Saturday, January 6, 2018

Serving Singapore with the Singapore Armed Forces SAF alumni in SMRT

Desmond Kuek, then a two-star Chief of Army, seen with Brigadier-General Wong Ann Chai, then Chief Armour Officer, in November 2005 at Exercise Wallaby. The war games were held at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland, Australia. Desmond Kuek retired from the Singapore Armed Forces in 2010 as Chief of Defence Force with the rank of Lieutenant-General - the highest SAF rank attainable. (Photo: David Boey)

The commentary below draws on my experience writing about the Singapore Armed Forces in the past 25-plus years as well as observations in my current role in SMRT, which I joined on 1 April 2014. 
My interactions with SMRT management began years earlier though. From January 2012, I had the opportunity to see how former SMRT CEO, Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, shaped the narrative for her blog postings. This interaction provided valuable insights into the North-South Line MRT disruptions of December 2011 and how the situation unfolded. The need to give commuters accurate, relevant and timely updates whenever their journey is affected cannot be overemphasized.
The views expressed here are my own.

Early on the morning of Saturday 21 October 2017, as Singapore slept, the SMRT Trains team successfully transferred 16 new trains from Tuas West Depot to Bishan Depot.

The C151B trains – the newest in SMRT’s fleet – were moved to add more capacity to the North-South Line (NSL), which runs on the new signalling system. As the “B” trains can only operate on the new signalling system, many stood idle in Tuas, unable to serve NSL commuters frustrated by those times when insufficient rolling stock resulted in a long wait and more crowded trains.

Coordinating the movements was a former Singapore Army colonel who was once Chief Engineer Officer. He reports to a former Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) ME8 – the highest rank attainable under the Military Domain Expert Scheme (MDES) – who leads the SMRT Trains team.

On the network, a former RSAF ME6 was on standby with his signalling team, hours before dawn, to resolve any faults before train services resumed.

Also in the loop was SMRT’s Chief Technology Officer, a veteran from the Defence Science & Technology Agency.

At the top of the hierarchy sits a former Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Chief of Defence Force (CDF), who as President and Group Chief Executive Officer of SMRT Corporation, has led the slew of projects to renew and improve Singapore’s ageing MRT network. The centre of gravity for these efforts is the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL), whose ups and downs affect the vast majority of MRT commuters because the NSEWL is Singapore’s longest, oldest and most heavily-used MRT line.

Online observations that SMRT has a number of SAF personnel in its senior management are not unwarranted.

I am still learning about the SAF. But I would like to think previous years spent writing about MINDEF/SAF has given me a somewhat unique perspective of our uniformed Services.

Interestingly, such common ground helped foster close and meaningful working relationships with the SAF alumni in SMRT, a fair number of whom had read articles with my byline. Continued engagement with Ms Saw and the legacy team has helped bridge lessons from the past. 

Chief among these is the lack of time to carry out the many renewal projects, as well as the lack of travel alternatives for you whenever the MRT breaks down due to whatever reason.

Yes, five years is a long time.

But factor in the complexity of the MRT network and competing demands for track access during the narrow window of opportunity when trains are not running and tradeoffs have to be made.

For instance, moving the 16 new trains to serve the North-South Line on the morning of 21 October 2017 meant that engineering teams had to give up track access time to renew or maintain the line. So some maintenance work got deferred. It is as simple as that.

In my opinion, their lack of experience running a train system is not why people feel let down. It is the enormity of the tasks that need to be done while the metro system is kept running day after day.

Having seen them in action while in uniform, their change of fortunes is stark.

In the SAF, many made their mark enhancing Singapore’s defence and security, and defence diplomacy.

In SMRT, they are the targets of relentless public criticism - some bordering on ad hominem attacks - as SMRT struggles to get things right and demonstrate signs of a swift and decisive turnaround.

Indeed, Mr Patrick Tan, wrote in his letter to The Straits Times Forum on 10 October 2017: “When the SMRT management team was first appointed, I was full of hope and support for them. 

"Surely, if there was anyone who could do the job, a group of army generals with experience in running a most efficient fighting force should be able to do it. But I have been sorely disappointed and disillusioned.”

In my view, the SAF alumni helped stabilise a management team rocked by the departure of its former CEO and nearly all of the senior management team. The previous management team, led by former SMRT CEO Ms Saw Phaik Hwa, was decimated following the December 2011 MRT disruptions.

Their replacements had to soldier on, regardless.

Over at SMRT Buses, the reconstituted management team led by a former Singapore Army colonel who commanded an armoured brigade, kept buses serving you – even with its workforce recovering from the strike in 2012. The team has successfully steered buses to profitability. All this while, concepts picked up from the SAF – on Transformation and the use of advanced technology for realtime C2 – are visible in the new-generation Bus Operations Control Centre (BOCC) and telematics “black boxes” that track the driving patterns of bus captains to encourage safe driving. The bus simulators introduced by SMRT usher in a CONOPS not alien to simulators used by SAF Armour.

Over at SMRT Trains, management concepts adopted by the team mirror catch phrases jotted down when I covered MINDEF/SAF: People, Process and Technology. Transformation. Raise, Train and Sustain etc etc. Army lingo like Hotwash and AAR are not uncommon.

