Could SMRT's woes have been averted if it had used more of its past earnings for maintenance and asset renewal?
Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang alluded to this when he stood up to ask the final question in Parliament yesterday on the Oct 7 flooding of an MRT tunnel.
Mr Low said much of SMRT's problems had to do with "its mission... to make money for the Government". "The Government wanted to have the cake and eat it, expecting profit from train operator and at the same time also expecting efficiency," he said.
In 2001, a year after it was listed, SMRT paid main shareholder Temasek Holdings a special dividend of $540 million. By last year, it had paid out a further $1.2 billion or so in dividends to shareholders. Temasek, which held 54 per cent of SMRT, would have collected another $630 million or so.
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan refuted Mr Low's assertion: "There are easier ways to make money. You don't have to use SMRT to make money."
He said the leadership at SMRT knows that "making money is not your objective, but you must not lose money".
"There must be financial discipline. Cannot just anyhow go and spend money, buy this, buy that, gold plate everything," he added.
To Mr Low's question on how the Transport Ministry, Land Transport Authority and SMRT can play their individual functional roles well "when they work as a team and become good friends", Mr Khaw said: "Each time a problem crops up, we settle it as one team. But that doesn't mean that we blur the boundary and therefore forget about individual roles and checks and balances."