SMRT picks Neo Kian Hong as new chief after a global search

Neo Kian Hong to take over in Aug; search started after tunnel-flooding incident last Oct

SMRT has announced that Neo Kian Hong (right) will succeed Desmond Kuek as chief executive from Aug 1. PHOTOS: ST FILE, PUBLIC SERVICE DIVISION
Permanent Secretary Neo Kian Hong, 54, will be retiring from the Administrative Service to take the helm of the transport operator.
Permanent Secretary Neo Kian Hong, 54, will be retiring from the Administrative Service to take the helm of the transport operator.

Rail operator SMRT yesterday announced that it conducted a "global search" before deciding on former general Neo Kian Hong, 54, as the man to replace Desmond Kuek as its chief executive.

The Straits Times understands that the search for a new chief executive was initiated when Mr Kuek, 55, offered to resign soon after last October's tunnel-flooding incident. The new chief was among 20 candidates considered for the role.

In a media statement yesterday, a day after The Straits Times broke the news of Mr Kuek's departure and Mr Neo's imminent appointment, SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming said that he was "confident that (Mr Neo) will be able to lead SMRT towards achieving operation excellence".

"On behalf of the board, I welcome Kian Hong as the next group CEO of SMRT," Mr Seah said in the statement. "I have had the opportunity to work alongside Kian Hong during the Sars crisis and witnessed his sense of mission, hands-on approach to problem-solving and decisive leadership."

Currently the Permanent Secretary for Defence Development at the Ministry of Defence, Mr Neo was Singapore's seventh Chief of Defence Force in the Singapore Armed Forces.

He will be retiring from the Administrative Service and taking the helm of the transport operator on Aug 1 after serving 35 years in the Singapore Armed Forces and the Administrative Service.

Mr Neo said in the statement: "I am conscious that there will be challenges ahead. I know the public expects safe and reliable train services. I will work very hard to meet their expectations. I also recognise that successive generations of board, management and staff have worked very hard to deliver a good system. I will do my best to build on their foundation, and work with the SMRT team at all levels, as well as with the Land Transport Authority, to continue to deliver, and improve on, a reliable and sustainable system."

Mr Seah thanked Mr Kuek, who has helmed the rail operator since October 2012, for his contributions.

"The board would also like to express its appreciation to Desmond for his deep commitment and significant contributions to strengthen SMRT's overall capabilities over the last six years," he said. "Desmond had set in motion many initiatives to deliver a more robust service, including the multi-year renewal and upgrading of rail assets."

Mr Kuek said it was his privilege to have served alongside "a most professional and dedicated team in SMRT" and to have led the company through a critical period of transformation and system renewal.

Employees The Straits Times spoke to said Mr Kuek was well-liked by rank and file. "He gave us a decent pay rise across the board when he came in," said one staff member, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Senior staff also praised him for his personable nature and for being able to place equal importance on people and processes.

Government Parliamentary Committee for Transport chairman Sitoh Yih Pin said: "During my time as Transport GPC chairman, I have had the opportunity to work with Mr Desmond Kuek on various issues.

"I have always known him as a dedicated CEO who is focused on public service. I wish him all the best in his future endeavours.

"I welcome Mr Neo Kian Hong as the incoming SMRT CEO. Mr Neo had worked closely with SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming at ST Engineering, and I am sure the synergy built up between them then will be transferred to their working relationship in SMRT."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2018, with the headline SMRT picks Neo Kian Hong as new chief after a global search. Subscribe