SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek leaving SMRT on Aug. 1, 2018. We have questions.

Why announce now? Why him? Where's he going?

Jeanette Tan | April 18, 2018 @ 06:13 pm


Gotta hand it to The Straits Times senior transport correspondent Christopher Tan who called it ages ago: SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek is (finally) stepping down.

Straits Times reports SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek expected to step down

Here’s an article we wrote based on his previous reports that projected this outcome:

Calls for SMRT CEO Desmond Kuek to quit grow louder

Tan was also the first to break the news ahead of SMRT’s announcement on Wednesday morning, with this story (premium content though) on Tuesday evening:

Screenshot from ST article

But yes, after five years and 10 months at the helm, Kuek will hand over the reins of the long-beleaguered transport operator to a new CEO: Neo Kian Hong, on August 1, 2018.

We’ve just got a few questions in the wake of this announcement:

Why now?

For one thing, Kuek was just three months ago dismissing Tan’s reports predicting his imminent departure:

Reporters asked SMRT CEO ‘Easy’ to ‘Difficult’ to ‘Are you quitting?’ questions

But to be fair, he did not say he wasn’t leaving anytime soon — nor did SMRT deny in its response to media queries about it that he was on his way out:

SMRT responds to talk on management shifts, specifically names Desmond Kuek in statement

So perhaps this was coming all along, we all knew it — it was just a matter of when.

So why now?

In a message announcing the leadership transition sent to SMRT’s staff, new Chairman Seah Moon Ming said Kuek’s reason was that “this is the right moment as things are on track and looking good for the future”.

Seah also observed that at this point, SMRT’s network reliability, measured in mean kilometres before failure (MKBF), is now at 500,000km, compared with 60,000km when Kuek first took the helm.

In Kuek’s own message to his staff, he said:

“We are firmly on track for better journeys ahead, and this is a timely juncture for me to hand over to a new leadership team to take the company on its next chapter.”

Notably, though, he acknowledged his time at the top wasn’t perfect, adding this:

“We weathered many storms together; and I take responsibility as your CEO for all the times, whatever the cause or reason, that we fell along the way.”

Perhaps things do look like they are improving at this point, especially with a renewed focus on maintenance, aggressive expansion of engineer headcount and the ongoing infrastructural improvements (e.g. swapping out the signalling system), but one must question the timing this is happening.

Why announce the transition now, for instance, when the change will only be taking effect on August 1? That’s four months away.

Just because ST broke the news?

Where’s Kuek going?

Photo via SMRT Facebook page

Another question on our minds is: where will Kuek go next?

The answer may lie in looking at where current ministers and MPs are from, as well as where previous Permanent Secretaries in ministries have gone to.

That said, though, here’s what SMRT’s Vice President for Corporate Communications Margaret Teo said when we asked:

We understand that Mr Kuek intends to take a short break, and beyond that, it is for Mr Kuek to share his next steps as and when he feels ready to do so.”

A “global search” that ended with one ex-CDF handing over to another?

In Seah’s message, as well as the statement released by SMRT, the hunt for a new CEO for the company included a “global search”, which The Straits Times reported included “around 20 candidates”.

Screenshot from ST Facebook post

Which is interesting, considering it ended with someone who pretty much can be thought of as “by your side all along”.

According to his bio, Kuek was Chief of Army from 2003 – 2007, and then Chief of Defence Force from 2007 – 2010.

And according to his bio, Neo was Chief of Army from 2007 – 2010, and then Chief of Defence Force from 2010 – 2013.

This means that within the military, Kuek literally handed over both his military portfolios within the Singapore Armed Forces to Neo at those two stages.

More parallels can be seen in their subsequent journeys through the public service — both were, ahem, parachuted directly into permanent secretary positions (the highest possible non-politically-elected position that a person can hold) at ministries right after leaving the military:

Kuek: Permanent Secretary at the Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources from 2010 – 2012. He took the helm of SMRT in October that year.

Neo: Permanent Secretary (Education Development), one of two at the Ministry of Education from 2013 – 2017; Permanent Secretary (Defence Development), one of two at the Ministry of Defence, from last year till now.

Negative public response

And from the looks of immediate reactions to the announcement, it doesn’t look like the public is too pleased with SMRT’s decision:

Screenshot from CNA Facebook post
Screenshot from CNA Facebook post

Here’s the initial reaction from public commentators like former Straits Times associate editor Bertha Henson:

And former banker Chris Kuan:

And even typically ex-Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng:

They did say it was a “global” search, right?

Some have spoken up for Neo’s capability, though:

Screenshot from CNA Facebook post
Screenshot from CNA Facebook post

With its outcome now known, one wonders why it was so difficult to find Kuek’s successor when, well, it was arguably staring them right in the face.

Top photos courtesy of SMRT

About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to "Hakuna Matata" and a host of other Disney songs. She is also enslaved to Katherine and George, her two cats.

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