Don’t shame staff, keep morale high: PAP MPs respond to MRT tunnel flooding saga

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SINGAPORE: The morale of SMRT staff, the transport operator’s compensation and penalty practices, and its working culture were thrown into the spotlight in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 7) as Members of Parliament sought to understand the underlying problems behind a flood in the North-South Line tunnel last month.

More than 10 Members of Parliament raised points about what is being done to maintain morale among staff, whether those who work hard to keep the trains running are rewarded for their efforts, and questioned a “shaming and blaming” culture.

They were responding to a ministerial statement by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan on the flooding that disabled the North-South Line for more than 20 hours on Oct 7.

Mr Khaw spoke at length about the incident, which affected more than a quarter of a million commuters. He said the flooding, which happened when water got into a section of the tunnel from Bishan to Braddell MRT stations during a heavy downpour, was preventable.

Based on SMRT’s findings, “it appears that the Bishan flood protection system had not been maintained for many months”, said Mr Khaw, adding that maintenance records that were signed off on and submitted may have been falsified, as there were no corresponding logs for track access and pump activation needed for maintenance.

SMRT had earlier announced disciplinary action against six staff along with an inquiry into another seven at managerial level.

NEED TO KEEP STAFF MORALE HIGH EVEN IN MIDST OF AUDITS AND INVESTIGATIONS

MP for Nee Soon GRC Lee Bee Wah was among those who raised the issue of staff morale.

MP Lee Bee Wah in Parliament on Nov 7.

“We are quite worried about the morale of the existing staff. Because once you have (an) audit, you are trying to investigate, the morale of the staff will be affected,” she said. She asked if the MOT or SMRT is looking into how pride in their jobs can be instilled in staff.

She also asked how those who work hard will be rewarded, given that there has been talk about punishment and taking away bonuses. Touching on the same point, MP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Christopher de Souza said that where milestones are met by workers “slogging it out, working their guts out in the tunnels”, they should be rewarded financially.

“Every 500 hours without injury is a milestone. Every 10,000 kilometres without a breakdown is a milestone. Recognise it within the corporation,” he said. He also suggested that the remuneration of SMRT management should be pegged to the company’s reliability.

Mr de Souza also questioned the maintenance lapse by SMRT, given that it is a “line monopolist, and should be able to focus corporate energy on operational reliability.” Hence, he suggested that the fine model for regulating rail transport operators be revamped.

MP Christopher de Souza in Parliament on Nov 7.

POSITIVE CULTURE IMPORTANT TO RETAIN GOOD STAFF

MP for Jalan Besar GRC Denise Phua said that there is a need to balance the need for accountability versus the perceived intolerance for mistakes and even blaming, should things go wrong.

“That could lead to a lot of fear in the workplace and in fact makes the culture even more negative,” she said. Touching on the same point, MP for Jurong GRC Tan Wu Meng said it is very important that staff always feel comfortable highlighting problems to higher management, especially if the problem cannot be solved at their own level.

“It is important that management continues to want to know what the problems are, to try and fix them, rather than engage in a culture of shaming and blaming, which we know doesn’t work in aviation and healthcare,” he said.

He suggested that the technology used to improve audit of corporate finance should be used to help the Human Resources team, and help workers look for blind spots in their work processes.

MP for Tanjong Pagar GRC Melvin Yong, who was speaking as the executive secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Union, expressed his hope that rail workers, and maintenance workers in particular, will continue to be supported by the Government.

“They work in a challenging environment and under very tight time constraints, about three hours every night is the amount of time that they have, he said.

KHAW ACKNOWLEDGES CHALLENGES

In responding to MPs’ points, Mr Khaw agreed that staff morale is crucial. Describing the process as a “multi-year war”, he noted that there will inevitably be disappointments, defeats and some losses. “If each time something disappointing happens, and everybody is onto the troop or general, or calling for a switch of the general, this is a sure strategy for failure,” he said.

Mr Khaw also spoke about SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek, noting that he has been working very hard to change the work culture in SMRT.

He also shared a “little secret” about him: that Mr Kuek had volunteered for the job as SMRT CEO. “He wasn’t parachuted in or was asked to go fix this,” he said. “As the former chief of defence force, I know his heart is in the right place.”

SMRT chief executive in Parliament townhouse on Nov 7. 

“He is proud to be a Singaporean, and we all felt ashamed by this: every now and then, disruptions in SMRT. We really feel embarrassed, for a long time.”

Mr Khaw also called on Members of Parliament to help influence their residents’ feedback. “Particularly for those with residents living in the North … how they can respond to each disruption, and the more you can explain the difficulty of the re-signalling, the more you can explain to them that the better days are really coming,” he said.

In response to a question on track design and building up the system’s resilience, he drew comparison between Singapore’s system and those in London and New York.

The two cities catered for many side tracks so trains can be moved to other tracks, enabling the lines to run for 24 hours, he said, adding that that is how a well-designed network ought to be. He said Singapore does not have that luxury because “we just don’t have the land”.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan in Parliament on Nov 7.

Giving context to the time the most heavily-used lines were built, he said that 30 years ago, the Government was “short of cash”, and took a long time to think about whether the lines should be built.

“That’s why when the Land Transport Authority designed the North-South, East-West Lines, we really stinged,” he said. There was only one depot in Bishan servicing the two lines, when such lines would have needed three to four depots, he said. It would be hard to retrofit the lines now, he added.

A 30-YEAR-OLD TRAIN SYSTEM IS “VERY CHALLENGING”: KHAW

In his round-up speech, Mr Khaw pointed out that a 30-year-old train system is a “very challenging” one, and asked commuters to bear with them. Recounting a conversation he had with Hong Kong’s train operator, Mr Khaw noted that as some of their lines will soon reach 30 years, they are looking at Singapore’s experience very carefully.

“Because they know,” he said.

“If you don’t need to worry about the bottom line, then it’s straightforward. Let’s change everything at 20 years,” he added. “But great cost. The Japanese do that, and as a result, very high cost. Are our commuters ready for that?

“These were some of the trade-offs we have to make, and we made it on behalf of Singaporeans,” he said. “With the revenue that we can collect from the people and the limited subsidy we get from the Government, we try to run a show as good as we can.”

In concluding his speech, Mr Khaw said that he “genuinely believes” that significant improvements have been made.

He said: “We do our best. And within the revenue that we can collect from the people, and with the limited subsidy we get from the Government, from the taxpayers, we try to run a show as good as we can.”

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