Six years after train and bus commuters were killed by terrorist bombs in the City of London, Singapore's largest train operator, SMRT Corporation, has yet to heed that wake-up call.
If SMRT's top management does not change its mindset, it may be time for a new broom to sweep clean because the stakes are too high and apologies are wearing thin.
The company's complacent attitude towards transportation security was laid bare in the most public manner imaginable during Thursday evening's train breakdown when rush hour commuters were stuck in trains for as long as 78 minutes.
All that while, hapless commuters were left - some literally in the dark - with no information and were running out of patience, time and fresh air. SMRT is lucky nobody died.
On Saturday morning, the SMRT train system in the heart of the Orchard Road shopping belt broke down again.
The impact on Singapore's economy through lost retail and food & beverage receipts is not insignificant, considering this is the holiday period for many heartlanders.
SMRT should consider itself lucky the system did not fail during the school examination period weeks ago as there would be hell to pay if students missed their papers.
In my view, the damage to public confidence from these breakdowns is more important than monetary losses from lost sales. It is also harder to quantify (hence the poll). Singaporeans must be wondering what more can be done to improve corporate governance in SMRT. Do we need to see people die on our trains before decisive action is taken?
We used to be so proud of our MRT system. People took trains from Toa Payoh to Yio Chu Kang for their first ever ride - when they had absolutely no agenda in the vicinity - just to ride the trains. Even as litter bugs defy government fines elsewhere, our trains were kept litter and graffiti-free years after they were commissioned into service. Train mishaps, like the two trains bumping one another at Clementi MRT station in August 1993, drew sympathy from heartlanders, not fury and spiteful comments we see today.
Even before SMRT opened for business, medals for bravery were won by engineers who were building MRT tunnels. The engineers used their construction know-how to bore into the debris of Hotel New World in March 1986, creating rescue shafts for our then-new Singapore Civil Defence Force.
That was the SMRT I grew up with.
Have complacency, avarice and sheer arrogance ("People can board the train, it is whether they choose to.") now become enshrined as corporate values for today's SMRT Corp?
This post will address the security aspects of the MRT breakdown and assess the information management during the episodes. There are already many sites in cyberspace railing against SMRT, so our assessment will focus on two themes:
1. Causal factors versus consequence management
2. Medium versus message for mass communications
Causal factors versus consequence management
Red flag: Failure to learn and internalise lessons from the Northstar series of public transportation exercises, particularly Northstar V on 8 January 2006 which involved four MRT stations.
Things do break down.
To use a Rumsfeldian phrase: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know."
There are many reasons why a train network could fail.
Some causal factors are well known to the railway industry because rolling stock has been ferrying people underground for more than 100 years. Some factors, like terrorism, are new. Some are hideous like suicides. And some will catch us blindsided despite all the horizon scanning we may do. Live with that fact.
But there is a difference between being blindsided and failure to make the system more robust by dealing with any fallout, whatever the causal factor. The shambles we witnessed on Thursday evening emphasize how much more SMRT has to get its act together.
Whether due to mechanical fault or human error, the end result for a transport operator would be the same: A surge in the number of commuters, longer wait times and shorter tempers. In many respects, the surge can be estimated mathematically because passenger loads on typical days and the frequency of trains/buses can be guesstimated from passenger throughput statistics.
Mind you, SMRT had a dress rehearsal six years ago during Exercise Northstar V. This was Singapore's first civil emergency exercise that tested the readiness of train and bus operators, first responders and government authorities should terrorists mimic the playbook for the London/Madrid bombings.
Why was knowledge management so poor that lessons from that exercise could not be applied, tested and refined in the past six years?
Was Northstar V merely a wayang (Malay word for stage play)?
Looking at SMRT's December debacle, it is worrisome to think that our transportation security apparatus has been taking us for a ride all these years.
Minister for Transport Lui Tuck Yew put it succinctly when he told the media: "You see, our exercises are perhaps very scripted - we know what the scenario is, we know what is happening from one time period to another, and therefore people are geared to respond in a certain way."
Anyone who has served National Service in Singapore would probably nod in agreement.
Mr Lui is well qualified to make such as statement. Before entering politics, he served the Singapore Armed Forces, leaving the military as Chief of Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral.
Even if Northstar was a public relations circus, a serious after-action review (AAR) would have exposed areas in which SMRT should pay close attention to.
Was a proper AAR done after Northstar V or was the exercise a waste of tax dollars?
At a minimum, it should have identified a need to put shuttle buses on short notice for bridging services between train stations that are taken out of service (whether due to known knowns or unknown unknowns). In the Singaporean military, standby units are assigned are assigned a NTM and have to be ready to move within a specified time.
To be sure, placing a shuttle bus operator on a 30 minute NTM seven days a week would cost a chunk of change.
But in a city state where citizens are discouraged from owning cars, isn't such an investment worthwhile? Is the profit motive for SMRT such an overriding concern that they are happy to bet against Murphy's Law?
