Christopher Tan – Straits Times Indonesia
Singapore. Singapore’s embattled SMRT Corp chief executive Saw Phaik Hwa resigned on Friday, a month after two massive train breakdowns made the transport operator the focus of public anger.
Her move was not entirely unexpected to some, except for its timing: three days before Parliament sits to address a barrage of questions from MPs on the Dec. 15 and 17 breakdowns, and well before three separate investigations into the train disruptions are fully under way.
In a long e-mail to SMRT staff in the late afternoon yesterday, the 57-year- old CEO known for her colorful hair and lifestyle announced her resignation, which took immediate effect.
The company made two brief statements to the Singapore Exchange saying she had quit as chief executive and as a director of SMRT.
In another statement, sent to the media at close to 7 p.m., SMRT’s board of directors said it had accepted Saw’s resignation, but that she would be around to assist the Committee of Inquiry (COI) investigating last month’s rail breakdowns. She will also help with the company’s leadership transition.
Board member Tan Ek Kia, 63, a chartered engineer who was formerly with oil giant Shell, will stand in as the interim chief, focusing on SMRT’s rail operations as it looks for a new chief executive.
The media statement made little reference to the breakdowns in December which affected more than 200,000 commuters and resulted in chaotic scenes.
SMRT chairman Koh Yong Guan said Saw’s decision to quit pre-dated the disruptions.
“On Dec. 7, Phaik Hwa spoke to me about her desire to move on during 2012, after having served nine years and led SMRT through considerable growth,” he said.
New businesses had also been created, he said, and the company had “delivered strong results” during Saw’s nine-year tenure.
He thanked the retailer-turned-rail chief for her dedicated service.
In the statement, Saw said that she acknowledged the time was right for the board to look at new leadership.
She said she had the privilege of leading a group of very committed and loyal staff over the last nine years.
“I feel it is now time for SMRT to bring in new leadership and take the organization to the next level. This is the culmination of a discussion I began with the chairman in early December,” she said.
She also said it was “important for me to stay on and support the relevant inquiries, and the transition to new leadership.”
Tan said he would work quickly to ensure the leadership team of SMRT has whatever support it needs to ensure the delivery of reliable public transport services to commuters.
In the only reference to the breakdown, he said: ‘The staff of SMRT are aware of public expectations that we deliver on our commitment to learn lessons from December’s incidents. My focus will be on ensuring that we meet our commitment to provide reliable public transport services. I will put a particular emphasis on rail as the cornerstone of our public transport system.’
Saw’s resignation comes after her comments on Dec. 18, a day after last month’s second breakdown, that she was staying put despite a public clamor for her to step down.
“As CEO of SMRT, I am naturally responsible,” she said. “Being responsible does not mean walking away from these faults. It means doing all I can to get the problem fixed.”
She declined to comment yesterday.
Reacting to the news that she had stepped down, Public Transport Council chairman Gerard Ee said: “It’s a bit premature. She should have stayed to wait for the outcome of the COI.
“But her resignation will take some heat off the company. From that perspective, I admire her move because she’s claiming responsibility, saying that the buck stops with her.”
Transport analyst John Rachmat, of the Royal Bank of Scotland Asia Securities, said Ms Saw’s resignation should not come as a big surprise to investors.
“Her position had become untenable even before the December incidents,” he said, referring to her handling of previous breakdowns and incidents like the two cases of vandalized trains and worsening crowds.
But he added that she could not be blamed for everything, noting that soaring commuter numbers and the trains’ inability to run at a higher frequency were not entirely SMRT’s doing.
Saw’s failing, he said, was her poor public relations skills.
“Having said that, I am not optimistic SMRT can find a better CEO.”
Those who have worked with Saw paint a picture of a boss who leads with an iron fist.
A former senior executive said: “She’s quite tough and impatient to get results.”
Commenting on a slew of mid- and high-level resignations during her tenure, the executive said: “She’s a bit unforgiving to the senior people.
“That was one of her mistakes. Those people who left had a lot of experience and a lot of linkage to the ground staff. Now, there are not many second-liners with a bird’s eye view of things. That’s not healthy for a company.”
The Land Transport Authority was not available for official comment, but directors and former directors of the authority were surprised by Saw’s departure, just as some were slightly taken aback when she was appointed in 2002, given her non-engineering background.
Saw was previously with duty-free retail chain DFS Venture Singapore, and has a degree in biochemistry.
“But our relationship with her had always been cordial,” said a former LTA executive. “There were issues now and again, but other than that, it was okay.”
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