Top-down approach cannot fix SMRT culture issue

MOT Khaw

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, in his parliamentary speech, advocated a top-down approach to fix the negative work culture prevalent in SMRT. (“Right culture starts from the top”; 7 Nov)

Indeed, the top management must set the right direction for the company but what is even more important is how they steer the company in that direction. After each setback, SMRT has sought to tighten its command-and-control regime, imposes more rules and regulations on its staff and throws in more carrots and sticks to serve as incentive and deterrence.

Over time, such measures can only lead to the formation of what organization experts describe as a “blind obedience” or “informed acquiescence”-type organization cultures, both of which are 20th-century relics. Running SMRT is not the same as running an army and one wonder whether Desmond Quek, with his military background, truly understand how to motivate a civilian workforce to rally behind him.

Beside physical upgrades, it is time for SMRT to also upgrade its organisation thinking and move into the 21st century, towards a “self-governance” and “values-based”-type culture, in which employees can be trusted to do the right thing because they are respected by top management and are guided by core principles and values that are inspiring and which they help to create.

In this respect, SMRT can learn from transport disruptor Uber. After a series of damning news reports that besmirch its reputation and lead to the resignation of previous CEO, Travis Kalanick, the new CEO sought to transform the company’s culture by having employees write and vote on cultural guidelines for the workplace. In the end, Uber employees gave 1,200 submissions and the final rules were voted on 22,000 times. This is a much more inclusive way of building the corporate culture – from the bottom-up instead of top-down.

After 5 years and much government interventions, it is clear that SMRT troubles are far from over. Yet, the top management has always “taiji” the blame to all manners of things – train fault, track fault, weather, etc, even bad luck. SMRT has demonstrated they have no qualms dishing out punishments, even dismissing employees responsible for major screw-ups. But strangely, the punishment never seems to hit the top management where it will hurt them the most. The average SMRT employee may earn only a couple of thousands per month, so a paycut of 20% or bonus reduction or even no bonus due to bad performance is likely to hurt them.

Not so for the top management. Despite the grief caused to thousands of commuters with each breakdown – which are frequent, their million dollar pay package stay substantially the same. If one already earn $2M, what is a reduction of 20%? Would there be a drastic drop in the quality of life?

If this is indeed the “Singapore way” that Mr. Khaw so proudly emphasized in his speech, then SMRT is in even bigger trouble than we can imagine. To Mr Khaw, I would say just eat your humble pie and urge your underlings to instead learn from other successful global companies how they are able to transform their corporate cultures – from the bottom up, not top down.


David Sim


* Article first appeared on The Online Citizen.



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15 Responses to “Top-down approach cannot fix SMRT culture issue”

  • KHAWk Up!! Again!!:

    I am reallt ashamed as a singaporean for the poor quality and countless fiascos of smrt of the republic of the singapura.

    Xia Suay ah!

    I thought he made-in-malaysia, metaphorically , is more better than the general that resigned who is singlian?

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  • Khaw Peh Ling:

    So his end game is to take credit lah?
    What if he screws up?

    Who gets the Debt?

    Wayang wayang, keep on thr job for a few mote years and earn enough to buy a few more mansions in Malaysia or Sg and retire? Laugh all the way to the bank?.
    No Accountability?

    Best Job in singapore siah!

    Actually the world!

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  • PAP has the mandate:

    Time is up for Khaw and his PAP cronies to resign with today’s train collision. In a real 1st world country or standard, Khaw and his PAP cronies in MRT should be asked to resign or sack. Unfortunately for stinkies, this is Stinkapore and fortunately for Khaw and his million dollars clowns will not ask to resign.

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  • Patriot of Temesak:

    It is a GONNA!!! the LEEgal Corruption of Billions will UNFOLD as More disaster will fall out from the Pandora Box now that the EvilHand is no longer there to direct the Evil along the corridors of POWER!!!

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  • Karma is working:

    Mr Cow your stubbornness and bad karma are bringing lots of pain to innocent people while you keep on boasting and collect $million.

    More breakdowns, flooding, crashing etc would continue unless you do hari kiri what you said ok?

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  • Kosh Dee:

    PAP has the mandate:
    Time is up for Khaw and his PAP cronies to resign with today’s train collision. In a real 1st world country or standard, Khaw and his PAP cronies in MRT should be asked to resign or sack. Unfortunately for stinkies, this is Stinkapore and fortunately for Khaw and his million dollars clowns will not ask to resign.

    But singaporeans have no ability to force him to resign.

    Zero showed up at sit-in silent protest of smrt.

    Singaporeans have become extremely self-protective such that they rather die to risk voicing up.

    Many elderlies have proved that.

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  • bgkl:

    Bottom-up approach starts with “power to the people”. Unfortunately, Mr. 69.9% would rather suck the status quo’s cock!

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  • asd:

    what saying is .. cannot change the top .. . cannot .. .

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  • opposition dude:

    Nah, PAP’s arrogance and stubbornness borne by decades of things going right and not wrong has blinded the party that all these far too frequent train disruptions are just bad luck and ageing infrastruture as the author mentioned.

    No point saying sorry each and every time since you know the disruptions will continue continuing. The more important thing is to actually reduce the number of people on the island to below 5 million but PAP will view it as anathema. How then to collect more foreign worker levy?

