From the Red Line
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From the Red Line

Blood for the blood god!

Who wants to work in the rail transport industry?

No, I didn’t say “kee chiu”, that was not a question, put your hand down. I thought I’d summarize a viewpoint I’ve been making over the past few days in some rather heated discussions on the internet. Yes, of course, these views will definitely be unpopular, since they don’t fit the circlejerk, but whatever.

The recent MRT flooding incident seems to have hit a nerve with quite a few of us. Emotions have run high. Renewed calls have been made for the SMRT CEO’s head (poor guy), and of course, Khaw Boon Wan isn’t helping. From my point of view, this is of course disturbing. Especially more so if you work for the railways and you read in the newspapers that your bonuses are going to be affected for something you didn’t do.

(and yes, the title of this post is a Warhammer 40,000 reference, but it might as well be apt. The full quote is “Blood for the blood god! Skulls for the skull throne!” KnowYourMeme has more.)

Putting that aside, let’s start. This is going to be a social commentary post about politics, since with mass transit inevitably politics and economics comes into play. If you want to duck out and not listen to my rants, you’re welcome to close this page now.

Our problems are not unique to us

I have seen the “woe is me” excuse many times. I have seen that video where LKY says “Firing the chief is very simple” on my Facebook feed around twenty-three times (at last count).

The Hong Kong MTR is also facing the same problems as us. Their ageing system is falling apart too — there was an entire week in late July/early August where every day there was a serious incident on the MTR that had to be resolved. And just a few days ago, there was a derailment in an MTR depot that had gone unreported. People go onto MTR’s Facebook page, rail on about the subsidies that MTR gets from the HK Government, and how they would very much like their refunds and could the CEO step down please.

Does that sound familiar? Very familiar, does it? And don’t get me started on the NYC Subway, where a three way tug of war still goes on over who’s gonna fix the subway that’s literally falling apart.

The lesson here is that we cannot be arrogant. And this applies to everyone, not just the paper generals or whoever is running SMRT. Yes, that means the average citizen as well. We are a nation of complainers — that is our DNA and we cannot change that. We demand the best from our leaders. And that is not wrong, but where do we draw the line between real concern and just being plain unreasonable? If we are truly to mature as a society, then that is what we must do.

We must not be afraid to learn from others — both what to do and what not to do. We cannot say that just because others face the same problems, doesn’t mean our suffering is any lesser.

We need to be better prepared for the future

Even the most well-prepared of plans can fail. Yes, SMRT may appear inept and screw up often, but let’s remember that as a German military strategist once said, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

Without a doubt, since 2012, initiatives have been started at the highest levels by the new management of SMRT. There is a genuine, concerted desire across the company to make things right again, and fix all the missteps of the past. But of course, change can not only be dictated from the top, it must also be coming from the bottom as well. Effort has been made to inculcate a change in SMRT’s working culture, but they have a long way to go.

So, for argument’s sake, let’s take away SMRT’s licenses to operate the MRT lines and give them to other companies. JR East, Deutsche Bahn, MTR, RATP are some examples I can list off the top of my head. But will they change everything? If the new operator comes in and fires everyone, who are they going to bring in? More foreigners? And can we keep relying on foreign labour to clean up after us? We have foreign labour in construction, nursing, childcare, do we really need one more place for foreign workers?

And are we just going to complain and resign ourselves to our fates the next time the census results come out and it emerges that more foreigners are going to take Singaporean jobs, starting with the jobs that we don’t want, and then moving to the jobs that we want? Or are we going to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and start taking ourselves more seriously?

Furthermore, as our rail network expands, there are going to be more and more moving parts in the system. Inevitably, the number of absolute failures is going to rise. You are going to hear of things breaking down more often. But ultimately, if alternatives are provided (and they are in the process of being provided) it will not be so painful.

Parts also can fail, so inevitably we will be back in at least 30 years complaining about a lack of maintenance and a lack of foresight, etc, etc. But how do you have foresight when you have a public that believes that the Power of Love and Friendship can summon flying unicorns to fart rainbows out their asses and magically fix everything once and for all?

Who else can you fire?

OK, now let’s go on to the military generals being put in charge of civilian companies, or as Dr Chee Soon Juan put it, the “natural aristocracy”.

When the current SMRT CEO came on board in 2012, he began a purge of the Saw-era senior management. Many people got a new boss at the top, and it was expected that the new boss on top would be able to trickle-down some cultural changes into the company. But as LKY himself said:

Firing the chief is very simple, getting one who will do the job better, that’s different.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, tomorrow SMRT decides to fire the manager who signed off on the decision to do only three-monthly checks on the pumps. What if they can’t find someone as capable to replace him, if not more? Will they have to settle for less? Will you, dear reader, be comfortable if they have to settle for less? Or you can leave the position unfilled, but you stretch your staff more, and your pumps still won’t get fixed. It’s a vicious cycle. If you fire everyone, who runs your railway? But conversely, if you don’t fire everyone, can you fix the problems once and for all? As CEO Kuek mentioned, those are the problems his leadership team faces.

