The new section of the Downtown Line (DTL2) is set to open officially on Dec 27. It has 12 stations that “will start in Bukit Panjang, and pass through the Bukit Timah corridor towards Rochor, before connecting to the Downtown Line 1 (DTL1) at Bugis station.” If you stay along the stretch of DTL2 and are waiting to jump for joy when the DTL2 finally opens, you may wish to hold back your excitement a bit. Because according to Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Minister for Transport, you can expect there to be “teething problems” with DTL2.
It seems that Minister Khaw has added a new weapon to his arsenal of handling train disruptions: managing public expectations. He suggested that one of the reasons why Singaporeans are unhappy over train disruptions is because we have high expectations. His exact words:
“The unhappiness of Singaporeans over train disruptions, I think, is testament to the fact that we have high expectations of the engineers who build, run and maintain the MRT. The same applies to our engineers who build and maintain our flats, roads, sewers, power, and pipelines. This high expectation of the state of infrastructure in Singapore stems from the track record of our pioneer engineers, and is not common globally.”
So it seems that instead of raising and continuing to maintain the high standards of engineering and maintenance set by our pioneer engineers, Minister Khaw thinks that it would be easier to lower the expectations of Singaporeans. Which he has done masterfully. Now that we are warned to expect teething problems with DTL2, we won’t complain so much when there are any disruptions. We have been warned already. So we should have taken our own precautions. When there are any disruptions that cause any inconvenience to us, it’s our fault for not making alternative arrangements. That seems to be the message that Minister Khaw is sending.
Which is strange. I don’t remember there being major disruptions for the North-South and East-West lines of SMRT until the last few years. I don’t recall there being any teething problems then. And even when the new segments were opened and new branches added, I don’t remember there being any disruptions either.
There certainly wasn’t any hints of defeatist mindset that there would be “teething problems”. Instead, there seemed to be a quiet confidence and pride that we managed to pull such a massive infrastructural project off successfully. Why, then, do we have such a defeatist mindset now? If we could have done so well back then and made things happen without teething problems, surely we should be able to do better now, right? I mean… we should have better technology,and personnel with more knowledge, skills, expertise, and experience, right? Shouldn’t all these mean that we should be able to do things better than when we first built the MRT lines? And if we didn’t have “teething problems” then, all the more we shouldn’t have “teething problems” now, right?
And that’s why Minister Khaw’s analogy between the opening of DTL2 and the teething pains of his first daughter is a very poor one. Yes, the opening of DTL2 may be Minister Khaw’s “first line”. But it certainly isn’t Singapore’s first line. Collectively, LTA, SMRT and SBS Transit have had decades of experience opening new lines, extending lines, managing and operating lines. So how is it that we still have to expect “teething problems”? Unless there are some systemic issues in the handing over of information, training of staff, and accumulation of tacit knowledge in those three organisations.
I wonder if this is the shape of things to come. That our government expects us to lower our expectations. That our government would rather that Singaporeans expect them to make major mistakes in things that aren’t particularly revolutionary. I mean… it’s ok if our government made mistakes while doing something revolutionary (e.g. trying out a nursing home that operates on a different model). After all, mistakes are part and parcel of innovation. But when it comes to something that we have had a good track record in, and it’s essentially just doing more of the same, then is it alright for our government to exhort us to expect mistakes and problems?
Are these signs that the standard of our government is dropping? Are these signs that our government lacks the spirit of excellence? Maybe. In fact, you can tell in other areas that this is happening, like not paying enough attention to small details. For example. Minister Khaw said on his blog ” While they can perform all forms of testing in a simulated environment, they cannot fully replicate how the system will actually perform in a live environment involving thousands of commuters.” Why use the word “replicate”? The word “replicate” means to make an exact copy of; reproduce (definition supplied by Google). It connotes that the object being replicated must already exist. If the DTL2 hasn’t started operating yet, how can anyone replicate its performance in a “live environment involving thousands of commuters”?
It might seem like a small matter, but a certain old wise man who passed away this year insisted that sloppy writing indicated sloppy thinking. As such, he was very particular about how things were written. He said:
“When I was a law student I learnt that every word, every sentence has three possible meanings: what the speaker intends it to mean, what the hearer understands it to mean, and what it is commonly understood to mean.So when a coded message is sent in a telegram, the sender knows what he means, the receiver knows exactly what is meant, the ordinary person reading it can make no sense of it at all.
When you write minutes or memoranda, do not write in code, so that only those privy to your thoughts can understand. Write simply so that any other officer who knows nothing of the subject can understand you. To do this, avoid confusion and give words their ordinary meanings.”
Clearly, Minister Khaw didn’t give the word “replicate” its ordinary meaning when he used it in his blog. Which is something that would have turned that certain old wise man livid were he still alive. Thankfully, he is gone now. Otherwise he might have died from rage after reading a Cabinet Minister being so sloppy in his writing.
Perhaps the passing of the old wise man is a sign that standards in government will only go down. Perhaps it is better for Singaporeans to lower our expectations of the government. Only then we will be less unhappy.
[Featured image: Rail map of DTL2 from Channelnewsasia.com]