Are work lapses a systemic problem at SMRT? Analysts weigh in

Are work lapses a systemic problem at SMRT? Analysts weigh in

NSL disruption
Train services along the North-South Line (NSL) from Ang Mo Kio to Newton are still not available, said SMRT on Sunday (Oct 8). (Photo: Alan Sg)

SINGAPORE: The near hour-long statement by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan on Tuesday (Nov 7) may give SMRT a “temporary reprieve”, but it is unlikely to be enough to quell public frustration and restore confidence in the rail operator, observers told Channel NewsAsia.

In his 39-paragraph ministerial statement delivered in Parliament, Mr Khaw laid out the causes for the unprecedented disruption last month, when heavy rains flooded a tunnel at Bishan MRT station and disabled the North-South Line for more than 20 hours.

He said the ministry will not be convening a Committee of Inquiry (COI) as the cause of the flooding boiled down “to poor maintenance and neglect of duties” by SMRT’s maintenance team.

“The tunnel flooding incident was preventable. It should not have happened,” Mr Khaw reiterated in Parliament.

An internal probe has since uncovered falsification of pump and tank-system maintenance records and on Monday, SMRT announced disciplinary action against six staff along with an inquiry into another seven at managerial level.

Experts disagreed on whether further inquiry into the flooding incident is required.

Mr Khaw's statement on how a formal public inquiry need not be called may help to defray some fears about the possibility of work lapses being a more systemic problem within SMRT, said Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University.

“I think the assurance provided by the Government today was to allay concerns that there could be a more systemic rot within SMRT. The minister took the view that this is not the situation, which is why there’s no need for a COI,” the law professor said.

This will act as a “temporary reprieve” for the embattled rail operator though it is “certainly not out of the woods”, noted Assoc Prof Tan, adding that SMRT needs to “raise its game” by showing incremental improvements in order to win back commuters’ confidence.

“Public confidence is still insecure simply because while there has been general improvements in service after the major breakdown in 2011, recent incidents, even if they are few and far between, will certainly give rise to concerns about whether these issues have been properly dealt with,” he said.

“These assurances from the Government will not matter if there is another preventable major disruption.”


Dr Walter Theseira, a transport economist at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, urged SMRT to conduct a far-reaching investigation into whether organisational issues were behind the tunnel-flooding incident.

“I think the real question is whether failures occurred because people were deliberately trying to avoid doing the work they were supposed to do, or because given the resources at hand, it was extremely difficult for the responsible parties to actually carry out their work as intended,” he said.

For example, workers might not have enough time to complete their tasks, or they might have been hampered by poor coordination with other groups within the organisation.

“If those other reasons are important factors, then clearly just finding some people and punishing people will not be enough to actually fix the problem,” he added.

“Personally, I believe that the underlying reason is unlikely to be as simple as these individuals just didn’t want to do their work and didn’t do it.”

In addition, the public will not be entirely convinced by the notion that workers caused the anti-flood system to fail, Dr Theseira said.

“Ultimately, isn’t it the management’s job to ensure that the system is robust such that it will be very difficult, if not improbable, for any small group of people to basically cause the whole system to fail?” he asked.

“To me, it’s the management’s job to design the system and the processes in such a way as to reduce the chance of this occurring.”

To that end, Dr Theseira said the public will question “to what extent will senior management actually take responsibility for this”.

Khaw Boon Wan SMRT statement
Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament on Nov 7, 2017. 

While Mr Khaw mentioned that the SMRT board will review the remuneration of its senior management, Dr Theseira noted that it remains unclear “what, if anything, will happen” to them.

“Anybody who works in any organisation, especially complex ones, knows that failures are very rarely attributable to a small group of people,” he added.

“Because it does seem at the moment like as if it is an effort to confine the responsibility to a small group of rogue employees.”

And if indeed the workers were unable to do their jobs because of organisational issues, “singling them out and punishing them is just going to hurt morale”, Dr Theseira said.

“Because other people are going to say … tomorrow something may happen that involves me, I’m going to get blamed, I’m going to lose my job but is it really my fault? Because I cannot do my job given the organisational issues.”


When it comes to existing follow-up actions, transport analysts welcomed the measures Mr Khaw outlined.

Some of them include the replacement of existing float switches at the Bishan storm water sump pit and the addition of a radar-based sensor system to independently monitor water levels in the pit.

Assistant professor of engineering Zhou Yi from the Singapore Institute of Technology said the new radar-based sensor will complement the float switches as it is a non-contact sensor and is less affected by the condition of the water.

Because of poor maintenance, defects were found in the float switches, he explained. “If the water is full of sludge and debris, the contact sensor might be blocked,” he added.

“If the water float switch indicates the water is low, but if the radar says the water is high, there must be something wrong.”

smrt train in flooded tunnel
An SMRT train in a flooded MRT tunnel, in a photo widely circulated on social media. 

National University of Singapore transport researcher Lee Der-Horng said SMRT’s move to invite a team of experts from the Taipei Metro to do a thorough and independent review of its operations is “positive”.

He pointed out that the Taipei Metro, which has overtaken Hong Kong’s in terms of overall service reliability, was itself severely flooded in 2001 because of Typhoon Nari.

“It took them months to bring back the entire system,” Dr Lee said. “Maybe they have some good experiences to share.”

Despite that, Dr Theseira said such an inquiry might be “more independent if it was commissioned directly by LTA (Land Transport Authority) or the Ministry of Transport”.

“When you say that you're bringing in a group of outside experts to evaluate the situation, to me it’s really about what are their terms of reference, who brings them in, what is their relationship actually to the organisation,” he said.

Assoc Prof Tan reckoned that there may be a need for LTA to implement “stronger and more demanding” audits and checks if SMRT remains inept in making sure maintenance works are carried out properly.

“You can talk about bringing in a foreign operator with a better track record but I don’t think it’s as simple as that,” he said. “If SMRT is unable to self-regulate and get its act together, then the ball falls on LTA’s court to make sure that SMRT can get the job done.”


Apart from SMRT, the unprecedented disruption last month has also raised the stakes for the Government given how its push towards a car-lite society is underpinned by a reliable public transport system, according to Assoc Prof Tan.

“Here we are talking about moving towards a car-lite society and investing heavily in our public transport system but this seems to be becoming one of the biggest issues that the Government needs to deal with in the short term.”

“It really is the poisoned chalice,” he said, referring to the phrase some observers used to describe the job of the Transport Minister a few years back. “One would say that the chalice remains poisoned and the poison may have increased in concentration.”

And such persistent MRT delays and breakdowns may put a dent on the Government’s “performance legitimacy” given its track record in resolving hot-button issues such as immigration and housing, noted Assoc Prof Tan.

“After the 2011 General Election, issues like immigration and public housing, seem to have been managed fairly alright. Now, it’s all about the MRT, which has seen a large amount of public funds gone into improving the system.

“The Government has always prided itself on being able to deal with hot-button issues so it has to deliver come next general election. While the election will not turn on this particular issue, it could take away the performance legitimacy that the Government has always prided itself on,” Assoc Prof Tan told Channel NewsAsia.

Source: CNA/sk