarded for her departure from SMRT.

It's amazing that the Government had not learned from the bitter lesson of Ms. Saw Phaik Hwa. To the confoundment of the public, especially the commuting public, the Government made the bizarre appointment of Desmond Kuek, an ex-army lieutenant-general, as CEO of SMRT in replacement of Ms. Saw. What credentials he had in remedying the transport woes of SMRT, only the myopic PM Lee Hsien Loong and Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew were able to perceive. He did not give a good impression of himself to the public right from the start. While SMRT was bedevilled by an illegal bus strike by Chinese national bus drivers, this joker Desmond Kuek was frolicking on a vacation in the US. He returned to Singapore after the strike was over.

He has no technological qualification or experience in running an MRT and was out of his depth in coping with the maintenance of SMRT. He was no better than Ms. Saw whom he replaced and in his desperate effort to prevent frequent breakdowns he brought four army cronies into the management to assist him. But they were just like him completely ignorant in the running of an MRT and so the SMRT continued to experience frequent rail breakdowns to the anger and inconvenience of commuters. What takes the cake was the massive breakdown of the North-South and East-West lines on 7 July. PM Lee Hsien Loong appeared shattered by the massiveness of the breakdown and had the eerie premonition that another massive breakdown of this scale could happen at any time. That he and his Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew could still be shielding the joker Desmond Kuek will be at their peril. That Kuek has been making profits for the shareholders could not be underestimated as he would not have been awarded the $2.25m remuneration.

The point is as long as the SMRT is privatised and profit-oriented, the poor and unfortunate commuters will suffer from frequent rail breakdowns, not excluding massive disruptions. So it is time that PM Lee Hsien Loong and his Transport Minister wake up from their slumber and seriously consider the nationalisation of the transport system as a perpetual remedy of the transport woes.

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