And yet, trains run by SMRT fail you from time to time. Thankfully, not every day, but often enough to exasperate people and make you wonder: Why not sack the lot?

If a management purge would solve SMRT’s woes, I believe this option would have been initiated by the powers-that-be. But what would that achieve?

Apart from political mileage that this act of appeasement would generate, the successors to the current management would still face:
a) An ageing MRT network
b) A 30-year-old system whose design specifications and resilience deserve a relook as more than 40% of the network is close to end-of-life and must be renewed, and
c) A workforce populated by some individuals whose integrity when signing off for work done is suspect.

Through ruthless culling, underperformers could dealt with as quickly as the termination letters are printed.

But what of an ageing system and design issues? And limited track access? And a smallish engineering cadre whose numbers were boosted 150% after the former CDF realised the importance of raising, training and sustaining a credible engineering bench strength?

Anyone with ambitions for an SMRT turnaround cannot skirt these issues.

Rail engineering expertise is important. But no less important is the logistics "battle" that demands close and constant attention to issues like critical path items, time management of large-scale projects and spares and consumables - all behind-the-scenes yet important work that needs time to demonstrate a turnaround. Indeed, one common question people have asked is why the renewal work wasn't started years earlier, which calls into question logistics issues such as life cycle management, systems engineering and so on.

Having put my life in the hands of the SAF Logistics system during the 25-day assignment covering Operation Flying Eagle in Sumatra after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, I am quietly confident that given time, space and trust, the former SAF loggies who now serve Singapore's transport eco-system will know what to do. Already, parts of the MRT network that have been renewed show far better reliability. Trains fail you because the >40% of ageing infrastructure continues to falter. 

Management change is easy. What happens the day after? Train services must continue to run as Singaporeans will not accept the notion of giving up MRT services temporarily to expedite track work – which is a common practice on overseas metros.

Still, is the situation hopeless?

A South China Morning Post (SCMP) article, "Rolling Stock to Laughing Stock: Why is Singapore’s Metro Struggling, when Hong Kong’s a hit?", cited comments from Dr Lee Der-Horng, a transport researcher at the National University of Singapore. Dr Lee said that while public frustration was understandable, the improvements SMRT had made since 2011 should be acknowledged.[Strangely, the SCMP omits mention of the 10-hour MTR Kwun Tong Line delay on 5 August 2017 which stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters…]

“Overall ... the efforts by the operators to improve reliability is quite evident,” Lee said. “The operators have responded to the wake-up call of 2011, when they realised they were not up to the standards of Hong Kong and Taipei,” he added.

In the same story, Walter Theseira, a Singapore-based transport economist, said the “statistics speak for themselves” in showing a “clear improvement in reliability as measured by mean kilometres between incidents.”

All the above achieved as the SMRT continues to age since 2012, and with ever more people stepping aboard MRT trains for their daily commute.

Tsoi Mun Heng, Vice President of Planning at the Singapore Institute of Technology, wrote in his blog post: “Put the right people in place, and then they can work on those engineering problems and put them right. But it takes time. The people who left the system won’t come back. The new ones have little knowledge and experience. It will take time to rebuild the engineering and maintenance expertise they had 30 years ago. It takes time to change a culture which has been lost. I think it will take at least 10 years.”

The second consecutive month of limited MRT station closures this month is part of a broader plan by SMRT's new active chairman - with management, staff and union working in concert with the transport eco-system - to fast track the NSEWL renewal to the year 2020 instead of 2024. [Alas, additional track access time comes at the expense of temporary sacrifices on the part of commuters.]

Whether Singapore will give Team SMRT the time to do what’s necessary or whether they will be sacrificed to appease angry voices, remains to be seen.


Leonard said...

Ops flying eagle and many other successful operations are done right because of the dedication and hard work of the men and women of SAF. Many mid management in SAF suffered in silence because of the top management. Your article portrays a wrong view to depict these paper generals as elites and can solve anything, but the truth is further than what's been reported.
Take the collision of trains incident for example, how many safety nets did the train or there operator have to bypass to have the collision happened?

If this were to happen in the SAF, the driver of the train gets charged and a BOI would be carried out. Yet, in smrt you can't charge the driver because you need to retain expertise. The BOI cannot be carried out because you're busy enough to and don't have such authority to boss and investigate.

David Boey said...

Hi Leonard,
Thank you for sharing your point of view on leadership and management in the SAF.
re: Suffering in silence.
Why do so? There are multiple channels to address this, from hotlines to ground visits by senior commanders to the ability to get MPs to intervene? And there's the GPC, and ACCORD which can raise issues too? I know some citizen soldiers have used the ACCORD route as council members have voiced such feedback time and again and our discussions are minuted and action items tracked by the secretariat.

re: Collision of trains. Full report here:

re: Can't charge because "need to retain expertise", no BOI because "busy enough" and don't have authority etc.
Not true....

Best regards,


AG said...

Hi David,
In other metro overseas, top management are drawn from professional, direct related work background. In SG, the sweet seats user are parachute in, highly paid well, but with lower public accountability. They choose who is politically favorable. The public is more aware then you can imagine. This became political because of their selection practices. The apple cart collapse and is not going upright anytime soon. Public trust is easy to lose, harder to earn. They still have chances to rebuild, or dig their Graves deeper. Deeds not words, transparency not denials. You get the idea by now,