They “failed us”, the Transport Minister added as he drove the knife further in. Just as quickly, the management announced that the unit members would see their bonuses decapitated. Three weeks later, the company declared that six of those responsible would face disciplinary action.
Mr Khaw's anger may have been appropriately directed. The question is: Why stop there?
SMRT's CEO Desmond Kuek, in a rare display of candour, admitted that the incident was also the result of the company's “deep-seated cultural issues”. The confession signals a wider malaise which usually involves workers' morale and attitude.
If anyone is to shoulder any blame, shouldn't it be the CEO whose job description, after all, entails constructing an organisational culture – including changing personnel root and branch if necessary – that optimises productivity and efficiency? Yet, having been with the company for five years now, this is the first time that Mr Kuek has raised the issue.
Expectedly, his boss pounced. “If there is poor work culture, the CEO is responsible,” Mr Khaw told Parliament yesterday.
But it would also be disingenuous of the Minister to stop at Mr Kuek because this is not the first big incident to happen at SMRT. In 2016, two maintenance staff were killed when they were run over by a train at the Pasir Ris station.
As before, Mr Khaw was quick on the draw promising that “those responsible will be held to account.” Those were two junior staff, including a train driver, who were blamed and sacked.
Investigations found that SMRT had “failed to ensure that procedures practised by employees on the ground were duly audited, documented and disseminated. This resulted in an unsafe workplace that eventually led to the death of two of its employees.”
But get this: the probe found that the negligence spanned a period of 14 years! That's way before Mr Kuek joined the company. In that time, four transport ministers – Messrs Yeo Cheow Tong, Raymond Lim, Lui Tuck Yew and Khaw Boon Wan – had oversight of the train system but none paid attention to the lax safety standards.
Then there was the suspected terrorist, Mr Mas Selamat, who escaped detention and went walkabout all the way to Johor. He got out of prison by climbing through a toilet window, landing on a heap of toilet rolls, and scaling a parapet – all while surveillance cameras were not operational.
This was Singapore's Keystone-cops moment. As a consequence, eight officers were sacked or demoted. Yet, the problem clearly went beyond just negligence on the part of a bunch of careless officers; it involved a facility-wide systems breakdown for which the Home Minister cannot evade responsibility.
Then consider this: It took 49 seconds for Mr Selamat to escape, 11 minutes for the staff to realise it – and a whole four hours for then Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng to sound the public alert. Another week lapsed before the Minister told us what the escapee was wearing and that he had a “distinct limp” when he ran. By that time, the prisoner could have already been in the Bahamas sipping on a piña colada.
But in his Parliamentary statement, Mr Wong pointed the finger at everyone and everything except himself. It was self-exoneration elevated to an art form.
A similar meltdown in our security system occurred in 2013 when a riot broke out in Little India where more than half-a-million dollars of property was damaged, several emergency vehicles wrecked, and scores of police officers injured.
The Committee of Inquiry hearing threw up some disturbing observations: there were insufficient number of officers available at the outset, they were not properly equipped, radio airwaves jammed at the crucial moment, the commanding officer did not have any idea how many men he had at his disposal, and officers on the scene admitted that they were not trained to handle a full-scale riot. And when the riot police finally arrived at the scene, it did not have the numbers to fully contain the mob.
The COI remarked that “a lot of things were wrong” and the police response was “not acceptable”. Surely, some of these “wrong things” were well within the purview of the Home Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean. But like much of everything else that goes wrong in Singapore, PAP Ministers are shielded – or rather, they shield themselves – from blame.
Ditto the Health Minister in 2015. Just after the general elections in September, news broke that there was an outbreak of the hepatitis C virus at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). The first case was detected in April that year, but it wasn't until October that the Ministry of Health (MOH) informed the public. The delay affected 25 patients of which eight died.
Two issues are pertinent here. The first is that the SGH and MOH personnel messed up, a transgression which resulted in 16 employees either fined or reprimanded. (Mr Gan raised eyebrows – and not little ire – when he refused to name those responsible and the penalties meted out. Excuse? He did not want to develop a “blame culture”.)
The second issue relates to the delay in the public disclosure of the incident which worsened an already dire situation. This was the Minister's responsibility and no one else's. Even if his claim that the MOH was not informed of the outbreak until late August, why did it take another two months before the public was alerted?
Mr Gan was, of course, not in the habit of holding himself accountable even though the incident had caused several deaths.
Not every minister's head should roll every time something goes awry on this island. But when major incidents occur, especially ones that endanger public safety, ministers cannot be permitted to stage a kabuki and scapegoat their subordinates.
Such impoverished leadership has a corrosive effect on the morale of the ministries and agencies they lead. With time, they lead to “deep-seated cultural issues”.