Sunday, December 18, 2011

A rail security threat: SMRT's failure to heed wake-up call from London Bombings, learn lessons from Exercise Northstar V

Please take part in the latest polls. Your opinions matter.

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 shit trouble than you and I can imagine.

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.

A classic example would be Friday evening's story by ChannelNewsAsia, aired on its 9:30pm news bulletin. Its main premise was that not everyone felt the SMRT CEO should resign. Four commuters were interviewed and the standuppers for two of them were repeated twice, so we saw the two blokes appear four times. You can probably guess that the interviewees voiced the opinion that her resignation is not necessary.

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?

Related post:
Security breach at SMRT Bishan depot: A rail security headache. Please click here.


Anonymous said...

Good points.

But you may have reposed too much confidence in those 'trained' or 'expert' people within the SMRT and national structure and groups who could ostensibly provided valuable inputs or even leadership in issues and challenges of this nature.

The fact is it is too well known that the only types who can 'survive' and go places post-retirement are those who has served the 'govt's' (as distinct from state/nation) and party interest well even while in full time service. The good ones, the ones who possess the real calibre, leave or are not not made any offer to continue serving in capacities within the govt and its companies. Furthermore, there has ALWAYS been a nepotism and cronyism streak that run deep in appointments up and down the ebtire govt and administration. You yourself mentioned one member of the Nathan family in your article and I recall seeing the Nathan family name cropping up in MediaCorp programmes' credits as well as the Straits Times editorial/journalists roll. So, I would be very careful NOT to equate the presence of such people as equivalent to the presence of inhouse resource or ability. They may well be drawing the salaries but are not unlikely in truth to be square pegs occupying round holes!

Of course there is always the possibility that the CEO/top dog is a relation/close friend of someone in the top political leadership and his/her appointment has been unduly influenced by this factor. Just look around and this is quite evident in Singapore - what you can see and what MORE you would see if you even bother to scratch a little deeper! The roots and connection run deep and far and wide.

On the other hand the real ones with substances don't last. Have you heard of Koh Beng Seng? Formerly of the MAS? But I am sure you have heard of Michael Khoo the ex-Senior District judge who was demoted to a DPP before he exited the govt legal service? Both of them played significant roles in cases that exposed the dirt and puke of our present govt behind the scene merely by performing in the best tradition, by adhering to the best ethical standards demanded and expected of them in their public profession/appointment/role.
In other words, there were exemplary examples of the true public servant, serving the causes of the country and nation.

David Boey said...

Have been informed that SMRT rolling stock mechanics fear for their jobs once the finger pointing starts.

I feel sorry for them.

It is usually the small fry who get whacked in these sort of situations.

Anonymous said...

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said he was disappointed with SMRT's handling of the crisis.

Reported as far away as Boston Times

Anonymous said...

DB,agree on the point that the small fry is the first get whack...

imagine after doing all the checks in the past 2 ays..then 2 mths later, they sack them!

Unknown said...

Dude, you went on and on about how the SMRT has qualified people who are able to deal with crisis. And your reason for the confidence in these individuals is: they had served in SAF and attain some rank.

Could you kindly explain how you come to the conclusion that serving in the SAF = qualified with crisis management whom SMRT can count on?

The last I check, my military has not been involved in crisis in any sort for a long time. And NO, being posted in Afghanistan or Iraq providing medical and logistic support is not a the "frontline" of a crisis, and those in SMRT may not have been in such events. If your definition of being qualified for crisis management is leveraging on being in National Day parades, scripted exercises and writing good papers, there are plenty many more who has such events. Go to CHIJ St Nicks or Raffles Girls School. Many of the young ladies there write great essays, had held leadership positions in NDP parades and do mass dances. Guess what? Some may have done part-time jobs -- real jobs that requires you to contribute to P&L of a business -- way more relevance than the ex-SAF helicoptered Officers in those GLCs.

If they are so good, why aren't Goldman Sach and McKinsey having recruitment drives in SAFTI?

Anonymous said...

Can we trust froeign nationals to run essential services?

Jonathan said...

@unknown, thought maybe one fine example was the AH-64 crash in woodland last year...I have been gg thru the various situations like NSF/trg/IPPT deaths, accident etc and thought the AH-64 one was one of the better situation where it could have been worse...but also have to credit the pilots for their skills....

Anonymous said...

Very insightful post David.

Many thanks.



David Boey said...

Dear Unknown@3:14 PM 19 Dec 2011,
SMRT may not be able to control the timing, nature or extent of a problem.

