MRT Disruption COI – A Theatrical Side Show?

The Straits Times reported today that, “SMRT has been fined the maximum $2 million over last December’s two major breakdowns.” It was also said that LTA had said, in a “tersely worded statement” to SMRT, that SMRT “had failed to exercise due diligence and vigilance expected of a public transport operator.” In the statement, LTA had also said that, “SMRT had not kept rail network in good working condition, and had “overall shortcomings” in its maintenance and monitoring regime.”

LTA had also said that, “its internal investigations found that both disruptions were preventable, and this was consistent with the findings of the Committee of Inquiry (COI).”

SMRT had responded to the penalty in a very stable way. It said that, “the ensuing investigations into the incidents have provided SMRT with valuable insights into enhancements needed in our previous maintenance regime which was regularly validated by LTA.

A week ago, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew had taken a significantly different tone in his speech to parliament. In the article in The Straits Times today, LTA had sounded “terse” and had placed itself on par with the COI, where “the authority (LTA) said its internal investigations found that both disruptions were preventable.” LTA positioned itself as the “authority” and also positioned its investigations as key, and supported by the COI. Yet, a week ago, Mr Lui had sounded ‘almost’ apologetic and had described how LTA had to “bear a share of responsibility” and had to look at how “LTA must re-look how it can better fulfil its duties” so that “the disruptions could have been prevented if adequate maintenance measures and checks had been carried out.”

A very different tone indeed. But why?

Speaking to Parliament last Tuesday, Mr Lui had said that his ministry and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) “must also bear a share of responsibility for last December’s train disruptions.”

Mr Lui had said that, “as the regulator, it is the responsibility of the LTA to hold transport operators accountable for delivering a reliable system to commuters,” and that even though “SMRT’s maintenance regime had shortcomings, but we too — both the Ministry of Transport, as the supervising Ministry, and LTA, as the regulator — have to shoulder our share of the responsibility.”

He added that, “”The government is responsible for delivering a quality public transport system to Singaporeans. We take this responsibility seriously, and will deliver.

Mr Lui admitted that, “We could have done more, and could have done better.

Mr Lui had also said that, “the COI had also concluded that the disruptions could have been prevented if adequate maintenance measures and checks had been carried out.” Mr Lui added that, “LTA must re-look how it can better fulfill its duties.”

Mr Lui had finally said that it is not the purpose of the COI to determine accountability and penalties to be imposed for the incidents and that LTA will announce the outcome of its investigation shortly, including penalties that SMRT will face.

Let’s do an exercise on consistency and reading between the lines:

  1. Mr Lui had apologized to parliament last week, or did he? During his speech, no “sorry” was uttered. Mr Lui had “admitted” to MOT’s and LTA’s responsibility, and duties, and then responsibilities (again), without a word of apology. Simply, Mr Lui reiterated that MOT and LTA has a responsibility. To begin with even before this incident, MOT and LTA have a responsibility, irregardless. Mr Lui had only reinforced this point in several different ways to parliament. Even if the speech to parliament might sound like an apology, it wasn’t. The aim of the speech, if I may, was to reinforce the idea that MOT and LTA are responsible as regulators, but not as the perpetrators of “wrongdoing”.
  2. Was Mr Lui’s heartfelt ‘admission of responsibility’ timed to occur before the announcement of the $2 million fine on SMRT? In the article in The Straits Times today, nowhere in the report was MOT’s and LTA’s responsibility mentioned in the report. The question is, was the two ‘announcements’ timed to occur separately so that LTA could early on admit to its ‘responsibilities (not apology)’ as a regulator, so that it can later on hand out a fine to SMRT, as the ‘regulatory’ body, without having to answer to how it would punish its own shortcomings, or lack of responsibility (as the regulator), so to speak?
  3. If Mr Lui had admitted that LTA “have to shoulder our share of responsibility”, then how much should LTA be fined? Why was SMRT fined but not LTA? In Singapore, offenders are either given a fine or a jail term. How should LTA be penalized for its “admission of responsibility”?
  4. Mr Lui had only mentioned that his ministry “take(s) this responsibility seriously, and will deliver.” No where in his speech to parliament did he speak about the penalty that LTA will face. Or does his ministry “take this responsibility seriously” to only penalise others but not itself, when there is a “shared responsibility”? If his ministry deems themselves fit to penalize another agency for ‘wrongdoing’, surely if they believe in penalties, this should be a blanket policy at MOT and all its agencies and contractors, and not just towards a particular agency i.e. SMRT? The question then, that some are asking, is SMRT a scapegoat, and if so, for what? Otherwise, if MOT and LTA would operate on an equal opportunity basis, why wasn’t there any penalty to be met onto LTA mentioned, but only a pledge to “deliver”. What does delivering entail?
  5. Mr Lui had said that, “Apart from the COI’s investigation, LTA and SMRT have also started their own separate internal investigations.” Thus far, we have heard from COI on their investigation, and barely from LTA on their report. During the ‘admission of responsibility’ to parliament, the COI investigations took centrestage, yet when the penalty was met out to SMRT, LTA’s investigations took centrestage Why? What Singaporeans are saying is that both LTA and SMRT has a responsibility in this incident. This was what Mr Lui had admitted in parliament last week but which is glaringly missing in today’s report.
  6. We have yet to hear from SMRT on their report. I would like to know when LTA’s and SMRT’s reports will be available. Then again, why are there multiple investigations when the COI is already made up of many qualified individuals, which would have solicit input from both LTA and SMRT in its investigations? What was the government trying to show?

The questions we have to ask are these:

  1. What penalty will be met to LTA for its ‘admission to responsibility’? If LTA wants to penalize SMRT for SMRT’s wrongdoings, then LTA (or its parent body MOT) would need to look similarly at how it will penalize itself, or answer to Singaporeans for the reduced responsibility in this incident.
  2. Understandably, LTA wants to maintain its role as the regulatory body, and continue to hold itself in high esteem, and thus the positioning and timing of the news reports. But by doing so, LTA has also at the same time seemed to have tried to wipe clean its ‘admission of responsibility’. Again, how will LTA take responsibility?

A mistake is a mistake. If you make a mistake, say you are sorry and we can move on.

One is tempted to ask if the whole management of the incident has become a theatrical side show of sorts, put up by the government, to reduce the damage of its perceived credibility. But why, when a simple sorry would suffice?

You mean it took us 6 months for us to get here when MOT and/or LTA would have easily identified what the main issues were then – this being their core job – and acted on them immediately to mitigate these issues?

The most elaborate plot in this performance was the ouster of then-CEO Saw Phaik Hwa, and that was perhaps the climax of the show – every story needs a sacrifice.

The government is obviously very worried about its image at this point. But why? If you do things right, Singaporeans will understand and appreciate it, even if there are flaws in it. Why is there a need to put up a side show? One is tempted to ask what are we trying to hide? An inability to do the job? I won’t go as far as to say that. But a refusal? Is that it? A refusal to do what is right?

One wonders if Mr Lui’s ‘admission of responsibility’ was only an echo of PM Lee’s apology, when Mr Lee had said that, “I’m sorry, but we will try and do better the next time.” But even so, what changed? One admission of apology during the elections, and then no more. Well, at least Mr Lee made an apology – one that sounded like one and was one.

Finally, what is most revealing is in SMRT’s reply, in how it felt like a betrayed partner, where the spokesperson had said, how its “previous maintenance regime… was regularly validated by LTA.What SMRT is really saying is this – you knew what the hell was going on. Why the hell did you leave us hanging high and dry?

Is this how a government treats its people?

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