June 26, 2017

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by Daniel Yap

UBER and Grab are going to ruin commuting for Singapore, says The Straits Times. I have to wonder who put that idea in its head. The paper points to the astronomical growth of market share, the growth across vertical businesses, and the desire to “make money” (oh, please) as reasons why commuters may be “taken for a ride”.

But wait, why do these things make one cry foul? Why warn of a dire future? All’s fair in love and war and business. If there’s a legal and ethical way to upset the status quo then, incumbent or newcomer, it is there for anyone to exploit.

Taxi companies – outmoded, complacent, inflexible – failed to capitalize. Someone else did. Uber began in the United States in 2010, and came to Singapore in 2013. Three years is plenty of time to realise that the taxi industry is being shaken up worldwide. Yet the incumbents did nothing.

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Where previously fleet size was the ultimate proxy for market share, it is now no longer as big a factor as it once was. The new measure of “who is the biggest” is efficiency – efficiency that attracts customers, drivers, and investors.

We, the customers, feel served, so we patronise. We, the drivers, feel adequately rewarded, so we keep driving.

Perhaps it is a familiar struggle for the print news industry – new technology redefines the hows and whens of a business, incumbents struggle to adapt, and new powers come to the fore. There is plenty of empathy, even from me. But empathy is not a defence for a poor argument.

Grab’s profits (although it currently appears to have none) would be taxed in Singapore. Temasek is a major investor. Why should we be afraid that it is a Malaysian company? And it is not even unusual that foreign companies that repatriate profits are welcomed to Singapore with open arms and set up multi-billion-dollar operations here with special concessions.

Singapore is an open, globally-connected economy. Perhaps we should ask why our large, local companies do not innovate, and do not then export that innovation abroad to repatriate profits. Instead many of our local companies sit at home, comfortable on a cushion of profits and market dominance that holds them back from innovation. Until it is too late and the rug is pulled.

And perhaps the day will come when Uber and Grab become the new incumbents like Comfort and SMRT, and lose sight of making customers or drivers happy, and focus too much on making investors happy. But I am confident that even if that day should come, and fares go up unnecessarily, and customers are not well-served, that day another company will come up and pull the rug from under their feet. Grab and Uber are proof of that.

 

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by Lee Chin Wee 

BUCKLE in, because public transport fares are likely to rise. Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan hinted as much during his Ministry’s Committee of Supply debates last week (Mar 8). Addressing Parliament, he said that the Public Transport Council (PTC) was reviewing the current fare formula, which is due to expire later this year.

In December last year, the PTC had revised fares downward due to lower energy prices. However, Mr Khaw noted that “the PTC cannot always bring good news, sometimes they have to adjust fares upwards. And when they do, I hope commuters will be understanding.”

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Many Singaporeans, especially those in lower income brackets, will soon be feeling the pinch. A month ago, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced a 30 per cent hike in water prices – the first time water prices have risen in 17 years. It also comes on the heels of increased Service & Conservancy charges in 15 PAP-managed town councils, and higher parking charges at public car parks across the island.

Of course, every fee increase must be evaluated based on its own merits. It is not enough to say that the cost of living has gone up – in the case of public transport fares, any increase should be measured against real wage growth in Singapore and the trend pattern of public transport operating costs.

 

Is it expensive to keep trains and buses running?

To obtain a better understanding of public transport operating costs, we studied SMRT’s annual reports from FY2011 – 2016 as a case study.  Of particular interest were the rail/light rail and bus businesses. We isolated the annual figures for operating revenue and operating profit in these areas.

 

 

Operating profit for core public transport services is not high; in fact, it is a negligible portion of SMRT’s overall profit. In 2016, SMRT recorded an operating profit of $138.5 million. Out of this sum, only $13.3 million was from the rail/light rail and bus businesses – barely 9.6 per cent of total profits. The other 90.4 per cent can be attributed to SMRT’s other business interests, such as advertising and property rental. For instance, SMRT owns Kallang Wave Mall.

