Desmond Kuek’s resignation will not solve SMRT’s maintenance problem and its deep-rooted cultural issues

There seems to be an outcry by both the public and media for Desmond Kuek, the Chief Executive Officer of SMRT to resign for the constant breakdowns and lapses by the transport company that runs the East-West Line, North-South Line and Downtown Line.

True enough, that as the head of the company and being paid millions of dollars annually, Kuek ought to take responsibility for the failing of the company in ensuring its operations does not cause inconvenience to its commuters. But the question here we ought to ask is whether will we be able to see a change should Quek step down as CEO.

Let us not forget that the problems faced by SMRT started with Saw Phaik Hwa who as CEO prioritised retail expansion instead of maintenance effort for a decade. Since problems faced by the transport company has not gone away after she stepped down, what makes us think that Quek’s departure can make things any better?

Managerial, structural, cultural and systemic issues

When Kuek first took over in 2012, one of the first things he did was to bring in his trusted colleagues from the military into the company. While some took it that he was promoting cronyism and bring in his khakis to nest in the company, some saw it as a move to weed out the management that had led to the failings of the transport company.

Kuek had raised the issue about the culture in SMRT a couple of times as CEO. In an interview with ST after some SMRT bus drivers from China went on an illegal strike in November 2012, Mr Kuek said: “There are clearly managerial, structural, cultural and systemic issues that need addressing.”

Again, at a press conference last month, after the flooding incident, Mr Kuek said: “Much progress has been made with the inculcation of a positive work culture in the workforce, but there remain some deep-seated cultural issues within the company that has needed more time than anticipated to root out.”

Though Kuek is the CEO of the company, that does not mean he has free reign over what can be done. End of the day, SMRT was partially owned by Temasek Holdings (TH) and currently fully owned by TH. In the case of Saw, it is no secret that she is a good friend of Ms Ho Ching, CEO of TH and spouse of the Singapore Prime Minister. As for Kuek, it is by the virtue that he is a three-star general that he is able to take some action based on his own discrete and not be a puppet.

The investigation into the flooding of the Bishan underground tunnel, revealed there were instances of falsified records of scheduled maintenance works by the assigned maintenance team for the Bishan portal sump pump last carried out corrective maintenance works on 13 July 2017. Several members of the maintenance team along with management staff were suspended following the findings of the investigation.

Frankly, it is funny how certain media are astonished at the maintenance lapses within SMRT, and how anonymous sources within the SMRT said that they are unaware of how  pervasive the lapses are.

For those who recall, we ran a story about a former engineer who spoke up on the issues of SMRT when he was with the company and the maintenance lapses that he was forced to turn a blind eye to.

In the dossier which the former SMRT engineer compiled, it can be seen from email conversations how Associate Engineers were being asked, for example, to “downscale” the status of incidents from “incident” to “routine maintenance” in the records.

In his resignation letter, the engineer wrote,

“The apparent lack of interest in resolving problems by the EPL (escalator, platform and lift) management have led to a serious fall in staff morale, with the inevitable drop in staff discipline as well, for verbal and even written letters of warning have been issued widely to many of the men. There also appears to be no consistency to the enforcement of disciplinary standard, for warning letters have been issued to some men for certain incidents, while no disciplinary action has been taken against some other staff for incidents of a similar nature. Orders are often issued verbally, with no follow-up memo, so that it becomes difficult for a staff member to check and clarify on any order he does not quite understand.

Often, when something goes wrong, the men have no way to defend themselves as there is no documentary evidence to back up their assertions.

We have even been ordered to alter reports to suit the EPL management’s view. As the conditions that the EPL rank and file staff have to work under, it is no surprise that there have been so many resignations as the conditions I have outlined in the preceding few lines make it difficult for us to continue working here.”

And guess what? Mr Ng Tek Poo, the former Vice-President of Maintenance who was replaced quite immediately after the flooding incident is actually the manager whom the former engineer was complaining about.

Ng was quoted by the engineer to have said, “”You can argue till the cows come home, you can show me how good condition your equipment is in, but as far as I’m concerned the job is only complete when the paperwork is done.”

