SINGAPORE: Despite working as a team, public transport operators and regulators can keep up checks and balances, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 7) in response to questions by opposition leader Low Thia Khiang.
Mr Low asked Mr Khaw how the Land Transport Authority (LTA), SMRT and the Ministry of Transport can avoid blurring the boundaries when they work as a team.
"How does the minister ensure each of them can still play their functional role well, when they work as a team and become good friends?” said Mr Low, the last MP to speak in response to Mr Khaw’s ministerial statement on lapses that led to an MRT tunnel being flooded on Oct 7.
"What about instituting a structural system of checks that should be embedded to ensure efficiency, honesty and integrity?" he added.
To this, Mr Khaw said the LTA is “very clear” about its roles as regulator, developer and asset owner, which he detailed in a ministerial statement delivered earlier. Mr Khaw also referred to a fourth and unspoken role for the authority - to cultivate a relationship between LTA and the rail operators "founded on trust and constructive collaboration".
He emphasised that it was important for the regulators and operators to work as a team at this stage when they have to renew the assets of older rail assets on the North-South and East-West Lines.
“If you cannot work as one team I think there will be trouble, as there was in the past. So it’s important they function as one team so that as problems crop up, we settle it as one team," said Mr Khaw, who is also Coordinating Minister for Infrastructure.
"But that doesn’t mean we blur the boundaries and forget about individual roles and check and balances. So it may sound schizophrenic to him (Mr Low) but we are quite clear in our minds and it can be done.”
Mr Khaw also rebutted Mr Low's comment that the "core problem of train services is money".
“The government wanted to have their cake and eat it, expecting profits from train operators while expecting efficiency and tip-top maintenance work,” Mr Low said in the preamble to his questions.
“There are easier ways to make money,” Mr Khaw responded.
The government’s decision to corporatise SMRT but have it fully owned by the government is “not wrong”, added Mr Khaw. He said the intention behind it is to exploit the financial discipline of a commercial sector.
"Making money is not your objective, but you must not lose money."
BIG VS SMALL ISSUES
Separately, Workers’ Party MP Pritam Singh and Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Dennis Tan sought clarifications from Mr Khaw on the lapses.
Mr Pritam wanted to know if the recommendations from the 2012 Commission of Inquiry (COI), which included a suggestion to improve record-keeping, were implemented and what SMRT could have done to avoid the falsification of records in the flooding case.
Mr Khaw said all the follow ups to the COI were done but in the last two years, the authorities and SMRT have been focusing on most critical areas - train tracks and the signalling system.
When it came to maintaining the sump pump system "we just assumed it will be done", he said.
Mr Tan then asked if the LTA’s prioritising of audits on bigger rail reliability issues is an oversight, considering that the smallest thing could cause train disruptions. He compared it with the aerospace industry, where an air-worthiness certificate is required for the smallest components in an aircraft.
“If you can’t get the small things right, you are not going to get the big things right,” Mr Tan said.
Mr Tan also asked if Mr Khaw agreed that, going forward, LTA’s audit should be thorough to include the big and small issues.
Mr Khaw said with a limited time to check on so many issues, the authorities had to prioritise, and that is why it focused on the “big-ticket items” first.
“I'm not giving excuses for not checking the pumps, or whatever other small things there are, and there are millions of small and big things in the train system,” he said.
“But in the limited time that we had, we focused on the big-ticket items which can cause severe problems. That’s why we have been focusing our energy on those two parts but we were going to get eventually to those small things. Unfortunately, the small things cropped up and we got egg on our face but we will fix it.”
Mr Khaw said the audit and inspections will be as extensive as needed. The internal SMRT team will be headed by engineer Dr Richard Kwok, who will in turn work with LTA as a joint team. The transport operators could also cross-audit each other and they may ask "metro friends from other cities" for help as well, he said.