If a memorial is ever erected to the astonishing development and efficiency of Singapore during the Lee Kuan Yew era, its headpiece will surely reflect the nation’s wondrous airport and extensive subway system.
However, there’s an old saying that a rotten fish stinks from the head, and while Changi Airport remains an uplifting joy, Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit system has started to stink to high hell.
On December 14, trains on its underground Circle Line abruptly stopped, trapping passengers in hot, dark tunnels for 40 minutes due to a “communication network problem”, according to the official excuse.
A small hiccup, you might say. The kind of thing that happens to all municipal transport systems once in a while.
Except that this is mythically efficient Singapore and there have already been nearly 30 disruptions on the over-crowded and expensive metro this year.
So that was bad enough. But the next day, during the evening rush hour, the North-South Line, serving an estimated 127,000 commuters, broke down and trains stopped running for five hours.
Yep, five hours. What was most shocking was the lack of preparedness of the MRT staff, who appeared hopelessly confused and devoid of any idea of how to deal with the debacle erupting around them.
There was mass confusion on the crowded platforms and station concourses, while fear and panic spread through the stifling, jam-packed carriages stalled deep down below in the blackness.
One desperate man smashed a train window to let in air, and about 1,000 other commuters who had been trapped for more than an hour climbed down onto the track and walked along a dark tunnel to escape.
When they surfaced, they found there were insufficient buses to take them on their way. As one Singapore academic commented: “People may wonder what would happen if there is a far more serious problem.”
In other words, a terrorist attack. All Singaporean males do reservist military duty until well into middle-age in order to learn how to deal with such national emergencies. A fat lot of use it seems to have been.
Afterwards, the privately-owned subway company’s CEO, Saw Phaik Hwa, promised to improve “our incident management plan, especially in the areas of giving timely and better information, as well as crowd management”.
But as the daggers came out and verbal recriminations started flying, an astonishing thing happened. There was yet another massive subway breakdown.
It came just one day later, making it the third in four days, and it was far worse than the other two.
This time, on the last shopping weekend before Christmas, two entire lines were knocked out and four trains were damaged, with the key North-South Line being shut down for a staggering seven hours.
What was going on? One major breakdown is bad enough. Two is terrible. Three begins to look like systemic mismanagement.
Technically, the blame was ascribed to faults with the “collector shoes” that pick up electricity from the third “power” rail, and with the “claws” that keep the third rail stable.
But such problems have been known for some time and should have been definitively fixed long ago.
The laxity recalls other recent debacles like the shocking waist-deep floods in Orchard Road, the escape of the terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari and the two break-ins at the MRT’s Changi and Bishan train depots.
Singapore efficiency, you say? Gimme a break.
It’s no wonder the ruling People’s Action Party took a hit in last May’s general election. If the foul-ups continue, they could well be defeated next time round.
As the torrid week came to a close, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said a Committee of Inquiry would be set up to “get to the bottom of” the subway breakdowns.
But whatever recommendations the committee makes, the damage has been done.
As local academic Eugene Tan said: “Last week was not a good week for Singapore’s brand of efficiency and reliability.”
That’s putting it mildly.