Speaking to the former engineer today, he alleges that Mr Ng is the culprit behind the pervasive culture of cover-ups in SMRT but protected because he is the blue-eyed boy of Saw. The protected status of Ng might hold some water, given that he was only replaced to another department instead of being dismissed despite the grave mistake which had been committed.

Speaking to some current technicians within SMRT, it is said that the middle management does not care about the feedback of the ground technicians but simply push them to complete tasks that are seemingly impossible, leading to poor morale on the ground. On the contrary, TOC understands that ground staff like Kuek because when faced with problems such as the bus strike, he actually looked into their grievances and acted on them.

EWL and NSL constant breakdowns

It probably takes no genius to figure out that the bulk of breakdowns along EWL and NSL, the oldest lines of the MRT system break down during peak hours. And why so?

According to accounts of political insiders, first Elected President and former Minister of Communication Ong Teng Cheong had wanted to built an eight-train-carriage MRT system. which is similar to the one used by Hong Kong’s MTR system which comfortably supports its 7 million population. However, due to the lack of support from the then-finance Minister, Tony Tan who is also the former President who just stepped down, Mr Ong had to downsize his plans to a six carriage system which was then built to accommodate a population of 3 million.  While this does not have public information available to prove its authenticity, but it is public knowledge that Mr Tan denied Mr Ong’s initial budget, forcing him to go back to the drawing board to rework the budget before it was finally approved.

So moving forward to the Singapore today, at its peak during the morning and evening rush hours, SMRT is forced to pack more trains on its EWL and NSL rail lines than what it was built to support. Even with the new signalling system, it will not solve the issue of train faults as the signalling system merely seeks to address the issue of over-packed carriages. In fact, the new signalling system introduces a new problem because the fundamental flaw of the system is that once a train along the line breaks down, the other trains will stop as a safety precaution.

However, as a government-owned company, it will likely not be able to raise this as a problem because it exposes the poor planning by the government in response to the sudden growth in population in the 90s and early 2000s.

While LTA is ramping up construction of the MRT system to create better rail connection between different parts of Singapore, but from now till then, Singaporeans and its foreign residents have to live with the constant breakdowns due to the overburdening of the transport system.

Transparency and accountability needed, not fall-guys 

With Quek stepping down, it will be essentially taking the blunt of the public anger on behalf of the authorities in charge of the transportation system. Bear in mind, EWL and NSL are given to SMRT to run by the LTA. They are not owned by SMRT per say, and SMRT will not relinquish its operations of EWL and NSL after the resignation of Quek. By then, when the breakdowns repeat itself, will the public ask for another fall guy from the top management?

In fact, Kuek as a former Chief of Defence who outranks the current batch of political leaders in military has more latitude in making positive changes to the company compared to some civil servant who will be tasked to replace him once he is gone. The case of Charles “Chip” Waterhouse Goodyear and his helming of Temasek holdings, reminds us that in Singapore, corporate credential alone does not make things work.

Kuek’s point of “deep-seated cultural issues within the company” cannot be ignored if Singapore is serious in resolving the MRT issue, and he cannot do it alone. Citizens have to know that it is a problem which take political strength and the identification of the root cause and culprits for the matter to be addressed. An amnesty has a short-term and minimal effect especially when many might have grave problems that they cannot reveal even if they can be forgiven.  A commission of inquiry ought to be held to ascertain the extent of rot in SMRT’s management and the damage caused by Saw’s leadership. Even if the government does not wish to carry out the COI, the newly “elected” President Halimah Yacob can choose to do so.

What the public should be calling out for action is to have a system of accountability by the transport companies, for it to have transparent and real-time reports on the breakdowns, a fair system for commuters such as free transportation after each disrupted service – fines from transport companies to government is merely from a pocket to another without benefiting the commuters and for the government to allow private operators to step up to address the transport issue, such as allowing parallel bus services along the train routes.

So before we sound the drums and call for Quek’s resignation, let us remember that with Quek’s resignation, staff such as Ng will still happily employed within SMRT despite the damage that they have done to the transport system and nothing concrete will be changed by the government to address the above raised issues as blood has been shed to appease the angry crowd.

 

Terry Xu

* The writer is the chief editor of The Online Citizen.

