TL;DR – What matters is whether this will prevent major train disruptions.
After it was found that the team who was supposed to perform the maintenance falsified records to make it seem like they performed the maintenance, SMRT sent an email to its staff offering them a chance to own up to wrongdoing. They had till the end of Friday (3 Nov) to admit to not having done work, or not adhering to company procedures or instructions. If they came clean during that “amnesty period“, they would not be punished. Once the amnesty period ends, SMRT’s internal audit will conduct a wide-scale inspection and audit, and lapses discovered then will be penalised.
Apparently, there were some staff who took up the amnesty offer. Employees from SMRT’s building and facilities department, which oversees areas such as MRT tunnel ventilation, and flood and fire protection measures at train stations have admitted to lapses in their work so far. Other than that group, it’s not known if any other staff took up the amnesty offer and admitted to any wrongdoing.
Amnesty? What for?
The ostensible reason for this amnesty is so that SMRT can quickly uncover any improper practices. While uncommon, other large companies have done this before too. This often happened during times of crisis. For instance, during its emissions cheating scandal, Volkswagen offered amnesty to staff, promising that they would not be fired or face claims of damages if they admitted to any wrongdoing.
SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek said last week that the company does not condone any wrongdoing. He said,
“In order to quickly establish the extent of such improper practices, an amnesty period was allowed for staff to volunteer information in open reporting as a mitigation against further disciplinary action.”
Such amnesties can be a more efficient way of getting to the bottom of the issue because some people will invariably step forward with information. And, given the frequency of breakdowns and disruptions, there is indeed some urgency for SMRT to get to the root causes of the spate of problems it faces as quickly as possible.
But such a move isn’t without its flaws
Firstly, not everyone will admit to their wrongdoings. As such, this amnesty probably won’t uncover all the underlying problems. In other words, this will still have to be coupled with a thorough audit to uncover and identify all the root causes of major problems. Otherwise, SMRT still wont’ be able to solve the “deep-seated cultural issues” that CEO Desmond Kuek alluded to.
Secondly, such a move shows how little SMRT’s management knows of their own company. How could the management not know that there were systemic lapses in their maintenance? It shows that there wasn’t a proper system of sufficient checks and balance. It’s quite a major failure of SMRT as an entire organisation.
Lastly, this amnesty could erode the trust between the management, the rank-and-file employees and the public. Is SMRT really going to allow the staff who owned up to continue working in SMRT, in the same job without any form of punishment? Does that mean that the next time other staff commit any wrongdoing, they can simply admit and get away scot free? Because that’s the signal that the management of SMRT is sending with this amnesty move.
What really needs to be done
To restore confidence amongst the public, SMRT needs to fully disclose the number of people who owned up to breaches, and the extent and nature of the lapses. As Dr Lawrence Loh, director of the Centre for Governance, Institutions and Organisations at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School pointed out:
“If, after the amnesty period, there’s no disclosure, it might even suggest that you’re hiding something”
In addition, SMRT should speed up the establishment of the measures it had earlier announced. These include the setting up of joint readiness inspection team that will supplement SMRT’s own audit system and will independently report to a SMRT Board’s audit and risk committee, as well as engaging third-party subject matter experts to step up quality control surveillance of all preventive maintenance activities and conduct a system-wide inspection of critical systems.
These systemic improvements will, hopefully, help to correct the deep-seated cultural issues that Mr Kuek mentioned. More importantly, whatever is done, we hope that there will be no major disruptions to our train systems with these measures.
Meanwhile, union urges SMRT to apply a balanced approach
According to Labour MP and Executive Secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU), Melvin Yong, the union has been engaging SMRT workers for feedback and sentiments. Many of them are concerned about the public’s perception of their work and their attitudes.
Yong said that while the union does not condone any action or inaction by workers that would cause harm to fellow workers and commuters and damage to the operations of our public transport system, it also recognises that many workers are working hard day and night to ensure that train operations and maintenance work are carried out properly.
NTWU urges SMRT to apply a balanced approach in its investigation and disciplinary inquiry.
It’s quite saddening to see our MRT system become a laughing stock. Let’s hope that SMRT is able to do whatever is needed for us to regain our pride in our MRT system. And do it soon.