The managers who use transit

From the Red Line
Published in
8 min readApr 6, 2024


Can you see every problem just from riding public transport?

It’s useful to note that the Khaw ministry saw its share of highly personalised politics. Then-Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan believed in making himself seen, and justifiably so. It appears that by putting the fear of God into transport workers and making them do things “because the Minister said so”, he got things done. This kind of personality politics can pay off, as it has with Andy Byford in his various positions, and Randy Clarke as GM of WMATA in Washington DC.

Malaysian Transport Minister Anthony Loke has done similar things. But unlike Khaw, his goals are transparent, more measurable, and more relatable; even if we don’t agree with everything, like women-only cars on the KVMRT — which have been controversial, to say the least. Maybe RapidKL doesn’t regard Minister Loke’s pronouncements as unfair meddling — like subsidized monthly passes, which can be viewed as a harm to their interests. Or that more people riding transit means overall less traffic jams; a goal perhaps shared by the whole workforce, even the motorcycle-riding mechanics at Subang Depot.

Conversely, in Singapore, some may say we don’t have this, even if the managers had to ride transit anyway; being banned from driving for three and five years respectively after being involved in drink driving and road accidents.

The bureaucrats who don’t drive

Replacing senior management on rotation will achieve nothing. It’s probably okay if the management doesn’t know much about transit. But good managers should be able to explain themselves with the working level. We don’t need rockstar bosses, especially when the political environment doesn’t require fighting for transit funding over highway expansion, and the accompanying public visibility.

Managers who ride transit may be prized in the West because the West still has not solved bread-and-butter issues like cleanliness and crime; having the big boss be a visible presence tells rank and file staff and security forces to do their jobs, and do their jobs well. This may have been more of an issue during the Khaw ministry, but now that immediate panics on technical reliability are largely solved, what Singapore faces today may be deep-seated structural issues that are more insidious; while better PR can help, it will not fix structurally flawed policies.

I won’t say I blame the bureaucrats. We must consider that they are people too; even if they do commute to the office on public transport regularly, they may be zoning out and listening to music or audiobooks or something, while worrying about KPIs and deadlines and getting earfuls from management; or even hoping their phones don’t ring with news of a train disruption. Just like any one of us.

And since they’re just like any one of us, it may mean that the bureaucrats are susceptible to the same biases as any one of us. Things may be done (and abandoned) simply because a political office holder, or a scholar with big plans ahead, said so. Once the sponsor is gone, the project is left on autopilot, or worse, abandoned, without introspection on what works and what doesn’t. Public communications is not there, because the people tasked to design policy or implement the projects just want to get the work done, and aren’t thinking as much about second order effects as this blog or some others. It’s not their job; it’s their leadership’s job.

Thus, the Transport Ministry must address the deep seated issues from flaws in policy design; the nature of the assignments passed down to the rank and file. This perhaps even underlines the need for job reinvention and departmental reform, perhaps including some forced marriages of departments. To be fair, this may be happening slowly — job postings in the LTA’s Rolling Stock and Depot Engineering department also indicate that they work on bus depot equipment too, curiously.

source Careers@Gov

In short, the Ministry must ensure that the success of some don’t come at the expense of others, that policy positions held by a given department, which may seem perfectly rational to that department alone, don’t negatively impact other departments’ goals. It must recognize that it will not achieve financial sustainability without breaking down the financing barriers between transport modes to facilitate cross-subsidization. Nor will it have multimodal integration without having all modes planned together to address given transit problems. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Tying their own hands? (source: LTA Financial Statements 2022/2023)

The way it’s always been

I do not believe that the notion that policymakers all drive and don’t care about transit is completely true either; because even things that can benefit car drivers aren’t happening — or at least, they need to wait for user feedback before iterating on the next stage, to develop new features or simply to write frequently asked questions.

Car drivers, many of which are affluent and likely have at least one credit card (or at least, a debit card) in the year 2024, may be able to benefit from account-based payment. We know for one that Home Minister Shanmugam drives his own car; that means Minister Shanmugam, like any one of us, has to make sure he has a card with sufficient value to pay ERP and parking charges. Backend payment for ERP may be a thing, but limited support in carparks forces legacy systems to be kept around — or should we be innovating a way around this?