 

 

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23 Responses to “Desmond Kuek’s resignation will not solve SMRT’s maintenance problem and its deep-rooted cultural issues”

  • PAP has the mandate:

    The case of Charles “Chip” Waterhouse Goodyear and his very short helming of Temasek holdings. He sense a rot in the whole GIC organisation and Mdm Ho is LHL’s wife. He resigned even before he started, these top gun CEOs are not stupid.

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  • Amos exposed PAP hypocrisy:

    “Desmond Quek resignation will not solve SMRT’s maintenance problem and its deep rooted cultural issues.”

    Absolutely correct BUT it is a good start.

    Since “the rot start at the head” (the very top) the only way to solve the deep rooted cultural issues is REGIME CHANGE. As Trump puts it: “need to clear the swamp”. Singaporeans need to get rid of PAP at the next GE and bury it once and for all with the arrogant, self-serving SOB LKY.

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  • LIONS:

    The bloke who shud be replaced is LEE AH LONG;his FTs dumping causes all these problems.

    Ask Khaw,he was MOH N hospital beds CRASH still not resolved?
    Many SG-PMETs still cannot get the * GOOD JOBS THAT AH LONG’S FTs are supposed to CREATE?

    So,LEE AH LONG IS THE CHIEF CULPRIT.
    And,that ASS LIU THAI KER TOO,he says SG MUST HAVE 10 MILLION PEOPLE,NO PROBLEM.
    Wonder if he lives in the HDB he built or take the train or go to SGH?

    These blokes live AWAY FROM THE CROWDS they help dump here n can really talk cock.
    Is his golf clubs exclusive ones?
    Where he dines?

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  • 70% Daft Sinkies:

    It is not about responsibility but accountability.

    Before anyone can talk about ‘solution’, corporate accountability has to take precedence.

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  • Rabble-rouser:

    @ Terry Xu:
    Sorry but I totally disgree. SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek has to be replaced because 5 years had already elapsed; and the SMRT breakdown situation had become worse, never better. He had 5 long years to resolve SMRT’s breakdown issues but instead under his watch, the breakdowns became worse & at the same time, falsified maintenance records & non-functioning pumps [systemic issues of staff morale & integrity] had been discovered. WHAT WAS CEO DESMOND KUEK DOING ALL THIS WHILE OTHER THAN COLLECTING HIS MILLION DOLLAR SALARY?
    If a CEO doesn’t stay on top of his company’s situation, it is time for him to go! He had 5 long years to eradicate the breakdown problems by getting his hands dirty but evidently, things have gotten totally out of hand re: falsification of maintenance records, systemic fraud by SMRT staff, rundown of essential pumps without regular checks & basically, the whole SMRT operations & people management had devolved into a chaotic organization.
    SMRT needs a hands-on troubleshooter to ‘sniff’ out all SMRT’s problems & resolve/remedy all the necessary issues to make SMRT great again. DESMOND KUEK IS NOT THAT MAN! – SMRT doesn’t need a 9am to 5pm ex-Army General CEO with regular jaunts to the Temasek Club for drinks with his fellow Army Generals. They need an experienced Engineering-steeped guy with a deep understanding of troubleshooting electrical, maintenance issues & also a human resource-oriented guy whose capable of reviving rock-bottom staff morale – not a clueless Army General whose head is stuck in the sky.
    Apparently, even as an ex-General whose supposed to be a leader of men; Desmond Kuek couldn’t even motivate his SMRT subordinates; hadn’t taken to resolve the gnawing issue of valuing/motivating his already-demoralized subordinates who had been totally screwed by Cleopatra Saw’s policy of replacing experienced but expensive old maintenance staff with cheap 3rd world replacements with perhaps, bogus certification – simply to boost profits & achieve her KPIs; didn’t even value the 2 fallen SMRT trainees probably viewing them as collateral damage like in a war (inhumanistic viewpoint). Like any Meritocratic SAF scholar, you can shift blame to your subordinates so far until there’s no one left. So, like a Japanese Samurai warrior whose lost the war, it’s your time to do Seppuku [ritual suicide].