Not only is operating profit already low, it is decreasing due to operating costs rising at a marginally faster rate than operating revenue. Why might this be the case? Because in recent years, SMRT has been investing in renewal works for key infrastructure, and the acquisition of operating assets. For instance, from August 2013 to December 2016, 188,000 timber sleepers were replaced with more durable concrete sleepers. To prevent further power faults, SMRT is also replacing the third rail system which supplies electricity to trains. The cost of financing these projects is not directly passed on to the consumer, as fare prices are set by the PTC.

 

Can Singaporeans afford a fare hike?

When fares rise, consumers end up shouldering more of the operating costs. The key question is, can Singaporeans afford it? In comparison to other countries, our public transport fares are very affordable. A 2016 study by UniSIM showed that, for a 10km train ride, Singapore’s train fare was the sixth lowest out of 35 major world cities. It costs a commuter SGD$1.33 to travel 10km on train, whereas the global average (after Purchasing Power Parity adjustment) is around SGD$2.30.

Tracking real wage growth against changes in public transport fares, it also appears that public transport fares are reasonable. Since 2011, real wage growth has broadly kept pace or surpassed increases in fares. This, however, does not account for the period of 2012 – 2013, where fare changes were temporarily suspended as the PTC reviewed its pricing structure.

 

 

Should public transport fares be going up?

Someone’s got to pay for the cost of running our trains and buses. When SMRT was still a publicly listed company, there were three parties who could do this: (1) the consumer of public transport, who pays through fares; (2) the G, who pays through taxpayer monies; and (3) the retail investor, who buys SMRT stock. Since SMRT was acquired by Temasek Holdings, we are now left with options (1) and (2).

Clearly, consumers of public transport are also taxpayers. But not all taxpayers are consumers of public transport. Hence, when the G subsidises operating costs, people who are under-consuming public transport will be cross-subsidising those who use public transport frequently. Some view this as good, because those who under-consume public transport tend to be rich anyway, and their taxpayer dollars should be used to make sure others can have cheap MRT rides. Others view this as bad, because people should contribute based on how much of a service they consume.

Another point of view is that SMRT and other transport operators should use their profits from more profitable business sectors to cross-subsidise rail and bus services. The argument here is that instead of raising fares, transport operators should be willing to take losses on its core business (that is effectively a public service) in exchange for making large profits on advertising, overseas consulting, and retail business. However, there is a limitation to this model – transport operators only have secondary interests in these other business areas, and cannot sustain such an internal cross-subsidy if operating costs continue to mount.

Regardless of what one believes, everyone would agree that high operating costs for public transport are unavoidable if we want to ensure our trains and buses become more reliable and less fault-prone. And even if public transport fares were held steady, taxpayers would still feel the pinch – either directly in the form of higher taxes, or indirectly as money that would otherwise have gone to other G services is now used to subsidise public transport.

Come this April, though, when the PTC convenes to announce changes to fares, I’ll still be hoping that my daily MRT rides get cheaper. One can dream, right?

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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by Lee Chin Wee

ON TUESDAY (Feb 28), SMRT Trains was fined a record $400,000 for breaches in safety protocol that resulted in the deaths of two employees on Mar 22 last year. The company pleaded guilty to one charge under the Workplace Safety and Health Act (WSHA) for failing to ensure the safety and health of its employees.

Trainees Mr Nasrulhudin Majumudin, 26, and Mr Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, were on the train tracks between Tampines and Pasir Ris MRT stations when they were hit and killed by an oncoming train. SMRT later admitted that maintenance staff had not followed established safety procedures: non-safety-compliant track access had become a habit in the company.

Critics have pointed out that the record-setting $400,000 fine is chump change for a company that posted an FY2016 net profit of $109.3 million. So how does the court’s ruling on SMRT’s breach of the WSHA compare to past charges of fatal workplace safety and health breaches?

