SMRT woes sign of bigger problem in Singapore

Jufrie Mahmood

A committee of inquiry (COI) has now been set up by the authorities to look into the problems besetting our train system. The situation was become so serious that it resulted in SMRT CEO Saw Phaik Hwa having to resign from her post.

It was not too long ago that the train system was efficient and reliable. Commuters would be able to make it on time for appointments without much of a problem. Of late things, things have become less certain.

Train disruptions, some lasting several hours, have become alarmingly frequent. Another occurred as recently as yesterday.

For a time these disruptions were, by and large, dismissed as something not out of the ordinary given the massive number of services provided by both the SMRT and the SBS Transit.

Under the nonchalant attitude by the authorities, however, there were signs that the stress that the trains and tracks were made to bear were causing the system’s failure.

But no one was listening as those running the system were happily wondering how much year-end bonus they would be getting given the huge jump in SMRT profits derived mainly from letting out of shop space at MRT stations.

They were patting their own backs for the upsurge in profitability. (The Malays use the word profit-tebality which means thick profit). They are so highly paid despite the fact that it is actually the staff at the lower rungs such as the technicians, train drivers and station staff who are doing the actual, heavy-duty work. And they are paid a pittance compared to what the executives are getting.

Then the inevitable happened. On 15 and 17 December 2011, trains on the North-South line broke down and close to 200,000 commuters were left stranded from two to seven hours.

Now the COI has been tasked to find out what really happened. Anyone who takes the train regularly, especially when heading to the city, would notice that the breakdowns occurred at the stretches where trains are over-packed on a daily basis. Trains in the not-so-heavily populated areas have been spared any serious hiccups.

The key word therefore is maintenance, or in this case, the lack of it.

The influx of immigrants has put tremendous strain on the system. The heavier the usage the more rapid will be the wear and tear. Train shoes and other moveable parts need to be changed more frequently. Tracks need to be inspected at short intervals too to ensure that they are in working order.

But the real problem lies in the management of the system. The practice of a few individuals whom the PAP considers “talented” holding multiple positions is what is at fault.

Ms Saw, for example, holds positions in several other organizations. All these demanded her time and attention and resulted in the poor management of the SMRT.

Herein lies the problem, and it is not just with the SMRT, but with the PAP system at large. The elitist, top-down mentality where a few individuals take on multiple posts and myopically focus on the size of profits that they can squeeze out is what is causing Singapore problems.

Ministers’ salaries are pegged to top earners and the size of the GDP, members of parliament holding multiple directorships, and (untested) scholars appointed to high-level positions based on their paper qualifications are all part of a political-management paradigm that must be changed.

Jufrie Mahmood is Chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party.