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  • Patriot of Temesak:

    ” no amount of ENGINEERING can prevent FLOODING ” :unquote: By non-other than the Bastard with the Big Mouth now DEAD

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  • opposition dude:

    He has been in charge for 5 years and the problems have worsened, what does that tell you about the CEO?

    Unfortunately SAF discipline does not work outside the SAF. He can’t make anyone sign extras or send them to DB. In fact you can say it’s PAP who sabo’ed him due to forever increasing the number of people on the island further straining the already overloaded train system.

    But of course all this matters nothing to the PAP since they don’t experience the train delays. For all they care the system can come to a complete shutdown forever and they still wouldn’t give 2 hoots about it. If it doesn’t affect me then why should I care, right?

    It’s natural for the public to call for his resignation, the impression is that the disruptions are too frequent, nothing has been done and the CEO’s pay has not been cut. If there is a replacement lined up I wish the bugger the best of luck.

    Let’s see how long more these disruptions go for. For all we know it might even become a political issue at the next GE and cause a significant number of loss of votes for PAP.

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  • survey recently:

    Devil quack will not resign ; he salaries is too big for him to resign die die must hold on , he already knows that private sector will not employ him with this kind of salaries.he drag as long as he can until two train crash thsn he will resign

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  • Tai Chi Master:

    Khaw says Desmond Kuek “volunteered” for the job, that’s means it’s not his mistake, he didn’t pick Desmond, so cannot blame him.

    Same as Woody, he didnt pick Tin Pei Ling, he says she was “offered” to him by LHL, so also cannot blame him.

    And now, after so many years, PAP still cannot announce who will be the next PM, despite this being one of the top concerns of Singaporeans. I believe Heng Swee Keat was picked by the old man before he got stroke. So it’s very easy, if anything goes wrong, just say HSK was picked by the old man, the core White team all no fault. After he got stroke, then it’s big problem for PAP because they cannot blame LKY anymore, LKY didn’t know HSK will get stroke. Now the issue is delayed again and LHL even say he would stay for another term if the next PM is not ready.

    I don’t think Singaporeans and PAP are ready for a non dynasty government. Gen 3 is very easy, textbook answer is to pick LKY’s son to be PM. When there is no more textbook model answer, these scholars would struggle…

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  • Tremendous:

    Terry, with due respect to your arguments, I disagree with you on DK’s resignation. Rightly or wrongly, it has to begin with him resigning. In the private sector, (GLCs are not true private sectors), there is no such thing as a multi million dollar CEO taking five years to find out a maintenance problem.
    There is also no such thing as a minister taking two years to find out that there is a maintenance problem. All these points to unfamiliarity and complacency in their roles.
    I have no intention to be condescending but your defence gave the impression that you have not worked in corporate environments before.
    On your point for budget, the reason TT refused a budget request from OTC was because that was also the period the budget had to be used to feed the large number of ministers with a manifold salary increase. TT is only a high class budget custodian. LKY and GCT to account for what they championed for. LHL will have to account for the legacy he continued.
    Finally, there’s an easier solution. Didn’t LHL say he is ready to step down ? Didn’t someone say he is ready to be the pm ? Great. Put him to the test with this CEO job. From where he is, he should deliver unquestionable results in six months, and only paying him the lump sum compensation if he delivers. If he doesn’t, fire him. If someone wants to be a SM after the pm job, same thing. I tell you this. They cannot do it.

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  • billyma:

    Now the whole country knows that this paper general can’t really produce results after 5 long years & tens of million of paychecks.
    So the writer suggest that all that had happened are not paper general fault.
    I agreed with him that the root cause of today sad state of affair is Ho Ching but too bad she’s untouchable.
    Not even that idiot lhl can nor want to deal with her.
    It’s all in the family remember?

    For a start, paper general should not be paid tens of million but not more than what he’s getting as a paper general.
    Only when he is able resolve all the major problems then he can talk about getting more money.

    But then that idiot lhl will cook up another trash-bin to dump everything & cover up.
    Business as usual.

    70% of Singaporeans deserved every bit of this issue.
    Hope you people are happy now.

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  • downtown line???:

    wah lau wei …. salah leh. SMRT don’t operate DTL lah. It is under Sure Boh Singapore (SBST) lah.