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Nicoll Highway collapse

  • On 20 April 2004, the temporary retaining wall system supporting the excavation of a Circle Line MRT tunnel adjacent to the Nicoll Highway gave way. The resulting collapse caused a 100m section of Nicoll Highway to cave in, killing crane operator Mr Vadivil Nadeson, 44, construction worker Mr Liu Rong Quan, 37, inspector of works Mr Tan Lock Yong, 56, and construction supervisor Mr Heng Yeow Pheow, 40.
    ..
  • Nishimatsu Construction Company, the main contractor on the worksite, was handed the maximum fine of $200,000 after pleading guilty to one charge under the Factories Act. It admitted that its design errors had resulted in a retaining wall at the worksite being too weak.
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  • Four individuals were also charged under the Factories Act. Mr Paul Broome, an engineer with Nishimatsu, was fined $160,000 for failing to ensure the worksite was soundly constructed and properly maintained. Design manager Kazuo Shimada and project director Shun Sugawara were fined $160,000 and $120,000 respectively. Former Land Transport Authority project director Ng Seng Yoong was fined $8,000 for failing to exercise due diligence in monitoring excavation works and assessing readings of instruments that monitored the work.
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Changes to legislation on workplace safety

The Factories Act was in effect at the time of the Nicoll Highway collapse. Under the Act:

  • In relation to a contravention which results in the death of 2 or more persons, the person guilty of an offence shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $200,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or to both.

On 1 Mar 2006, the Factories Act was replaced by the Workplace Safety and Health Act, which imposed harsher penalties on errant employers for workplace safety and health breaches:

  • For an individual offender, the maximum fine for a first conviction is $200,000; and is $400,000 for a repeat offence. Maximum imprisonment of 2 years (can be either a fine or imprisonment, or both).
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  • For a corporate offender, the maximum fine for a first conviction is $500,000; and is $1 million for a repeat offence.

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Two deaths at Fusionopolis Way, Buona Vista

  • On 22 Jan 2014, GS Engineering and Construction Corporation employees Mr Rajib Md Abdul Hannan, 24, and Mr Ratan Roy Abinash Roy, 28, fell to the ground while loading an 800kg air compressor onto an unsecured platform at the construction of two towers at Fusionopolis Way in Buona Vista.
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  • The two Bangladeshi men died of multiple injuries. They were ordered to perform the task despite concerns that it was dangerous to do so since the loading platform was not secured to a building structure.
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  • GS Engineering and Construction Corporation was initially fined $150,000, but this was increased to $250,000 on appeal by prosecutors. The appeal was the first ever for an offence under the WSHA.
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Severe workplace safety and health breaches abroad

  • On 5 Oct 1999, a Thames Trains carriage passed through red signal at Ladbroke Grove and into the path of the oncoming Paddington-bound First Great Western (later owned by Network Rail) express. Both drivers were killed, as well as 29 passengers, and 400 others were injured.
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  • It transpired that the same red signal (SN109) had been passed eight times in the previous six years, with no action being taken. Thames Trains was fined £2 million in 2004. In 2007, Network Rail was fined £4 million for health and safety breaches.
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  • On 24 Aug 2011, Olive McFarland, 82, was struck while using the Gipsy Lane footpath crossing by a Network Rail inter-city train travelling at 100mph from London to Norwich.
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  • Investigations found Network Rail had failed to act on substantial evidence that pedestrians had poor visibility of trains when approaching Gipsy Lane footpath crossing, and were exposed to an increased risk of being struck by a train. Network Rail was fined £4 million for breaches of health and safety law.
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  • On 22 Feb 2014, 18-year-old Australian Mitchell Callaghan tried to board a city-bound train at Heyington station in Toorak, on the Glen Waverley line. As the train departed, Mr Callaghan fell through the gap between the train and the platform and died as a result of his injuries.
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  • Metro Trains Melbourne has been charged with two breaches of the Rail Safety Act (2006). Each charge carries a maximum fine of almost AU$1.4 million. The case is currently being heard in court.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Morning Call, 0830, clock

SINGAPORE’S trains travelled 30 per cent further before breaking down in 2016 compared to 2015, but still fell short of the interim target, set by LTA, of an average of 200,000 km before a delay.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan had called for trains to operate for an average of 400,000 km before a delay, by 2018.

ST’s page nine report was nearly all praise for the 30 per cent increase, and made no mention that the interim target had been missed. Its online story also neglected to mention that major breakdowns of more than 30 minutes rose again to 16 in 2016, even as minor breakdowns decreased.

TODAY had a better report on the issue, highlighting the mixed bag of results and getting analysts to weigh in on issues like ageing infrastructure.