I would honestly ask, have all these cultural changes actually been allowed to permeate the entire company? You really get a feeling that the employees of SMRT Buses know what they have to do. They have really seen the need for change when they lost the Bukit Batok and Yishun area services to Tower Transit and SBS respectively. But how can the same transformation take place in SMRT Trains, which has only seen setback after setback, negative event after negative event?

The fact here is, with all the bad press SMRT has been getting, who can you find that will want to work for them? Rail engineering is also a niche area, so you want to find people who can be specially trained for such a job. You can’t just pick people off the street — it takes half a year to train a train driver, and maybe more than that for a maintenance engineer.

Furthermore, with a toxic culture like Singapore’s, what kind of foreign operator will be willing to step into the market here?

Yes, the operators have to do better

Leonardo da Vinci once wrote in his notebook:

Oh ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.

This was the mistake Saw’s management made — they thought the system could be left alone while they pursued their property development goals. They were no alchemists, something they learnt the hard way in 2011. They became arrogant and complacent, and they paid the price for it. In fact, one might say that they are still paying that price.

Furthermore, their delay communications have been far from timely, with issues only being reported on Twitter — people have given up on those and formed Telegram channels, Facebook groups, and even websites like

Perhaps a lesson can be learnt from NASA’s Mission Control. Apart from all the technicians manning the subsystems of the spacecraft (be it Apollo, or the ISS, or something else) there are only two people who are authorized to contact others — one has direct contact with the astronauts, the other is a liaison to public relations, the Department of Defense and other stakeholders. Everyone else focuses on their work.

Perhaps what the operators can take away from NASA is to put the very people who run the Twitter accounts and other disruption management procedures right into the control room. Or better yet, give the call on the level of response needed to the Chief Service Controller, who should know best about the current state of the railways.

Another issue is that SMRT’s incident response plans, to the best of my knowledge, seems to be an “all-or-nothing” approach. Thus, there may be a reflex not to hit the alarm at just any incident and trigger what could be seen as a disproportionate response, wasting manpower and resources, by calling employees back when they should be having their personal downtime — something which, no doubt, is no morale booster.

What can be considered here is to take a leaf out of the US Armed Forces’ DEFCON system. Start at a low alert level, then as incidents develop and a stronger response is needed, increase the alert level (and the response) accordingly. This would also allow SMRT (and other operators too) to moderate the amount of information sent out to commuters both within the network and outside, so alternatives can be considered from the very beginning.

The elephant in the room

Lastly, but not least importantly, we come to the issue of the regulator’s involvement in this entire mess.

Not to make a personal attack on the minister or something (at the risk of getting sued, of course), but you really get the feeling that whatever Minister Khaw says is at best counterproductive, and at worst, it feels like he’s basically calling for the mob to go after him at every little incident. It’s the most insidious failing of the system.

Minister Khaw not hesitating to throw the maintenance team under the bus may be the easy solution, but it does affect company morale. “I did the best job I could, why am I still being hung out to dry?” may be something you hear on the ground. It is honestly not surprising to me that Gilbert Goh, known for his anti-government views, was the first to put out the photo of the train in knee-deep water. Being so publicly admonished by a minister is frankly enough to make someone doubt in the PAP’s leaders, and become more sympathetic to the opposition.

It is, of course, very easy to blame others, but I don’t want to fall into the same fallacy that I have above. But have the authorities given the operators the space and support they need to run a railway system? Is LTA holding our operators to account? How is LTA doing so? They own the network, they own the assets — furthermore, said assets were acquired with taxpayer money.

As responsible custodians of a public utility, LTA has a right and responsibiility to check in on how their assets — publicly owned assets — are being taken care of, and they very well need to exercise it. And of course, they are the ones who need to see that something is wrong before things really do go wrong. Are they doing it? Are they doing it properly?

It is also very easy to take the populist route and claim that your service provider isn’t up to scratch, as what Minister Khaw has done. But of course, it is also much harder to actually review your own processes, and determine whether said service provider is actually delivering. LTA being conspicuously missing while SMRT gets a public grilling is unnerving, to me — it cannot take the credit when things run well but then is nowhere to be found when shit hits the fan.

Should LTA be taking steps in that direction, good for them. Should much-needed change and accountability be happening inside, good for them. But for now, from what the public is seeing, no such thing is happening.

In closing

Ultimately, the flooding incident boils down to bad management. To be precise, bad middle management, who run the day-to-day work. The CEO’s job is to set priorities and the general direction, the exact specifics should be left to the middle management. The overseer, in this case LTA, also has to be able to wisely manage the operations, and while it should not hesitate to crack the whip when it has to (and not when it should not), it should also lend a hand when things go south.

That said, with all these expectations, with all these issues the operators face, would you like to work for the train operators? SMRT will be expanding their engineering talent by 40%, you know.

As always, I welcome all questions, comments, and discussion.



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