But what is well within SMRT's control are the contingency plans to handle such situations. Why it did not control the transport chaos better is a matter for the Committee of Inquiry (COI) to discover.

I do not expect SMRT's management to be fortune tellers who can forecast problems with amazing prescience.

But I do expect SMRT to have rigorously tested drawer plans to manage hiccups or glitches or - to use a new euphemism aired on state TV tonight - "delays" in its rail network (i.e. something broke down yet again).

I would sooner trust an SAF officer who has experienced an SAF war game - scripted or not - to plan for the unexpected rather than a civilian.

I would put my money on an individual who had a command appointment in an NDP Executive Committee work group.

You may have read my assorted postings on the National Day Parade (NDP). When I attend NDP Combined Rehearsals, I'm there not just to take photos of the war machines. I watch closely the interaction between EXCO members - particularly those from different units/formations/Services - the linkups or cock ups that take place (check the Forging Sabre post on the F-15SGs missing their datum) and the confidence level of the people as the show is hammered together.

I listen and watch participants to assess how motivated they are, how they handle info management, do they trust their leaders, are they being overly cautious (ie. a standby vehicle for a standby vehicle, which says a lot about the confidence they have in their machines).

Having seen four SAF operations in my previous job, I am personally convinced that with rare exceptions, our people plan for the unexpected and adapt their plans when things go wrong.

As with any organisation, you do get oddballs. You may realise from older postings I have a low tolerance for such characters.

Reference was made to retired SAF personnel because the post above talks about planning for emergencies - which should be well within the capability of an SAF Colonel.

Best Regards,


Unknown said...


I am failing to grasp the logic behind the blind faith DB has in retired combat officers who had never experienced a single armed conflict in their life. So let me get this. We KNOW they are awesome crisis managers by virtue of the fact that they handles incidents (AH64 crashes…etc), seen deaths ( NSF/trg/IPPT deaths) and did a wicked job handling the NDP parades (passionately and with great motivations).
You know what, most male medics (esp those stationed in Tekong) in Singapore have seen IPPT deaths, most Traffic Police and Ambulances Officers would have handled crashes (with lots of casualties and dead bodies) and the St Nicks mei meis would have done NDP parades with conviction and passion. Would we defer to their expertise to manage the SMRT crisis? And you know what, we may have some Traffic police who had been a medic in Tekong and had participated in NDP! Not many SAF officers can boast that they have done all.
Are they all as naturally qualified to manage the SMRT crisis? Seriously?
The part about NDP parade is the best. Here you have an officer managing a parade that could bring him to Superscale salary and you find it remarkable that he is motivated? Is it not expected as you would of a Goldman Sach Banker being motivated to close a deal? Also, a GREAT event is like the recent INTERNATIONAL EVENT that was the Mnet Asia Music Award, where it is done for an international audience and you had to managed paid staff who had the choice to walk away from the event whenever they want and you managed the biggest names in the Entertainment industry : Lee Hyun Byun (IRIS, GI JOE), members of black eye peas, Big Bang…. Etc. Put it beside the NDP where you have conscript (do this or you sign 7 extra, question me again and you get charge for insubordination!) and school volunteers who can’t really walk away. If managing a show is your yardstick, for crisis management competency, lets get the guys behind Mnet please.
Look I am not here to disrespect SAF officers. I am sure we have awesome fellow inside. But cmon. Just like we should have prejudice against them, we should not go to the other extreme and assume all who came from SAF are super awesome crisis management folks. Unless the guy managing the Commando Storming incident and the Hotel New World Collapse are in SMRT now, we really don’t know if the SAF retiree have what it takes do we?
In short, a retired SAF officer who had not fought an armed skirmish is like an eye surgeon who had not done a eye surgery. The doc may ace his exams and cure URTI like Hua Tuo,did great mock up surgery, and managed great events. But until he performed eye surgery successfully, we can’t even say he is a competent eye surgeon (his main occupation), much less accord him other favorable attributes.

Roy (the Anonymous)

Unknown said...

Sorry, copied and pasted in Words so all my paragraphs alignment went out!


Who said...

on Medium versus message

Stupid mediacorpse on Monday news even used back MRT station control which has Mas Selamat poster near the gate... and yet voice over everything at MRT station back to normal ...epic fail..

David Boey said...

Dear Roy(Unknown) 9:40 AM 20 December 2011,
Thank you for defending your position with the comment, presented at length and argued with conviction.

It serves as a useful discussion point for folks who look at commitment to defence.