“It gives me a small measure of confidence that if we are able to inject more consistency and sustainability into our efforts, the target of 400,000 train-km by 2018 is well within reach,” said Mr Pang Kin Keong, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Transport, when delivering the report.

Erm, yes, we suppose rail reliability will improve when efforts are more consistent. The question is: How to get efforts more consistent?

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The front page story on ST was about eight Indonesians who had been deported because one of them had photos of a shoe bomb and ISIS fighters on his phone. They were turned back trying to come in from the Woodlands Checkpoint, and were questioned by Malaysian authorities before being sent back to Indonesia, where they are being investigated by the Indonesian counter-terrorist unit Densus 88.

The fellow with the photos, one Ridce Elfi Hendra (TODAY has the name, but not ST), said that he got them from a WhatsApp group which he has since left, but he had neglected to delete the photos.

Preliminary investigations by Malaysian authorities found that the group, who were on a Muslim preaching itinerary through Thailand and Malaysia, held largely moderate views that rejected ISIS ideology.

It wasn’t clear why authorities decided to inspect the group’s mobile phones.

 

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Black clock showing 8.30

YOU better watch what you say about the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), because it won’t just sit back and take it.

After being criticised by arts group Arts Engage for “moral policing”, the G stat board yesterday (Dec 1) issued a statement saying its decision to censor two of the group’s shows slated for next year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival was completely justified.

“Disallowing these scenes can hardly be considered retrograde moral policing; it is an objective application of existing guidelines,” said an IMDA spokesman.

The scenes in question are from two shows: Naked Ladies and Undressing Room. In Naked Ladies, one scene involves a performer inserting her finger into her vagina and then into her mouth.

In Undressing Room, a performer and audience-participant undress and touch each other.

The statement from IMDA follows an open letter from Arts Engage published on Wednesday, which called the stat board’s decision an “unmerited and retrograde step”. The board had rejected the group’s application for an R18 rating – meaning, both works would have to be changed and resubmitted for classification.

“If anyone thinks Naked Ladies and Undressing Room are not to their taste, they do not have to watch the shows,” said the arts group.

Arts Engage’s members include the founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage Alvin Tan, and the co-founder and director of the Intercultural Theatre Institute Thirunalan Sasitharan, among other arts practitioners.

Meanwhile, also in the spotlight are SMRT, one of its directors, and a former engineer, who were all charged yesterday for their involvement in the fatal accident in March that killed two young trainees.

It seems they might not be the only ones to be charged – the Attorney-General’s Chambers said investigations are still ongoing to determine if other people should be held responsible for the incident. Read our story here.

And in an unusual twist of courtroom drama, the Sheng Siong kidnapper yesterday appeared before a judge and asked to be put to death for his crime.

Lee Sze Yong, 44, who kidnapped the elderly mother of the man behind the supermarket chain in 2014, told Justice Chan Seng Onn that he did not deserve life. “I had ruined my life. By dying, I hope that I have repaid my debt and to be at peace,” he said in a letter to the court.

The judge, however, denied his application and sentenced him to life imprisonment and three strokes of the cane.

Speaking about denials, still no official word from Hong Kong customs over why the nine Terrex armoured vehicles were seized last Wednesday. This, despite a seven-hour meeting held yesterday between customs officials and shipping firm APL that started at 10:30am.

 

 

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You can read our stories about the diplomatic impasse here:

Terrex APC seizure: What do we think? How do we react?

Return our… SAF vehicles!

Return our… SAF trucks! Part 2

Toy Story: The return of the SAF trucks

Terrex APC seizure: Hold your fire

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by Wan Ting Koh

WHEN the train captain and assistant engineer were fired, netizens complained that they were merely the fall guys for SMRT’s top management.

Well, now one of SMRT’s top men is being charged – along with the sacked engineer and the train operator itself.

Eight months have passed since two SMRT employees were killed in an accident on the Pasir Ris train tracks in March this year, and finally, some action is being taken in the courts.

Rail operator SMRT and two of its employees were charged this morning over the accident. The two employees are SMRT’s director of control operations Teo Wee Kiat; and Lim Say Heng, the engineer who was also the officer-in-charge of the work team that went onto the tracks.