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  • MarBowling:

    So that Ng Take Poo has a Mother of All Big Mountains support behind him. No wonder he is not asked to go fly kite and fiack spider. Just moved to another Cosy corner but with same pay and perks. This really shows how powerful is that heshe black widow spider with the Extended Rude Middle Finger. Dr Lee WL has tasted hisher venom and has since retreated to her hermit to lick her wounds! Hope she has speedy recovery.

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  • Bapak:

    It is PAP has to go, not just SMRT CEO, but include all others. As long as there is this Tomboy in TH pushing profits, no one can solve SMRT problems. See, can squeezes D1′s balls?

    So PAP has to go.

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  • salivating over their lollipop:

    Ex-Military Chief-of-Staff and his ‘trusted’ team of kakis are not able to solve some mechanical problems of SMRT. It is rocket science to them.

    You would wonder (shudder) if you think how they have run our SAF. What do you think would happen when SAF is put to real test? If Desmond Kuek and Ng Yat Chung and Ng Joo Hee are any guide, our enemies will be salivating over their lollipop. Anyone wanna bet?

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  • Give Him 5 More Years:

    Saw Phaik Hwa, 10 years as CEO before she left.
    Desmond Quek only in for 5 years, he is half way there, give him another 5 years before he goes.

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  • PAP is BEST:

    Desmond cannot go. Army General is sink company one like NOL. SMRT is safest company in Singapore, sure win and cannot sink one. If need more money, ask PAP to raise fare sure approve one. If he go is no good for Singapore, next company sure sink one. PAP best one cannot lose face, must put General only in sure win company, like this show people PAP is best one.

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  • Change We Must:

    The problem will not resolve even with the best CEO. They have to tackle the working culture there and ensure all the staff are of highest quality. You don’t get contractors to provide 3rd world country workers to do the job. If they still follow the way LTA or any government work culture, it would be a dead end.
    Don’t follow the civil service culture, everything must wait for approval, like this how to get things done? There are many dead woods in the government including ministers.After staying on the jobs for so long they become very complacent. Also there is a big risk of corruptions and power based grouping to rule like emperor in the organization. MNCs have experienced all these,that’s why they seldom allow their CEO to stay for more than a decade unless necessary or else too many monkey business.

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  • SGD 1 : 3 MYR:

    On the surface, it seems like all these faults are to blame the LOWEST in the hierarchy, the DOers.

    On close scrutiny, the folows questions are begging to be farked, i mean to be asked :

    1. How has all the retrenchments exercises by each of the CEO’s from Saw onwards caused a loss of experienced workers from the smrt maintenance teams?

    2. How has each of the loss of lao jiao , aka old birds, contributed to the maintenance fiascos?

    3. How is LTA not accountable for the many disruptions due to the many retrenchment exercises over the years?

    So, while stupid people see that its the lowest people causing the faults, i see the Buck Stops at the Top.

    KBW, please return our tax monies.

    PaSi Buay Zao?

    We will Sack you!

    Can your heart take it ?

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  • Neo:

    The MRT issues can never be solved as long as you got the top who only concern about bottom line, throw whoever cannot perform under the bus when it is clearly that the problem is created by the top.

    Lowly paid staffs with long working hours is like slavery. Ya think he or she got the morale to put in best effort? Dream on.

    Continue to maximize profit and cut operation cost and see how these breakdown issues can be resolved.

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  • RDB:

    AND propagate the ONC website page via Whatsapp too, so that more Singaporeans will know of their cock ups covered up for so long since 1987!

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  • Bystander:

    We want him out by all means.
    Why should we taxpayers pay a useless guy that disrupts our life almost every week.
    We dun pay a “volunteer” over $1m to sit pretty in his aircon room,
    sucking his thumbs, crying daddy and mummy when his SMRT cocks up.We dun pay a baby making baby steps for 5 years and still counting, another 5 years are far too long on our wallet.

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  • Time to go:

    Becoz of one evil man Mr Cow who stubbornly refuses to do the honourable thing and hari kiri, now train crash has happened.

    More breakdowns, flooding, crashes etc will haunt us brought by his bad karma

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