As news of SMRT Corporation’s CEO Saw Phaik Hwa’s resignation filtered through social networking sites and major socio-political websites last Friday, there were jubilant cheers of celebration, and unbridled proclamations of victory. It was a strangely good feeling: with the unfortunate bogeyman out of the way, it felt as if we – as Singaporeans and commuters – could close the present chapter, and progressively move on.
I thought The Straits Times did a relatively fair coverage of Miss Saw’s resignation, with one of its headlines succinctly encapsulating the beleaguered CEO’s nine eventful years at the helm: “a hit with investors, but not with commuters”. It had become painfully apparent that while Mrs. Saw had the Midas touch when it came to boosting the company’s finances, she possessed a pedantic lack of awareness of pent-up, on-the-ground commuter frustrations. Her public relations skills were simply lamentable.
MP Lim Biow Chuan: The Public Wants “A Pound Of Flesh”
My interest, however, was piqued by an intriguing side comment made by Mountbatten Member of Parliament Mr. Lim Biow Chuan (right): “It would be a bit sad if she resigned because of Internet comments. For the public to say the top must resign for every single fault, I’m not comfortable with that. I wouldn’t say that is public accountability – it’s wanting a pound of flesh”.
I respectfully disagree with his perspectives on three counts.
First, it is naïve to reckon that Internet comments per se were sole determinants for Miss Saw’s voluntary departure; instead, her decision and the assorted opinions expounded online were the results of glaring incompetence across the board. The three major disruptions in December are not the only considerations; there were serious security breaches in train depots between 2010 and 2011, chronic overcrowding and lethargy in dealing with peak-hour traffic, as well as poor associated contingency plans.
Second, the public is certainly not contending that “the top must resign for every single fault”; this point of view is myopic and unconstructive. Miss Saw had failed on two counts: as the company’s linchpin, she displayed poor leadership abilities, and lacked public sensitivity. The service provider’s responses to breakdowns were disorganised, messy and woefully reactive; whereas Miss Saw’s responses to media queries reflected a disturbing lack of cognisance of day-to-day inconveniences passengers struggle with.
Third, why is such a resignation not considered to be public accountability? As the head of a public transportation operator, strong moral authority is imperative; Miss Saw’s resignation would not effect immediate technical or mechanical changes, but it generates impetus for improvements, and provides a blank slate for future enhancements.
Strengthening Regulation Of Public Transportation
As I contended last week, “Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew’s assertion that the current regulatory framework is a ‘robust’ one is, naturally, perceived to be farcical and detached from day-to-day realities” (here). It is important to recognise that the LTA and PTC are equally culpable, and should be taken to task for their lapses and oversights.
Minister Lui will be making a Ministerial Statement today, during the year’s first sitting of Parliament, on the December disruptions as well as the corresponding work of the Committee of Inquiry. It would be fascinating to see what transpires, but Miss Saw’s resignation – I believe – provides an excellent start (again) for all Singaporeans.