How deep is the SMRT rot? 4 questions about the rail company that an inquiry could answer

SMRT announced that falsified maintenance records were behind the flooding of their tunnels that led to a major disruption.
SMRT announced that falsified maintenance records were behind the flooding of their tunnels that led to a major disruption.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Flooded train tunnels a month ago caused large segments of the North-South MRT line to grind to a halt for over 20 hours, affecting 250,000 commuters.

In a shocking announcement last week, SMRT announced that falsified maintenance records were behind the major disruption.

Engineers tasked with maintaining the pumps quarterly had signed off without doing the work. Maintenance had not been carried out since September 2016.

In this week's Insight, Christopher Tan calls for a formal inquiry to investigate how deep the problems at SMRT are. Insight also looks at four questions such an inquiry can answer.

1. How pervasive is the malpractice within SMRT?

A key issue that needs to be investigated is whether the doctoring maintenance records was an isolated incident or a widespread practice.

Last week, SMRT offered staff a two-day amnesty deadline for owning up to wrongdoing without penalty, ahead of a far-reaching internal audit. Some have already stepped forward.

The extent of the malpractice needs to be determined before the appropriate corrective action can be prescribed.

2. How hard was it for maintenance staff to get track access?

An SMRT worker looks on as maintenance works are carried out on a stretch of track between Orchard and Somerset stations. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

A senior SMRT insider told Insight that possible factors behind the maintenance breaches include complacency and difficulty in getting track access.

Because of an ongoing overhaul of the signalling and power systems of MRT lines, the slots for access to the tracks for maintenance works have been reduced.

Maintenance staff may have decided to sign off on the work after failing to secure access to tracks - banking on the fact that the pumps have never failed before.

3. Should military men be running the company?

SMRT trains CEO Lee Ling Wee (right), during a short break in between the media briefing on the North-South Line tunnel flooding incident. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

After former Chief of Defence Force Desmond Kuek became chief executive of SMRT in 2012, he brought in a number of military men to helm important departments within the company.

For example, SMRT Trains chief Lee Ling Wee used to be head of Air Engineering and Logistics with the Republic of Singapore Air Force. Chief corporate officer Gerard Koh was a colonel in the Singapore Armed Forces.

Are they the right men to be running SMRT? A former senior SMRT executive told Insight that military men may lack the experience and the deep knowledge of the rail system to tackle the company's problems.

4. Is it time for CEO Desmond Kuek to step aside?

SMRT President and Group CEO Mr Desmond Kuek, stands in front of the new train at Bishan Depot. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Another important question is whether, given all the problems the company is mired in, the buck should stop with Mr Kuek, and he should therefore be asked to step down.

Having taken over the firm's reins for five years now, he has not been able to resolve deep-seated cultural issues that he acknowledged were there very early on in his time as CEO.

Analysts who spoke to Insight were divided on whether SMRT needs a change in top management. Some say Mr Kuek should stay on to resolve the issues, others say his time is up.

Read the full Insight feature here.