The public scolding that Singapore’s public transport tsars handed down this week to a handful of rail maintenance workers over a large-scale breakdown is raising questions about where the buck stops in the management of the Lion City’s metro network, as rival Asian metropolises like Hong Kong and Taiwan pull ahead with superior train reliability.

In a rare move, transport minister Khaw Boon Wan on Monday criticised workers in charge of anti-flood measures at the metro operator SMRT Corp, after an October 7 flood in a underground tunnel near the suburban Bishan station caused a near 20-hour disruption to parts of the rail network. It was one of Singapore’s worst ever rail breakdowns.

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A mechanism designed to remove stormwater from the tunnel failed to work because it was poorly maintained.

Khaw said the maintenance team had “failed us”, and urged the metro operator to “nail down who [is] responsible”.

“I look to SMRT to do what is right … something must happen to the staff,” Khaw said.

Khaw’s comments were accompanied by a rebuke by SMRT’s chairman Seah Moon Ming, who said the team members’ bonuses would be affected and that the leader of the maintenance team had been removed.

While Khaw, Seah and the SMRT Chief Executive Desmond Kuek apologised, commuters and observers said their implications that rank-and-file workers bore responsibility raised questions on whether a lack of executive accountability was behind the metro network’s woes.

Singapore’s MRT network, once touted as one of Asia’s best, has been dogged by major breakdowns and delays in recent years. A high-level inquiry convened after two massive breakdowns in December 2011 found the system had been plagued by years of poor maintenance and outdated equipment.

The breakdowns, which occurred on two separate occasions, affected 221,000 commuters. SMRT was later fined Sg$2 million (HK$11.5 million) for the disruptions.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government has since spent hundreds of millions of dollars overhauling the network – in service since 1987 – but it continues to lag Hong Kong’s MTR and the Taipei MRT in reliability.

Singapore’s heavy rail network spans 198.6km, compared to 230.9km in Hong Kong and 131.1km in Taipei. It handles over two million passengers a day, compared with 4.89 million in Hong Kong and 2.1 million in Taipei.

Last year, trains in Singapore travelled an average 174,000km before encountering delays of more than five minutes, compared to around 360,000km in Hong Kong, and around 800,000 in Taipei – seen as the global gold standard.

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Political commentator Eugene Tan said while there had been public pressure on Khaw to “crack the whip” on the MRT, “there was a sense of unfairness that the buck did not stop with the management but that the maintenance team had to take the flak”.

“Perception of the ‘passing of the buck’ did not sit well – it was like the maintenance team was thrown under the train by their own management,” Tan said.

Samuel Ng, who commutes to work on the MRT, said Khaw and SMRT officials were wrong in thinking average Singaporeans wanted to see heads roll.

“I think most people are just tired of all this … You don’t know when you will be stuck in the train for two hours. Give us a firm deadline. By when will you fix all the maintenance issues? When can we go back to pre-2011 standards?”, said the accounts executive at the downtown Tanjong Pagar station. 

SMRT, one of the Lion City’s two metro operators, was bought by state investment arm Temasek last year. The move saw it delisted from the Singapore Exchange and was supposed to make it easier for the company to focus on reliability.

Lee Der-Horng, a transport researcher at the National University of Singapore, said while public frustration was understandable, the improvements SMRT had made since 2011 should be acknowledged.

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A four-year effort to replace 188,000 timber sleepers with concrete versions on two of the oldest and most disruption-prone lines – the North-South and East-West lines – concluded last year.

Overhauls of the lines’ third rails, which supply trains with power, concluded in September.

A new signalling system is also on trial. It has caused several low-key delays since trials began in March. Other overhauls, including new trains and the replacement of power supply systems, are to be completed by 2024.
“Overall ... the efforts by the operators to improve reliability is quite evident,” Lee said. “The operators have responded to the wake up call of 2011, when they realised they were not up to the standards of Hong Kong and Taipei,” he added.

Walter Theseira, a Singapore-based transport economist, said the “statistics speak for themselves” in showing a “clear improvement in reliability as measured by mean kilometres between incidents”.

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One issue that gnawed at observers was chief executive Kuek’s comments on Monday that part of the operator’s troubles since 2011 had to do with “some deep-seated cultural issues”.

However, Kuek, a former military general who took the helm in 2012, said he took “full responsibility for all that has happened under my watch”.

Lee, the NUS researcher, said: “He has been CEO now for more than five years. If he can’t change the mindset of the company, then who else can?”

Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University, said there was a “perception that he should shoulder the lion’s share of blame. It came across as being too convenient to blame the culture and maintenance team”.

Online, some commentators took aim at Kuek’s military background, casting doubt on whether his experience as chief of the defence force – the country’s top military position – was relevant.

Some also questioned Kuek’s recruitment of other military men.
“Singaporeans have their doubts that the top military brass can lead as well in Singapore Inc,” Tan said, referring to government linked companies like SMRT.

“High expectations have been made of these former military brass and so when these are not met, there is that blowback naturally.”

Ng, the commuter, said he would give Kuek the benefit of doubt. “Action speaks louder than words … you deliver the results, and the criticism will go away.”