Former defence chief Neo Kian Hong to replace Desmond Kuek as SMRT CEO

Former defence chief Neo Kian Hong to replace Desmond Kuek as SMRT CEO

SMRT chief Desmond Kuek is stepping down and making way for senior civil servant and former chief of defence force Neo Kian Hong, the company confirmed on Wednesday (Apr 18).

SINGAPORE: SMRT chief Desmond Kuek is stepping down and making way for senior civil servant and former chief of defence force Neo Kian Hong, the company confirmed on Wednesday (Apr 18).

The appointment will take effect on Aug 1.

Mr Kuek, 54, also a former chief of defence force, will bow out after five-and-a-half years at the helm of the beleaguered transport company.

“It has been my privilege to have served alongside a most professional and dedicated team in SMRT, and to have led the company through this critical period of organisational transformation and system renewal," he said in a press release.

"While we have been through challenging times, I firmly believe the company is well-placed for better journeys ahead, and I see this as a timely juncture to hand over to a new leadership team to take the company to its next level,” he added in the release.

In a letter to SMRT employees on Wednesday, Mr Kuek thanked the staff for a "most meaningful and memorable journey", adding that it has been his "honour" to lead the company through a "critical period of transformation and system renewal".

"I give full credit to each and every one of you," he said in his letter.

"We weathered many storms together; and I take responsibility as your CEO for all the times, whatever the cause or reason, that we fell along the way. Thank you for standing with me, and one another," he added.

GLOBAL SEARCH FOR SUCCESSOR

Mr Neo, who is also 54, succeeded Mr Kuek as the chief of defence force in 2010. After leaving the military in 2013, Mr Neo was appointed Permanent Secretary for Education Development at the Ministry of Education before joining the Defence Ministry last year.

He was also appointed a non-executive director of Singapore Technologies Engineering last June.

Currently the Permanent Secretary for Defence Development, Mr Neo will retire from the Administrative Service on Aug 1 with his appointment as SMRT CEO.

He said of his SMRT appointment: "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."

Mr Neo's appointment comes after a "global search" for a successor for Mr Kuek, said SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming.

He said the SMRT board was impressed with Mr Neo's appreciation of interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as his vision and experience in leveraging new technologies for public service. 

"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," Mr Seah said. 

"Kian Hong had also proven his operational leadership when he led the SAF contingent in East Timor."

HIGH-PROFILE TRAIN INCIDENTS

The announcement comes less than three months after rumours that Mr Kuek was due to step down, and a series of personnel changes at SMRT including the departure of former vice-president for corporate communications Patrick Nathan and the appointment of new executive officers for rail operations and maintenance.

In December last year, Mr Seah stepped down as CEO of Pavillion Energy to focus on his role with the transport operator.

The transport operator has suffered several setbacks recently, including a train collision at Joo Koon MRT station, and the flooding of a train tunnel near Bishan station last year.

However, SMRT said in its annual review that there were fewer train delays in 2017 and set ambitious targets for improving rail reliability amid ongoing works to refurbish its ageing infrastructure.

Mr Kuek became the president and group CEO of SMRT in October 2012 after the company came under fire for major train breakdowns in 2011.

He took the formerly listed company private in 2016 and oversaw the ongoing refurbishment of its ageing infrastructure.

During his tenure, more major disruptions shook public confidence in the transport operator but rail performance has improved, according to SMRT's 2017 annual review.

SMRT has set the target of achieving 1 million mean-kilometre between failure, a measure of rail reliability, by 2020.

Source: CNA/hm

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