As systems get more complex, can we cope with the many moving parts - or do we fall back on set ways?
by Eugene K B Tan
Last week was not a good week for Singapore's brand of efficiency and
reliability. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's announcement on Saturday
that a Committee of Inquiry will be established to "get to the bottom
of" the MRT service breakdowns, capped a torrid week not just for SMRT
but for the country's public transport system.
followed last Friday's announcement, belatedly, by the Ministry of
Transport to appoint an expert panel to thoroughly review Singapore's
MRT system, in particular the lines run by SMRT.
alone, there were three disruptions: One on the Circle Line on Wednesday
followed by the massive one on Thursday and a seven-hour disruption on
Saturday, the latter two on the North-South Line. The most severe since
the MRT started operating in 1987, the incidents are a tremendous blow
to the Government's efforts to encourage Singaporeans to use the public
The service breakdowns raise concerns
over whether our public transport system is able to cope with the
increased commuter load and public expectations. The rail and road
infrastructure has grown significantly in the last couple of years.
Doubts now fester as to whether the relevant organisations, the people
who run them and the systems and policies they have, have kept pace.
Last Thursday's rush-hour breakdown - in particular - raised a
huge hue and cry because many passengers were, literally and
figuratively, kept in the dark. Based on media reports, mass confusion
prevailed on the affected trains, train platforms, ticket concourses and
stations. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) did not work and SMRT
staff seemed disempowered - awaiting instructions from higher up - to
deal with the fluid situation.
To make a deplorable
situation worse, SMRT Taxi's call centre sent a message to its cabbies
informing them of the "income opportunity" at certain MRT stations due
to the train service breakdown. The problem apparently had to do with
message templates used by the call centre. But surely one does not need
an SOP to tell one not to send such a message, given its blatant lack of
Have we become a template
nation, one so reliant on templates that we suspend our sense of
judgement, common sense and initiative?
generally patterns or models serving as a guide to what to do in
specified scenarios. They help provide for a consistent approach in
similar situations. But they are, ultimately, mechanical patterns or
models. They do not obviate the need for dynamic thinking and adaptation
depending on the situation at hand. As always, context matters.
Given that the MRT system was already showing consistent and
increasingly severe service disruptions, why was a system review not
done earlier to identify, troubleshoot or even pre-empt problems in
order to ensure that the MRT system is sufficiently robust in light of
the heavier ridership and complexity?
After at least 27
disruptions this year, enough was enough. Transport Minister Lui Tuck
Yew acknowledged on Saturday that there is some "instability" in the
This template culture appears fairly widespread.
Media reports suggest that affected commuters were reliant on SMRT's bus
bridging services. Many seemed at a loss at finding alternative ways of
getting to their destinations or were counting on SMRT to do the
necessary transfers; some were even desirous of fare refunds amid the
congestion and chaos.
One hopes that there was not a "fixed
template" operating in the commuters' minds as to how they ought to
react to a service disruption. While one would naturally approach SMRT
staff, it was evident the latter were overwhelmed and unable to attend
to all commuters.
Given that the usual template did not
work, it was necessary to improvise. Failure to do so on the part of
many commuters only added to their anger, frustration and
This tendency of template
reliance brings to mind the incident earlier this year when Singapore's
drug enforcement agency, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), reported
that it had under-reported the number of drug abusers between 2008 and
The error in the statistical computation of drug
abuser arrest statistics had occurred when the CNB moved to a new IT
system. The revised figures showed that the number of drug abusers
arrested for the period 2008 to 2010 was in fact on an upward, not
The under-reporting was not insignificant:
Almost 24 per cent in 2008, 28 per cent in 2009, 37 per cent in 2010.
Given the figures, one wonders how CNB officers could not have noticed
that the figures generated by their IT system did not gel with the
operational realities of more arrests being made and more drug abusers.
Was this another situation where the template of the IT system over-rode the reality experienced by the CNB staff?
Transport is and will remain a hot-button issue in Singapore. The
high cost of car ownership, concerns over the affordability and
reliability of public transport, and the increased incidence and
severity of congestions on our road network are familiar gripes.
Yet they also raise pertinent questions of whether our land
transport infrastructure and policies have extracted disproportionate
financial and environmental costs, but have not helped move people as
affordably, effectively and efficiently as they should. The MRT
breakdowns add to the overall concern and unhappiness, and take away
from the larger progress and efforts made to improve the public
transport system in the past few years.
applications for bus and train fare adjustments, the Public Transport
Council is mindful of the competing needs of keeping fares affordable
for commuters and ensuring the long-term viability of public transport
operators. But the latter need is also intimately tied to the quality of
service provided - Singaporeans' trust in the public transport system
will depend on the level of service they get.
that all public transport stakeholders do not get caught up with making
important capital investments and relegate to second place the need to
invest in the "software" of people and mindsets so vital to a nation
with aspirations of a world-class public transport system.
Let us put aside the template and mantra of being world-class - let us
just aim to have an affordable, effective and efficient public transport
system, one that moves the masses competently, seamlessly and rapidly.
Only then can we talk about a world-class transport system.
The writer is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law.