SMRT Turns a Corner, Neo the Man to Make Things Right

SMRT train
 
After 10 years of disruptions, deaths, floodings, multi-billion dollar infusions of funds by the government, and incessant complaints from the public, transport company SMRT may have finally turned the corner - with the man who can make this certain starting his job on 1 August.
 
Neo Kian Hong is so determined to get the job done that he sold his car and has chosen to use public transport, so as to understand what commuters face each day.
 
“I sold my car earlier on but I didn’t want to buy a new car, because it is more useful for me to take the MRT to understand the issues and take our company’s assets like our taxis and buses,” Mr Neo said. “It’s because of this job. I moved near Shunfu just to make sure I can take the trains to work and it’s easier for me and my family can support me in doing this.”
 
Well, that’s a good start.
 
One of the complaints associated with the regular transport breakdowns, crowdedness and the failure of management to deal with them was that the people who run the system did not use public transport themselves. Mr Neo may have had this in mind when he decided to sell his car and move to Shunfu. 
 
A military man for 30 years, Neo replaced the beleaguered Desmond Kuek at the transport company as its Chief Executive Officer (CEO) this month. Both men held the same rank in the military - lieutenant-general.
 
Kuek, who was at the helm of SMRT for 6 years, never really recovered from the intense heat which came with the transport job, culminating in a rather unceremonious public dressing-down by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament in 2017.
 
Mr Khaw chided Kuek, who was present in Parliament in the gallery, for the “deep-seated cultural problems” in the company, a problem Kuek himself identified just weeks earlier, when he tried to explain the falsifying of documents following the flooding incident in a MRT tunnel.
 
Would another military general be able to resolve the problems faced by the company?
 
Well, the situation has changed somewhat in the last few years, although the problems have not all been resolved fully. Ironically, it may have been Kuek who had set the company on the right direction in dealing with the problems.
 
Also, the appointment of Khaw as Transport minister in September 2015, provided much needed impetus to the effort. 
 
While disruptions still occur, they do not happen as often as previously, and there has been no major incidents in the last couple of years. 
 
These show that the effort to resolve the problems may be working and is showing positive results. 
 
Major signalling system replacements, the purchase of new train cars, the recruitment of hundreds of engineers, along with the help of experts, meant that the effort was a focused and sustained one.
 
The delisting of SMRT from the board in November 2016 also meant that the company could focus on service standards and commuters’ satisfaction, and not be distracted by shareholders’ expectations for profits, a long-running complaint of the public. 
 
It is believed that Mr Kuek was the one who proposed the delisting right from the start when he took over in 2012.
 
So, while the public had rightly been critical of Mr Kuek, especially the multi-million dollar salary he was paid, perhaps it would be fair to also take into consideration some of the things he has done to help set SMRT in the right direction. 
 
Unfortunately for Mr Kuek, he will not be around to see the fruits of his labour. 
 
It is Mr Neo who will now have to take it from here even though, as some have pointed out, he may not have the relevant experience for the job. 
 
Be that as it may, anecdotal accounts, including online, from those who have worked with Mr Neo, say he is a humble man who listens well. And his sincerity shown in selling his car and using public transport, while small matters in the bigger scheme of things, nonetheless shows the right attitude.
 
His two predecessors at SMRT were seen as haughty and arrogant, even as the system fell apart at their feet. 
 
Mr Neo will also be able to depend on the experience of chairman Seah Moon Ming, who was apparently handpicked and highly regarded by Mr Khaw.  Mr Seah had stepped down from his previous job as chief executive of Temasek unit Pavilion Energy to focus on his SMRT role.
 
Singaporeans and commuters should lend their support to the new team under Mr Neo and Mr Seah. While the complaints of the past 10 years were justified as the public suffered and endured the consequences of bad management, the problems are being solved and the current team is determined to do much better. 
 
We should give our support also because of the rank-and-file staff of SMRT who also had to bear the brunt of public ire for years. They deserve our support as the new team works towards raising morale, which in turn would lift service standards.
 
This does not mean that we do not raise our dissatisfaction when justified, we should continue to do so. But at the same time, we should also recognise that the new team is trying its best to make things right. 
 
After all, we all want the same thing, a world class transport system which we can be proud of, as indeed we once had.

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