SINGAPORE MASS RAPID TRANSIT: GOING OFF TRACK
On January, 2012, Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) Corporation’s Chief Executive
Officer (CEO), Phaik Hwa Saw, resigned from her position after two major breakdowns on the North-South Line in December 2011. SMRT was a public transport operator in Singapore, with a transportation network that comprised buses, trains and taxis. The two breakdowns were arguably the largest public transportation incidents in Singapore’s history, occurring two days apart and affecting more than 220,000 commuters. Widespread public outrage ensued, with heavy criticism of Saw for the breakdowns and her mismanagement of the corporation.
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Kwek had previously served as Chief of Navy and had spent his career in the military until his appointment to lead SMRT in 1996. Kwek graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.
In January 2002, Kwek was replaced by Brigadier General Tak Hap Boey, who had served as Chief of Army, and subsequently, Singapore Power and Public Utility Board’s CEO. Boey held a degree in automatic control and system engineering with management sciences. SMRT announced that Boey left the company for personal and health reasons eight months after his appointment.
Upon the announcement of Boey’s resignation, SMRT attracted the attention of industry observers and market players by placing advertisements in The Straits Times and The Business Times about replacing Boey as CEO. SMRT’s three-month-long search ended in December 2002 when the company announced that it would appoint Saw as its CEO.
PHAIK HWA SAW
Saw was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She moved to Singapore after her “O-Level” examinations to continue her studies and eventually graduated from the National University of Singapore with a biochemistry degree.
Saw’s professional background was in consumer retailing. She had joined two major retailers before her appointment to SMRT – Metro in 1978 and Duty Free Store (DFS) Venture in 1981. At DFS, Saw navigated the corporate ladder and was promoted to the position of regional president of Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) in 1998. Under her leadership, DFS Venture Singapore won the Singapore Tourism Board’s Best Retail Concept Award in 2000. However, she was let go in early 2002 as part of DFS’s corporate restructuring.
Saw was very different from other CEOs who had led SMRT in the past. Unlike her predecessors, Saw did not have any engineering training. Her career experience had largely been with the consumer retail industry in the private sector. When asked about this change, SMRT simply reported that Saw had been chosen based “on the strength of her achievements as a business manager and her ability to lead and motivate people under her care.
Despite her lack of experience in the transportation industry, Saw was unfazed by the challenge of leading SMRT. She praised the board for its courage in going against tradition in appointing her and insisted that her lack of technical knowledge was not a handicap, citing “good common sense, entrepreneurial spirit and financial knowledge; and knowing how to motivate staff’ as the traits that were key in her new appointment.
However, the public had doubts about Saw’s appointment and was not convinced that she had the ability to lead SMRT. Questions were raised in the media over her appointment during an especially difficult transition period for SMRT after its merger with a bus service company in 2001.
Saw had always been a trailblazer, being the first Asian woman to step into the positions she had filled. In Singapore, where the top...