The news that 26 China-assembled MRT trains are being sent back to Chinese manufacturer CRRC Qingdao Sifang for rectification should have been released much earlier - and not three years after hairline cracks were found on the car body. Justifications for not airing the information wear thin the more one learns about the extent of the defects. The cracks are superficial and not of a structural nature, meaning these "do not affect the train's systems, performance or passengers' safety", according to the Transport Ministry. That being the case, there was little reason to suppose the public would be alarmed, especially if the Land Transport Authority had followed up with full details to squash any misperception.
Commuters would not have been unduly concerned about any impact on train services either, not with one train being sent back at a time for repairs (to be increased to two next year). Like all other aspects of rail transport, these matters are best put in the public domain in a timely manner, bearing in mind the widespread interest in public transport, upon which Singaporeans will increasingly rely as they march towards a car-lite society.
Given the track record of unfortunate incidents involving rail operators - like repeated service disruptions on a large scale, security lapses and workplace deaths - more heed should have been given to the possibility of adverse constructions should information withheld emerge later in social media or elsewhere. There were indeed unfortunate suggestions of a "cover-up" in the case of the minor cracks when Hong Kong news agency FactWire described the shipping of the affected trains as a secret operation witnessed in the wee hours of June 12 - in fact, a routine time for bulky haulage .
Damage control after the fact is never simple or fully effective to counter negative impressions created when information management falls short. Communications will deserve more attention when rail assets are put under state ownership - a status calling for higher standards of public disclosure. A proactive and forthcoming approach would inspire more confidence than efforts to debunk reports afterwards.
Another important aspect of keeping the public informed is the accessibility of the information provided. When equipment and operations are of a highly technical nature, it is incumbent on those in charge to explain the facts in terms that the ordinary person can understand. Often, either out of habit or insufficient effort, technocrats resort to jargon that leaves people guessing. There are also cases when they are spartan with information or fail to convey the extent to which administrators and staff might have gone to uphold safety and efficiency. Any vacuum of information is abhorred by some who are only too quick to fill it with their own speculative "facts", or plain hot air.