In a high-density city like Singapore, lifts provide an essential service. Residents and workers depend on them to get about their daily lives. The ubiquitous lift, like a hygiene item, is often taken for granted until it fails. The recent spate of failures in lifts in public housing estates has drawn much attention. The decision by the Housing Board (HDB) to ban one lift contractor, Sigma Elevator, from tendering for new HDB projects since October 2015 is thus commendable. This action followed the board's analysis of lift breakdowns.
An HDB spokesman said that the lifts installed by Sigma in the past two years had a higher-than-usual breakdown rate in the first year of operations. So, despite Sigma's 10-year, generally positive, track record of installing lifts (its 3,500 lifts out of 24,000 in HDB estates constitute 14.6 per cent market share), the HDB decided to impose a ban. This is a welcome move. Firstly, it signals that the authorities take lift safety very seriously and will not hesitate to act against companies with less-than-stellar performance in this area. Secondly, the ban serves a practical purpose: to let Sigma devote its resources to completing the installation of lifts and improving the performance of the installed lifts under its current contract. Thirdly, it helps prevent further problems from Sigma lifts until the company fixes its faults.
Questions have been raised about why the HDB failed to inform the public about the October 2015 ban on Sigma earlier. The news surfaced only last week, in response to queries by this newspaper.
It is to be hoped that the clamour for explanations suggests only a desire for more transparency and does not translate into a trust deficit on the authorities' effectiveness or willingness to act on lift safety. That would be unfair.
The Government has worked across agencies to tackle this issue. Last July, the Building and Construction Authority of Singapore (BCA) put in place new, tighter guidelines to improve lift maintenance. The BCA is also working to raise skill levels and enhance recruitment in the sector. In September, the Government pledged to set aside $450 million to modernise lifts in HDB estates. These funds help town councils, which are responsible for maintaining common amenities in HDB estates, including lifts. The Competition Commission is looking at ways to reduce the lock-in effect that is common when a lift manufacturer has an advantage when tendering for maintenance contracts, as it has the parts for its own brand of lifts. Having common lift parts sourced from third-party suppliers will open the maintenance market to more competition. Citizens should rest assured that the ban on Sigma is but the latest update to emerge on what is being done on lift safety. With the slew of other measures already in place, there is no reason for distrust. Improving the service levels of lifts is very much work that is in progress.