    We just have to put up with the disruptions and see what the composition of parliament is like after the next GE. As 2011 showed, you want PAP to panic you have to start kicking them out or else.

    Of course the fear from 2011 has long since dissipated and the turkeys know they can afford to lose another minister or 2, sup sup sui to them. Which is why a minimum of 4 GRCs must fall into opposition hands to send the donkeys a much clearer signal.

    The only problem is, as usual, will there be enough voters willing to vote more opposition into parliament?

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  • Toa pow cow.:

    PAP has the mandate:
    Time is up for Khaw and his PAP cronies to resign with today’s train collision. In a real 1st world country or standard, Khaw and his PAP cronies in MRT should be asked to resign or sack. Unfortunately for stinkies, this is Stinkapore and fortunately for Khaw and his million dollars clowns will not ask to resign.

    “Phat see bor chow” this shameless malaysian cow! He will start to scold and blame the whole world except himself, as usual.
    Please, mr. cow, just go, nobody will miss you guys. Please bring along your useless volunteered CEO. You asked WP to harakiri but we are kind to you and your family, just resign will do. Karma is catching up with you. Close your big mouth.

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  • pap selected INDIAN president:

    it is laughable when CEO can only wring hands and do nothing about deep seated cultural issues in his organization.

    where the ffff is leadership? why need such a CEO?

    isn’t it the first task of a CEO to set the tone, to set the direction, of how the organization under his charge is to move forward?

    after 5 ffffing long years he didn’t do anything. not only mrt fails to move, not only ponding, today even injuries.

    DOES it mean when fatalities only shall pap look into own clan and clean house? there must be a limit even to this ownself check ownself silliness surely? must wait until some commuter dies before finally waking up that the WRONG person is paid to do the job?

    such a shame of today’s injuries. although we never agreed with departed evil lky we certainly say departed evil lky shall never permit such incompetence to happen under his watch, especially avoidable injuries.

    inside is NOT within 200m. a pig is a goat. so an INDIAN is a malay. this is the type of government we want?

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  • Rabble-rouser:

    The PAP & Khaw Boon Wan’s Top-Down Approach are obsolete! Just as they themselves are obsolete relics from LKY’s Authoritarian past – resisting changes, tone deaf to new paradigms & hanging dearly to LKY’s irrelevant doctrines & philosophy – just like the ’10 Commandments’ handed down from God to Moses at the Mountain top – most values are obsolete:
    1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me [Money & LKY are False Gods!]
    2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image [Vain & Dis-Grace-Fu PAP ministers constantly promoting themselves on the tv media]
    3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain [PAP constantly invoking the Late LKY]
    4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy [S'pore like 7/11 - open 24/7/ 365 - no rest for the weak]
    5. Honor thy father and thy mother [38 Oxley Road, questioning LKY's will]
    6. Thou shalt not kill [SGH Hep C outbreak, Benjamin Lim by SPF]
    7. Thou shalt not commit adultery [Michael Palmer, David Ong]
    8. Thou shalt not steal [CPF 2.5% return, Ministerial salaries]
    9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor [JB Jeyaretnam, Roy Ngerng et al]
    10. Thou shalt not covet [Land Acquisition Act, Ministerial salaries]

    The PAP’s philosophy were constructed from the old Manufacturing era where a Top-Down approach was essentially workable! In a highly regimented Manufacturing economy where inputs & outputs can be measured; the regimented labour productivity maximized through division of labour & use of mechanical/electrical labour saving devices to improve productivity.
    But we’re no longer in the regimented Manufacturing era! Like LKY once said, we’re only ‘digits’ competing against other ‘digits’ re: MM Lee Kuan Yew on Singapore workers, History of Singapore, 2005
    “At the end of the day, we are so many digits in the machine. The point is – are these digits stronger than the competitors’ digits?” But are we?
    But an Authoritarian (Top-Down) govt imposed by LKY are facing irrelevance!
    * With a truncated Feedback Loop [freedom of speech discouraged, social media discouraged] – they were governing in a vacuum! [TKSS Ministers]
    * By isolating & suppressing smarter & better people – they are encouraging them to migrate abroad. [now pandering to Razer's Tan Min-Liang]
    * By championing a stupid & obedient core – they promote the least capable in the land – re: PAP Meritocratic Scholars – obedient dogs! Woof, woof!
    * By paying themselves millions in salaries while repressing people’s livelihood – they are recreating S’pore as the next Philippines where 50% to 60% worked abroad to remit money to a sick economy unable to consume much.
    Do you or do you not agree with this? 70% probably might not!

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  • LIONS:

    Top-down approach cannot fix SMRT culture issue.

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  • Amos exposed PAP hypocrisy:

    KBW gives good advice. Singaporeans should take not. He advocates a “top-down approach” solve MRT problem. So tackle the “top” first, the underlying cause of the problem since the “rot always starts at the head”. Singaporeans needs to be through and comprehensive. The “top”, “where the buck stops” is PM and Cabinet. Remove them as their stooges in Parliament to solve the MRT and other big problems facing Singapore and Singaporeans. Remove over-paid, under performing politicians who feel and act they are no accountable. VTO – the only way forward. “”Fix” PAP at the next GE.

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  • National woes:

    The military command and control has always been top-down: One too many a military commander in SMRT do not a good civil management make.

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