Teo and his employer, SMRT Trains, are accused of failing to take necessary measures to ensure the safety of the workers. Lim was charged with causing death by a negligent act.

According to The Straits Times (ST), the train operator is expected to plead guilty to contravening the Workplace Safety and Health Act.

The court alleged in its charge sheet that SMRT failed to ensure that its employees complied with approved operating procedures when accessing the track between Tampines and Pasir Ris MRT stations. It also did not ensure that the procedures practised by its employees to access the track passed safety audits, were documented and disseminated.

These actions allegedly led to the deaths of Mr Nasrulhudin Najumudin, 26, and Mr Muhammad Asyraf Ahmad Buhari, 24, who were part of a 15-member team that was investigating a possible fault involving a signalling device on the tracks on March 22. The two trainees were killed by a train that was entering Pasir Ris Station.

In April, an SMRT-appointed review panel, which reviewed SMRT’s findings, concluded that a critical safety measure was not applied that day, which “directly” caused the accident. Watchmen who were supposed to watch for approaching trains were also not deployed that day. 

After an internal disciplinary inquiry in September, SMRT dismissed two staff – train captain Rahmat Mohd, 49, who was driving the train that hit the men, and an assistant engineer. According to CNA, Lim was sacked by SMRT in September over the incident.

The Attorney-General’s Chambers said in a statement released today that investigations were ongoing to determine if other individuals are liable for workplace safety lapses in connection with the incident.

The National Transport Workers’ Union also released a statement saying that it would ensure Lim was fairly represented. The Union’s Executive Secretary Melvin Yong said: “Whilst we cannot comment on any ongoing legal proceedings, the union maintains that it is important to allow due process to take its course and all facts to be revealed before drawing any conclusions.”

The cases will be heard in a pre-trial conference on Dec 30.

If convicted, SMRT Trains faces a fine of up to $500,000 while Lim faces a jail term of up to two years and a fine. His colleague, Teo, faces a fine of up to $200,000 and/or a jail term of up to two years.

 

Read the other articles on the SMRT incident here:

  1. SMRT double death tragedy: Driver sacked – but why?
  2. Fatal train accident: MOM has asked SMRT about dismissal of two workers

 

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by Bertha Henson

EMINENT members of the board of an un-named company sat around the table, wondering what to do with a couple of troublesome employees whom they want to give the sack.

They had been watching the public reactions to sackings by the SMRT, Singapore Table Tennis Association, Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and now, the National Kidney Foundation (NKF).

What an uproar! What controversy! What bad publicity! 

Chairman turned to HR Manager (HRM) to ask what the employer-employee contracts say about termination of employment. The obsequious reply: “Yes, Chairman, we can sack. We won’t have any union problem, Chairman, because they are executives. Don’t worry, Chairman.”

Chairman turned to Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to ask if said employees deserved to be fired. The reply: “Maybe. Maybe not. Depends.”

Chairman barked back: “Depends on what?”

CEO replied: “Like whether we want to do a disciplinary inquiry to make our case for sacking stronger…”

Chairman: “One inquiry enough? Or should they chalk up more demerit points? What if the inquiry turned up nothing?”

CEO replied: “We can do like the SEC and say not a good fit for the company or something. Or we can say it’s for rejuvenation purposes, need young blood and all that. Like the table tennis people.”

Chairman: “I would rather not have to face the media and give reasons. Just look at what that Ellen Lee had to do, talk to TV people and different newspapers… and so many leaks! By the way, none of you should post on social media about this… on pain of… errr…. forced resignation.”

HRM interjected: “Not to worry, Chairman. We don’t deal with eggs or milk, Chairman. Nor are we in the Olympic league…”

CEO looked askance at HRM. Was she subtly telling Chairman that he was not meeting his KPIs? He ventured: “What if it’s a criminal offence?”

Chairman: “Then clearly we have to sack! Have we reported to police yet? What does our legal department say?”

