Ex-LTA head Ngien Hoon Ping to succeed Neo Kian Hong as SMRT chief

Former LTA chief Ngien Hoon Ping (left) will take over as SMRT group CEO from Mr Neo Kian Hong. PHOTOS: LTA, SMRT

SINGAPORE - SMRT group chief executive Neo Kian Hong is stepping down after just four years at the helm of the transport company, making his tenure shorter than that of his predecessor Desmond Kuek who stayed for six years.

Former Land Transport Authority (LTA) chief Ngien Hoon Ping, 52, will succeed Mr Neo, 57, who was hired to replace Mr Kuek in August 2018 after what SMRT said was "a global search".

Mr Ngien left LTA in 2020 - also after four years - to head FairPrice Group's supply chain business. He will join the SMRT board from May 1 and take over the helm on Aug 1, according to an internal company memo issued on Friday afternoon (March 18).

Mr Neo will stay on as adviser till Oct 31 this year.

The surprise turn of events has been in the rumour mill as early as December, but may have been in the planning earlier than that.

Neither Mr Neo nor Mr Ngien was contactable for comment.

SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming had high praises for Mr Neo when he joined four years ago, saying that the SMRT board was impressed with his "appreciation of interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as his vision and experience in leveraging new technologies for public service".

Like most of SMRT's previous helmsmen, Mr Ngien was from the military. He was director of joint operations in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) between 2010 and 2013, attaining the rank of brigadier-general.

In a media statement issued by SMRT, Mr Seah said: "The board has put in place a leadership succession plan with a robust talent pipeline at different levels. We review it regularly to ensure relevance and currency."

With Mr Ngien's experience at LTA and FairPrice Group, he is well placed to lead SMRT forward in an era of disruption, Mr Seah added.

An engineer by training, Mr Ngien led LTA from 2016 to 2020 and, along with his team, oversaw infrastructure projects such as the Thomson-East Coast Line, Mandai Depot and Lornie Highway. 

Expressing the board’s appreciation for Mr Neo's contributions, Mr Seah said: "He oversaw a deepening of rail engineering capabilities and consistent delivery of high rail reliability."

Mr Neo was Singapore's seventh chief of defence force in the SAF, and served as permanent secretary in the education and defence ministries. 

Sources pointed out that Mr Neo was more task-oriented, while his predecessor was people-centred. There was also tension between Mr Neo and Mr Seah, and staff were often “caught in between”, they added.

Mr Neo’s tenure had also been blemished by several safety-related incidents, including a rail worker whose foot was crushed by a locomotive in 2018, a technical officer who died at Bishan depot in 2020 when a 5kg metal piece hit him, and a technician who died in 2021 when a bus fell on him after a jack gave way.

Despite a vast improvement in the rail system in recent years, a massive breakdown in October 2020 left more than 6,700 passengers stranded on trains across three MRT lines for up to three hours and affected about 123,000 commuters directly. It was traced to material faults and human error.

The Straits Times had previously reported on a spate of resignations within SMRT's ranks, which include senior engineers Chia Chun Wah, a senior vice-president of maintenance and engineering; Mario Favaits, who headed the business unit Singapore Rail Engineering; and Lester Lim, who was head of rolling stock and tracks.

An SMRT insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity,  said staff are hopeful that the leadership change will see railway professionals get more recognition and leadership positions.

"Hopefully, this will be a new beginning for SMRT," said the insider.

Dr David Leong, managing director of human resource advisory and search firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said: “Mr Ngien’s former role as head of LTA will be his biggest advantage as he is fully cognizant of the challenges, gaps, troubling issues and compliance matters facing SMRT.”

He noted that Mr Kuek had previously mentioned “deep-seated cultural issues” of human error or failure in SMRT, which Mr Neo publicly said do not exist three months after assuming the helm in November 2018. 

Dr Leong said: “Mr Neo may have been too quick to dismiss Mr Kuek’s assertion.”

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