An SMRT train leaves a station in Singapore. (Reuters Photo/Edgar Su)

Minor Train Disruption Rattles Singapore's Reputation for Glitch-Free Services


NOVEMBER 10, 2017

Singapore. Singapore is grappling with a controversy that refuses to go away, a month after rainwater flooded a tunnel of its mass rapid transit (MRT) service, leading to the partial suspension of train runs at weekends.

A rare public apology by top transit executives and an assurance from the government that the cause was clear and the fix not complicated have done little to appease the public that has come to expect glitch-free efficiency.

The front page of the state-owned Straits Times newspaper this week featured a photo of grim-faced top transit executives in the gallery of parliament as the transport minister said they had to do better and could face pay cuts.

"The facts of the 7 October incident are not complicated, and the cause of the incident is clear," Minister Khaw Boon Wan said, adding that poor maintenance and neglect of duties by transit managers were to blame.

"It is the responsibility of management to set the right culture of professionalism and excellence. It begins from the top. And if there is poor culture, the CEO is responsible."

The scrutiny of the disruption, which in most cities would be considered minor and barely newsworthy, reflected the pressure on the government to explain how it had failed to deliver a near-perfect public service.

Singapore residents are highly dependent on public transport. It is one of the world's most expensive places to own a vehicle and it recently announced that it will not allow any growth in its car population from February.

Voter discontent with public services can be particularly alarming to the ruling party which saw its worst election showing in 2011 when 40 percent of voters went against it, partly in dismay over the growing strains on public transport.

The People's Action Party has ruled Singapore, one of the richest and most stable countries in the world, without interruption since independence in 1965.

Transit operator SMRT chief Desmond Kuek was quoted in an email to staff as saying this week should have been a celebration marking the 30-year anniversary of the subway operations.

"Instead, we were awash in collective shame because a few of our staff had let us down," Kuek said in the email, according to the Straits Times.