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Falsification of MRT Maintenance Records: Where does the Buck Stop?


RONALD LEE: “In the good old days…” you know this now infamous quote by Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan ends with “hara kiri” lah.

So while SMRT and the LTA is willing to throw the maintenance team under the bus (or the train, for good measure) for falsifying maintenance records, where does the buck stop?

Purely with ground staff?

Because there’s an economic adage that the “rot begins at the top”.

The Timeline

October 7 – flooding in the Bishan MRT station tunnel saw critical parts of the North-South Line brought to a standstill for 21 hours. A faulty pump was blamed for the flood and investigations showed a lack of maintenance led to the problem

October 12 – SMRT re-deploys its vice-president for maintenance, Ng Tek Poo. “Re-deploy” aka “transfer somewhere else”, not “kana sacked”.

October 16 – Transport Minister Khaw and SMRT chairman Desmond Kuek apologise for the flood and blamed maintenance. Mr Khaw said plans had been made to replace the pumps, but they were “late by a few days” because there was no “time slot” available to do the replacement works.

Oct 31 – SMRT reveals that pump maintenance staff at Bishan depot had been falsifying records for a year stating that maintenance work had been performed. But a check showed that there was no track access granted to the maintenance staff on the dates they had indicated, and records show the pumps were not activated on those dates, so they couldn’t have performed the work.

The Big, Glaring Problems

Transport Minister Khaw, commenting on the lateness to fix the pump issue in his apology, said “this is life”.

But it’s precisely such lapses that put lives at stakes, or more specifically, the lives of those who make-up the rail system’s 15,000 passenger trips per day, and 2.9 million riders a year as of 2016.

Was the whole no “time slot” available for replacement works a lie sold to Transport Minister Khaw to cover-up the false records until such time those records could be “fixed”?

For one year, the maintenance team at Bishan didn’t do the required 3 quarterly checks on the pumps, but somehow someone signed off on it saying that they had done so.

And none of SMRT’s audit teams found any issue with the false records until tragedy.

It might seem like a slippery slope argument, but as a commuter, wouldn’t you be concerned with gross negligence across other areas of MRT maintenance that has gone unnoticed?

This lapse discovered was only for Bishan depot, mind you.

Especially, in the light of all sorts of reasons given for train disruptions, such as melted rubber on the tracks and even a damn balloon, and an admission that MRT station staff aren’t equipped to handle emergencies.

What the hell has become of our train system that was once the envy of Asia?

Where does the Buck Stop?

SMRT chairman Seah Moon Ming is an engineering man – he was deputy CEO of Singapore Technologies Engineering from 2004 to 2013 and before that held appointments of general manager of CET Technologies and managing director of Singapore Technologies Electronics.

He has called himself the “new” board chairman, which is fair enough since he only came in in July this year.

But how about the others in senior management?

SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek, a former Chief of Defence Force with no experience in the private sector, has had a 5-year run now, and he blames “cultural issues” and “human error” for what turned out to be falsification of maintenance records.

He likely wouldn’t last 5 years at the helm of a private sector firm at this rate.

And how long more before the government decides to end its cosy, non-adversarial relationship with SMRT?

It bails them out when problems arise, buys over rail assets when SMRT cope, and gives the private firm a slap on the wrist when mistakes are made.

But such a relationship has proved inadequate in fixing rail problems time and time again.

Let’s give some credit to Mr Khaw – having taking on the Transport Minister portfolio in 2015, he’s been trying to fix all sorts of problems with the system.

A certain Rear-Admiral and former Transport Minister, Lui Tuck Yew, simply said “sayonara” and jumped ship when the going got tough.



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