Of rail breakdowns and the right words

Since Mr Khaw Boon Wan took over the Transport portfolio, MRT breakdowns have not gone away. They still happen but on a smaller scale than before, with the latest taking place last Monday during the morning rush hours.

But somehow, the angst that greets each breakdown seems to have moderated. The previous mood of resignation is slowly giving way to hope.

Why this transformation? As a practitioner of crisis communication, I sense this hope emanates from the utterances and writings of the Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure. He gives people a sense that the troublesome railway system is finally in the hands of someone determined to get to the bottom of the mess.

A good crisis manager defines the problem, addresses emotions, understands and shares concerns, and demonstrates a commitment to act. The undergirding principle is to communicate the truth clearly and concisely.

Since his appointment as Transport Minister, Mr Khaw has made several statements on the problems facing the rail system and from day one, he zeroed in on the engineering quagmires. His communication style, whether in person or through blogs, includes sound bites that are appropriate and not over the top. His blog posts and those on Facebook are prompt and effective, and show an eagerness to resolve the rail problems. In his first 10 days in office, he had blogged some six times on transport issues. "Singapore deserves better," he noted on Facebook last Monday after the two-hour train breakdown on the North East Line, a simple statement that conveyed empathy. A trip-up during the testing of a new train hit some 41,000 commuters, including students heading for their year-end exams.

In appointing Mr Tan Gee Paw as his Rail Transformation Adviser, he made clear a good team will be at the core of any solution. The challenges of assembling this team will be daunting though. Engineering capabilities cannot be assembled overnight. Truth be told, there is a dearth of good engineers locally.

As for the Ministry of Transport, Land Transport Authority and SMRT, they must work together and not in silos. The engineering and risk analysis in these organisations need to be improved too.

From a communications standpoint, a coordinated roll-out will help allay public uncertainty. Key officials must be trained to deal with the issues and not roll out standard motherhood statements.

But the challenge ahead is daunting, not only from an operational point of view but also the crisis mode. To be sure, the breakdowns will continue until the "rat catchers" are able to troubleshoot and de-bug theentire system. Management of commuter expectations will be key. The sincerity and humility of the officials on the ground willbe watched.

The MRT system may be some ways from finding a happy equilibrium. The right messages have emerged but the jury is still out on what lies ahead.

•The writer is a managing partner in a consultancy firm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline 'Of rail breakdowns and the right words'. Print Edition | Subscribe