I will not turn this into a ping pong match with both of us launching analogies at one another. Our positions have been posted, our respective points of view are self explanatory.

btw, your point that "most male medics (especially those stationed on Tekong" (where the SAF recruits are trained) have seen IPPT (i.e physical fitness test) deaths is not supported by the SAF death statistics on file. But I get your drift.

Your point that the private sector holds lessons for the military is an interesting one.

There is a certain air force which studied things like sortie generation rates, surge potential and turnaround times from a private company that transports stuff and adapted these principles to itself.

I find the story fascinating because it shows this air force will stop at nothing to ensure it gets the best "yardsticks" (your choice of words) as performance measures. I'm sure some readers here will know what I'm referring to.

Best Regards,


Unknown said...


Thank you. A final post to make myself clear.

My main point, which is: We are unable to and we should not accord values and credits to organization and people who had not earned them (the values and credit).

Until the day SAF is involved in an actual crisis, we should not automatically assume the organization is some credited leader in crisis management.

And even when they do encounter such crisis, only those who had actively participated in these crisis should be quoted as experts. E.g. not all who served the US Navy today are combat hardened vets when only a handful saw actions in Iraq.

In context of your post, those ex-SAF officers in SMRT should not have the "crisis management expert halo" you accorded them in your post unless they had showed that they are -- which they haven't.

In fact, SVP Goh Chee Kong (retired SAF colonel and MINDEF spokesman) had shown with distinction that he is a terrible communicator (some brilliant spokesperson he was)and manager (in crisis or not). He just told the world that SMRT trains' doors and windows are not to be tempered with when incidents occurred and people should rely 100% on the back-up systems on those very train that failed in the first place.



Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I had the apportunity of "wearing" all the 3 uniform, Police during NS (was involved in
Hotel New world Collapse) Fire brigade / SCDF (was involved in Bukom Refinery Fire in the 80s) and was send to SAFTI for specialised skill course and attachement. Now in my late 40s, im in private sector. I have to agree with Roy that not all SAF officers are top notch, yet some reacted and acted to rigid and scripted as they have the power to discharge for non compliance, but this is a civil emergency, civilian don't take orders kindly if it cause them inconvenience,there are Fire brigade/SCDF officer that have many real life experience, and until now their name i can still remember, sadly they had left the service

To handle unscripted disaster is totally different thing, let it be red flag, forging sabre or even the scripted NDP, and yes, i was involved as participants and also the organiser for 4 times!!

Anyway, to a point, i agree that SMRT need to really reshape their disaster team and SOP, if an SAF officer running a private company ala SAF style, there will be alot of happiness in that organisation, yes i have seen it too.

Lets just hope that SMRT will not keep saying sorry after sorry, otherwise we will be the laughing idiot in the region.

Anonymous said...

As an ORDed officer myself.
Before we assign such great abilities to SAF officers per se.
Do not forget our political elite is filled to bursting with ex generals who will tell you with a straight face all must be prepared for the ultimate sacrifice for the nation as citizens... yet punish soldiers in Hougang Potong Pasir for not voting PAP... party above nation. Or you shall repent. Moral courage fail?

There are good officers, but as our generals show, its not a given.

Anonymous said...

Sorry my apology typo error

"if an SAF officer running a private company ala SAF style, there will be alot of UNhappiness in that organisation, yes i have seen it too."

Hoshen said...

Ex Northstar V was a farce.As a test of the system it failed. Why? Not only was it scripted, it was done at 6am in the morning with most of the "passengers" already briefed on what to do. A good test would have been to stress test the system at full load(evening peak hour would be good, people can afford to go home slightly later rather then going to work late).Anyway something to note is that even if the upper managers were full of ex SAF people, I highly doubt things would have gone any better, not so much the operational sense but because of the rigidity of the people. Also the main issue here is communication which as you have pointed out many times, the SAF of recent years have done poorly in.

Personally, I feel that the problem was a failure both in communication as well as crisis management more so then a failure of the rail system (which is bound to fail and should be expected).
What do I mean? If the rail network had failed and the message had gotten out for people to seek alternatives as well as the deployment of back up services (buses and traffic control...etc) then I believe that people while annoyed would have been not that angry. You might even get people saying good things about their response.

However what we have here is a failure of everything. The system simply froze in place. Stations were not closed (to prevent overcrowding), information was not let out (even to SMRT station staff).

In fact I strongly believe that nothing was done because the upper management truely did not want to believe that something had gone wrong and could not be fixed without having to call up upper management to make a decision that didn't make someone look bad.

rolling tool chest said...

Very insightful post David.

Many thanks.