Legal looked up from his stack of documents on the table. He was still trying to figure out the Employment Act and, being far-sighted, at any form legal redress that might be available to sack employees. Unfair dismissal… Hmmm…

Pushing his spectacles back up his nose, Legal cleared his throat noisily and proceeded to give a legal non-answer which flummoxed the board.

They only understood one question he asked: “Any of them pregnant?” He cited chapter and verse of what happened to Faith Community Baptist Church when it sacked a pregnant employee who had an extra-marital affair.

Ominously, he said: “This would bring our company into disrepute. Of course, we can defend ourselves with these precedents…”

Independent Director (ID), known for his kindness and magnanimity, suggested maybe a period of suspension without pay would do while a police report was made.

Then the sacking could come if or when there was a conviction. But Head of Public Communication (HPC) objected immediately: “They can’t still be employed with us while they are being investigated and tried in court! The media will keep referring to them as our employees instead of ex-employees!”

They were in a bit of a pickle. Those troublemakers were causing them more trouble than ever. CEO suggested just paying them off with a golden handshake or retrenchment benefits, which made Chief Financial Officer (CFO) lift his eyebrows so high they reached past his hairline.

He wondered if CEO was stupid. Companies were disguising retrenchments so as not to pay out benefits – and here was this silly guy suggesting paying off people whom they wanted to sack.

CFO said tersely: “But we’re not retrenching. We’re making healthy profits and will be expanding.”

HRM suggested changing the terms of employment immediately from full-time permanent to yearly or six-monthly renewable contracts. That way, she said, the company can just say that the contracts weren’t renewed.

The board mulled over this suggestion in collective silence. Applied to all employees, it might even save the company money in terms of employee benefits.

HRM, encouraged by the silence, suggested that a probation term be added to the contract so that to all intents and purposes, the said employees were told to go because they failed to meet standards.

ID squirmed, wondering if this met rules of corporate governance. He asked timidly if there was any need to even go public with the sackings in the first place. And with luck, the media wouldn’t find out what had happened.

Chairman, who was already late for his golf game, said: “Yes! Yes! Just tell them to go! No need for press release or anything. It’s private company business anyway! We’re not a non-profit company or social enterprise or sports association or charity. It’s nobody’s business but ours!”

HPC interjected: “But these fellows might go and complain to the media. Nowsaday hor, people go to the media all the time when they don’t get paid or get paid late and then I got so much work answering media queries.”

CFO glanced at the man, who is well-known as a nine-to-fiver. He made a mental note to re-check his salary and language levels.

Legal spoke up timorously, suggesting that the board simply say that there were complaints and that it was a reportable offence. But the spokespeople had to steer clear of defamation. “Personal indiscretion” is safe because it is so vague and can be subject to several interpretations, he added.

CEO, thinking that he had better show some leadership, said: “Okay, we have several options: rejuvenation, wrong fit, poor performance, personal indiscretion, retrenchment or contract terms… Which would be best for us?”

ID, for whom this was his first board meeting, realised that he was cognizant of all the facts. “Hmm, what did these two people do by the way?”

All eyes bored into him. With one voice, they said: “They complained about not being paid enough.”

ID said: “Oh. Sack. Must sack.’’

 

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by Wan Ting Koh

THE Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has asked rail operator SMRT for information regarding why it sacked two employees, following the fatal accident of two of its trainees on a train track in March this year.

MOM is also facilitating an “amicable settlement through conciliation” between both sides, said its minister, Mr Lim Swee Say, in a written reply to a question fielded by Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Abdul Manap for the Oct 10 session of Parliament.

On March 22, two SMRT trainees were hit and killed by an oncoming train while investigating an alarm linked to signalling equipment near Pasir Ris MRT Station. They were part of a 15-member team comprising an engineer, five assistant engineers, five technical officers and four trainees.

An SMRT-appointed review panel, which reviewed SMRT’s findings, concluded in April that a critical safety measure was not applied that day.  The measure is meant to prevents trains on auto mode from entering parts of the track where workers are present. The missing measure, the panel said, “directly” caused the accident. Watchmen who were supposed to watch for approaching trains were also not deployed that day. 

