Saturday, December 17, 2011

Investigating SMRT and beyond

This article from the WSJ opens with,

Singapore’s reputation as a well-oiled city-state, replete with a peerless transport system that’s envied world-wide, has failed to live up to its reputation of late.

Since I am currently reading Daniel Kahneman, "Thinking, Fast and Slow" I can't resist the thought that our natural "System 1" thinking ineluctably caused us to see a pattern to all these train system breakdowns.

In the spirit of fairness and intellectual discipline, we mustn't prejudge the findings of what had gone wrong. Nevertheless I would just like to speculate on this a little since this has been on my brain chatter so often.

Are we seeing the exhaustion of a paradigm? The problems with the MRT is only just the first pin to have fallen? An investigation and a report from a group of independent experts on the failures of the train system would not take us beyond 1Q next year promised the transport minister. I hope they bring to the task the discipline and rigor that is routine to air crash investigation. Get to the bottom of this once and for all. If the findings ever reveal weaknesses in leadership and culture (Recall the problem at Korean Air in Gladwell's writings), that would be the flashing red light for us. The follow up question would be, where else in our public organizations are we suffering the same disease?

Many speculate that the obsession with costs and stock price performance have led to reckless risk taking. Again SMRT had gone so far as to compromise commuters' safety. As you sow the wind, you now reap the hurricane. Penny pinching wise and pounds foolish, this is the consequence of the preoccupation with short term performance. Dig a little deeper, we must understand the culture and mindset that encourage and reward such behavior, if they exist. Investigators ought to go back far enough in history to examine how decisions and trade offs were made leading to this debacle.

To be fair, the long term has become foggier than ever making it much harder to navigate the future. It is when the way forward is hazy that we need to return to our core values (what are these by the way?). They become our compass even as our faith is tested. Faint hearts and weak minds find excuses to justify short-termism, especially when everyone is practicing it. I fear this infatuation of the short term, most visible with stock price performance may have become pervasive in Singapore.

Truth is at any time, the future has never been clear enough. Life is punctuated by discontinuities making train wrecks of trend lines. What is important is we must decide where we want to go, what we want to become. Don't just be pragmatic without reasons, or worse for convenience. Then we would have failed to heed Keynes warning,

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

Then at best we become ordinary and undifferentiated from the rest except by punishingly hard work and low costs. We also run the risk of becoming irrelevant when we stop for a breather. Security and prosperity under an umbrella of fear? This is no way to live.

Remember a widening wealth gap is the road to dystopia. Are over crowded and unsafe trains the bats ushering in the night? Can we have robins instead of bats? I look forward to the report findings.

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