SMRT's beleaguered chief executive, Saw Phaik Hwa, may not realise this but she has several high-ranking former SAF officers in her management team. These include SMRT's senior vice-president for communications and services, Goh Chee Kong, who retired from SAF service with the rank of Colonel. As an Armour officer, NTMs would not be alien to COL Goh.
When I interviewed SMRT officials several years ago, I met a combat engineer who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel prior to joining the company. Among other things, this officer had taken part in SAF operations in UNAVEM. I am not sure who writes his pay cheque these days, but the point is that SMRT has a number of former military personnel the company can count on during a crisis.
I worry for the SAF if the training these officers received was discarded the moment they stepped into civvie street.
Being Malaysian born, Ms Saw may not fully appreciate the value that SAF personnel bring to her boardroom.
Any inquiry into SMRT's December debacle must look into the management style in the company. In particular:
1. How many of the SMRT personnel who took part in Northstar V in 2006 are still with the company today? What has been done to preserve institutional memory?
2. Why is SMRT's knowledge management so piss poor? What lessons were internalised from Northstar V? Prove it through documentation.
3. How often are emergency procedures practised, whether on table top exercises or full-troop exercises involving mock passengers?
A Red Team, given the mandate and authority to ask difficult questions, would help SMRT protect its stakeholder interest with a more robust consequence management plan.
As things stand, we heard SMRT's Goh say they could not cope with outages at more than four stations - which, interestingly, matches the number of stations involved during the Northstar V practice. On Thursday, some 4,000 people were trapped in trains during the breakdown at 11 stations.
So SMRT only "fights current" and never practices "fighting future" by scaling up its SOPs to cope with larger and more complex scenarios for consequence management? No wonder Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cut short his holiday...
Medium versus message
Red flag: Failure to provide accurate, relevant and timely updates on the situation. Failure to empower SMRT train drivers to speak to commuters. Lack of credibility in reporting the situation.
The company's failure to tackle crisis communications exacerbated the situation, fraying tempers and derailing the credibility of SMRT's corporate mouthpiece.
The seed of doubt was planted before Thursday's massive system failure when SMRT reported that some 1,400 commuters were affected by the fault on the Circle Line between Marymount and one-north stations from 6am and 11:45am. Why were so few commuters affected?
Second, the SMRT spokesman claimed lights and ventilation kicked in when trains lost power. But first person accounts and images of commuters standing in the dark paint a different picture. If there were no emergency lights, was there back-up ventilation? Even if ventilation was provided, would this be sufficient for a crush load of passengers? Was it prudent to keep passengers sealed in the train for up to 78 minutes?
Third, the picture of SMRT's vice president for rail operations playing the part of usher is unfortunate. Was this staged for the media to show that SMRT's management is hands on? After three outages in four days, shouldn't a VP's time and energy be better applied? Are there no reports to analyse, no engineers to interrogate, nothing in the back office to attend to? Will the system fix itself? If the system is so short of manpower they need a VP to play usher, SMRT is in deeper
If the events played out this past week were scripted for TV drama, the result would probably be rated as a black comedy or a B-grade farce.
That "Income opportunity" alert to taxis that went viral: Why are mass broadcast messages not read and rechecked before the send button is pressed? Can you imagine the furore if the breakdowns were caused by terrorists?
Going onto Twitter and Facebook will not innoculate SMRT against crisis communications woes. Instead of adding more tools to its tool box, it should focus not on the medium but the message it wants to convey to stakeholders.
The value of the content and timeliness of information dissemination is more important than boasting how many social media channels you maintain.
To be sure, it is easy being an armchair analyst with 20:20 hindsight spouting all sorts of gibberish on things that need fixing. So easy being wise after the fact.
This is precisely why we started a Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) system some years ago. It helps identify problem areas and shows how upstream factors can impact elements downstream. In the case of SMRT, the RAHS would indicate how multiple outages reported at the 11 stations on Thursday would affect road and bus transport after the commuters are left stranded with no train services.
Is SMRT even aware we have such a system? It should now that Colonel Patrick Nathan has joined the company as its director of security and emergency planning. As an RSAF officer and one of the principal staff officers at the National Security Coordination Centre, he should know what resources SMRT can call into play.
The mainstream media should also do its part to help restore public confidence in Singapore's rail network. In doing so, trying too hard to manage public opinion would cause more harm than good.
Such stories fuel ridicule in cyberspace because ground sentiments are very different from the Orwellian reportage presented on state television. Why bluff ourselves? If people are angry, so be it.
Check out the segment from 6:00 mins onwards. Compare and contrast this with comments you read elsewhere. Are we on the same planet?
To do better, the broadcast journalist should have reported results of a street poll involving a respectable sample set (say 100 commuters) and spliced footage from the interviewees to reflect results of this poll for a balanced story.
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was famously quoted saying in 1992 that 99 per cent of Filipinos are waiting for a telephone and the remaining one per cent for a dial tone.
We make sympathetic noises when the Singaporean media reports on brownouts or mismanaged public infrastructure in regional countries.
Now, tables have been turned.
As Singaporeans watch SMRT swing into damage control mode, how do you think our neighbours are reacting to our woes?
Security breach at SMRT Bishan depot: A rail security headache. Please click here.