New SMRT chief rallies staff to forge ahead on first day

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New CEO Neo Kian Hong urges staff to work to provide safe, reliable services

Former chief of defence force (CDF) Neo Kian Hong started his first day as chief executive of rail operator SMRT yesterday by urging his staff to work towards delivering safe, reliable and comfortable train services.

In a company-wide e-mail, Mr Neo, 54, said that since the announcement of the leadership change, many had shared with him their views and hopes for SMRT.

He wrote: "Many expressed support, others noted improvement, some cautioned against complacency, but all hoped for train services that are reliable, safe and comfortable.

"We must continue to work hard to deliver this."

Mr Neo had already been meeting staff members weeks before officially taking over from Mr Desmond Kuek, who left after 5½ years at the helm.

"I hope to meet the rest of you in the coming months, learning and working with you," Mr Neo told employees in an e-mail he shared with The Straits Times.

"Let us work together as a company, and with all our stakeholders, to provide a public service that Singaporeans are proud of," he added. "I am happy to be part of the team."

Mr Neo also thanked his predecessor "for his dedication and service to the company".

Mr Kuek, 55, led SMRT during what was probably its most tumultuous period. Even though his tenure was marred by incidents such as track deaths and tunnel flooding, he was part of the team - along with SMRT Trains chief Lee Ling Wee - that rebuilt the reliability of the North-South and East-West lines.

As at the end of March, the North-South Line clocked an average of 604,000 train-km before a delay of more than five minutes. For the East-West Line, the figure was 272,000 train-km. This was some 10 times better than the lines' performance in 2011.

There was only one major breakdown - that is, lasting more than 30 minutes - on Singapore's two oldest lines in the first quarter. At their worst, the two lines had nearly one such breakdown each month.

The Circle Line, which is also operated by SMRT, posted a tenfold improvement in reliability over the same period to 1.8 million train-km between delays.

In one of his last public statements before leaving, Mr Kuek set a high target for SMRT: No more than one delay per month, with an aim to eliminate all major delays by 2020.

After Mr Neo stepped down as defence chief with the rank of lieutenant-general in 2013, he held two permanent secretary posts - first at the Education Ministry, then at the Defence Ministry.

SMRT beefs up HR with more former military leaders

Rail operator SMRT has roped in more military top brass to beef up its ranks.

Mr Clifford Keong and Ms Lee Yem Choo - both colonels in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) previously - have taken on human resource roles within the rail operator.

Mr Keong, 45, joined in May as head of HR for SMRT Trains, while Ms Lee, 49, has been hired to head HR at SMRT's Thomson-East Coast Line division, which may have more than 1,000 employees when it is fully opened in about six years.

The first northern section in Woodlands is slated to open in the second half of next year.

The Straits Times understands that both were hired during former chief executive Desmond Kuek's tenure.

SMRT has confirmed the new hires but would not say more.

Meanwhile, Mr Gerard Koh - a former colonel who was hired by Mr Kuek along with several other former senior military men in 2012 - is now chief corporate officer.

Mr Koh, 48, started as director of HR just over five years ago but is now overseeing group corporate functions in information technology, procurement, human resources and training.

Mr Keong was previously commander of Personnel Command and had passed the baton to Ms Lee in 2016.

That year, the SAF clinched the Leading HR Practices Award in e-HR Management, as well as in Learning and Development, for the third year in a row.

Organised by the Singapore Human Resources Institute, the annual awards recognise organisations with commendable HR and people management practices.

Mr David Leong, managing director of human resource firm PeopleWorldwide Consulting, said the SMRT's reliance on people with a military background for its key posts "will make SMRT like a quasi-military outfit with an entrenched protocol".

However, Mr Low Boon Seong, managing director of human resource consultancy Align Group, said it does not matter where managers are from, but whether they can "effectively align the team with the company direction (and) at the same time build trust and empathy to foster a positive culture".