After an internal disciplinary inquiry last month, SMRT dismissed two staff – train captain Rahmat Mohd, 49, who was driving the train that hit the two men, and an assistant engineer. Previous reports have said the employee fired with Mr Rahmat was part of the work team on the track that day.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Yee Chia Hsing also asked if it was premature for SMRT to take disciplinary action against staff ahead of the conclusion of investigations and the coroners’ inquiry.

To that, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in his written reply that it was SMRT’s “prerogative” to take disciplinary action against its staff in accordance with its procedures. However, he acknowledged that investigations by the Land Transport Authority, MOM and the police were still ongoing.

“An argument can therefore be made that in this case it would have been better to wait till these investigations come to some conclusions,” said Mr Khaw.

Said Mr Lim: “MOM has called for information on the grounds of dismissal from SMRT. We will try to help the parties involved to come to an amicable settlement through conciliation. If it fails, an inquiry will be conducted to determine if the company has just cause to dismiss the workers.”

He added that the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) is currently helping the two workers secure employment.

SMRT’s decision to fire the two staff drew flak from the NTWU, which said it had written to SMRT to “withhold any actions against the affected workers until completion of official investigations so as to not prejudice the outcome of official investigations” in an ST report. A coroners’ inquiry is set to be heard early next year.

The NTWU has also filed an appeal with SMRT against its decision to dismiss the two staff, and SMRT has formed a panel to review the appeal. The NTWU has also filed an appeal to MOM under the Industrial Relations Act on behalf of the two workers.

 

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by Suhaile Md

LAST week’s eight-hour-long disruption of the Bukit Panjang Light Rapid Transit (BPLRT) was the latest in a series of problems that plagued the transit line.

In the wake of the breakdown, managing director of SMRT Trains Lee Ling Wee wrote on the company blog earlier this week (Oct 3) that the rail operator is working together with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in a review to decide the fate of the BPLRT. You can read the blog post here.

In 2015, there were 10 breakdowns lasting over half an hour on the BPLRT line. More recently in July this year, SMRT said 19 BPLRT trains had developed cracks over time. This was discovered last year. Again in July, a train ran past three stations. And in January, a train door opened while moving – quite the scare for commuters.

  

While it’s good that the review is underway, the persistent issues that point to a deeper problem should not be overlooked: The BPLRT was badly designed to start with.

At least that’s the view held by transport experts Professor Lee Der Horng from the National University of Singapore and transport consultant Mr Tham Chen Munn. In a TODAY report (Oct 7), the experts basically outlined how NOT to build an LRT system.

Here’s what they said, summarised in three easy steps:

 

1. Don’t hem yourself in – keep options open

SMRT’s use of proprietary systems limited its ability to upgrade. The driverless Bombardier technology SMRT adopted restricts it to “one or two vendors” for upgrading and maintenance, said Prof Lee.

With less competition, vendors are able to charge a higher price and of course, the cost of operating the BPLRT rises as a result.  

 

2. Rail networks should last much longer than 20 years

Age is the source of the problem here, said Mr Tham. The BPLRT is in its 18th year of operations – it started in 1999. With a lifespan of only 20 years, it’s nearing its end. Even Mr Lee in his blog post acknowledged the challenges of an old system.

He said that “the ageing system continues to test the mettle of our engineering staff”. However, Prof Lee said that the rail system “should be designed for a longer term of more than 25 years.”  

 

3. Design the LRT as a part of the town’s plan, not apart from it

The BPLRT line was built after the Bukit Panjang estate was already established. That is, planners had to work around existing structures to fit the LRT network in the area.

Newer estates like Sengkang and Punggol however, were designed with the LRT network taken into consideration from the start. Which is why the LRT lines “are within walking distance for the residents”, said Prof Lee.

This is not the case in parts of the BPLRT line, he said. “The network then suffered from poor ridership, which led to poor revenue,” added Prof Lee. The BPLRT line had a loss of $3.8 million last year and $2.1 million in 2014.  

Incidentally, SMRT Corp is in the running for a tender to build an LRT line in Bandung city, Indonesia. It submitted its bid just last month on September 9. The Bandung line will stretch 10.15km – just shy of BPLRT’s 10.5km.  

 

Featured image Bukit Panjang LRT cars from Wikimedia Commons user Calvin Teo. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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