Perhaps Minister Shanmugam, like other professionals who need to travel, has auto top up on a Cashcard. But auto top up or not, a Cashcard still needs to be administered — it needs to be replaced when expired, auto top up arrangements have to be updated, et cetera. It would thus benefit car drivers, especially busy professionals like ministers, to have direct account-based payment. But as we all know, that wasn’t happening.

It may be easier to blame inertia; that things don’t happen until something happens. In policy, it is necessary to call out where mindsets need to be changed. Inertia means that most people will get accustomed to something and then they will be slow to adapt. If, the thinking goes, this is how it’s always been done, why change? Just for the sake of it?

Even managers who ride transit every day may not ask themselves the original intention behind flip benches; staff get public transport entitlements so the value of concession passes or fare capping may not be visible to them; or that rejigging schedules to open an MRT line earlier or deliver more trains means unwelcome red tape, only to help an influential mayor win re-election or to shut up ministerial heckling.

We didn’t start the fire

These aren’t the only issues which I feel making managers commute on transit won’t necessarily solve.

Singapore LRT (yes, it existed) was a subsidiary company of SMRT Trains set up to run the Bukit Panjang LRT. They even had their own corporate branding!

But following SMRT Trains’ transition to the New Rail Financing Framework, Singapore LRT is no more. A similar thing has happened on the purple team — SBS Transit originally had to form a separate subsidiary company to operate the Downtown Line, but following the restructure of SBST’s operating licenses in 2022, that subsidiary also got folded into the main SBS Transit Rail company.

Interestingly, though, the notion of separate companies has returned. SMRT TEL Pte Ltd is the official operating company that runs the TEL. I can see some logic behind this approach, as the line as a single entity can be easily transitioned to another incoming rail operator, along with its operating license. In bus contracting, one can see employment contract re-issuance and offers, like how SMRT is onboarding current SBS Transit bus captains as part of the Jurong West package transition.

With things like long-term support contracts for key rail systems being inked between systems suppliers and rail operators, it may be more complex to keep shifting around these contracts between entities. A separate organization for each operating license, with key personnel seconded from the main operator to the operating subsidiary, may be an easier solution to these corporate issues. But it also means that efforts to improve productivity in rail are hampered by such artificial barriers. For one, costly specialized maintenance equipment cannot be shared. Even things like tunnel emergency exits have to be doubled up (which means more construction costs) because each line has to be kept separate.

Why’s there an MRT staircase here? (source: Google Maps)

There is, though, an opportunity for change. With the departure of SMRT TEL’s head, Mr. Shahrin Abdol Salim, the head of SMRT Trains, Mr. Lam Sheau Kai, will take over — though it may be on an interim basis as others are groomed to take over Mr. Shahrin’s job scope. I can’t help but think that while in this position, they may find it worthwhile to integrate departments like training and operations planning, that have a high degree of overlap in basic knowledge and workload between SMRT Trains and SMRT TEL. According to SBST’s annual report, it seems they’re doing these too.

Today’s SMRT likely already has a degree of corporate consolidation of shared services; but it can go further and unify some of its operating departments. And perhaps consolidation can even include technical departments that don’t deal directly with rail systems; the differences between each line may not be so big in these technical departments. I don’t think Singapore LRT had servicing arrangements for the escalators in Choa Chu Kang LRT station, for one — it probably tagged on to SMRT Trains’ arrangements.

Or, perhaps, things can go even further, where a consolidation of operating licenses might be in order; a single operating license can cover several MRT lines. Much like how the PPP-era London Underground had only three maintenance franchises for a much larger network, or Shanghai’s Shentong Metro Group, with only six operating “licensees” for the world’s busiest metro system. Even in bus contracting the LTA has tried this, when it placed two bus packages up for simultaneous bidding to encourage operators to innovate in economies of scale.

But again, do we see this as a problem on the rail side of things? Or is it just how it’s always been done, so we’re already used to the bloat? Will whatever we’re doing continue to work as our network expands — after all, after TEL3, Singapore has a larger system than Hong Kong’s local lines. So far, I’m not convinced. And I don’t think asking the bosses to commute on public transport will get them to see that, among many other issues, either.

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From the Red Line

Sometimes I am who I am, but sometimes I am not who I am not.