What is this “deep rooted culture” that SMRT cannot solve?

Desmond Kuek spoke about “deep rooted culture”. But what is this culture?

Those of us who have been to the army would be familiar with the concept of “twang”, “eat snake”, “go through the motion” and “Serve And F*** Off” (or SAF). In short, it is the sum total of a person whom was asked to do a job unwillingly and to give minimal contribution.

Sometimes, the system itself begs for people to give the minimum, or to perform an action to satisfy Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

Take for example the checking clear of weapons. Soldiers are told to check clear his weapon, even though no bullets were issued or no range was conducted – the men would be wondering why is this necessary? He’ll then go through the motion: cock a weapon, fire it in a random direction and shout “clear”.

Or if a driver was asked to fill in the same Risk Assessment Matrix (RAM) each time before he drives. He’ll fill in the papers without reading, without consideration and hand it in just to fulfil SOP. So what if you fill in the RAM form? It’s not going to prevent accidents, it is not going to end my duty.

Let’s be honest: an ordinary conscript doesn’t feel like part of the system. He’ll skive when he can, game your system when he can and execute your orders to the minimum of his effort.

Of course it is not right and it ought not be condoned. But it is real, it is what is happening on the ground now.

And I am being brutally honest. If we sincerely want to solve this problem and advance Singapore, this topic cannot be a sacred cow.

Not everyone is an officer; with rank, pay and glory to bask in. With natural motivation. The ordinary soldier is conscripted against his will, has little to be proud of, feels like a pawn, an expendable item and his only goal is to get out of service alive.

If senior officers and commanders think that every soldier on the ground is brimming with enthusiasm and ready for battle, they are fooling themselves. It takes great work and effort to raise the morale and excitement of soldiers.

That (I believe) – is the “deep rooted culture” that Desmond Kuek is talking about. And if this is so, then yes… maybe 5 years is not enough to change it. This has been imported from the SAF and it is the attitude conscripts have held for generations.

We can see MINDEF fighting this. These days you’ll hear Commanding Officers giving lectures on each individual’s importance. They are asking soldiers how they feel about their role. There is a lot more material published that talks about each individuals contribution, how it is important, cherished and vital. That each and every soldier is not just a number.

SMRT and all other large organisations must fight it too, especially those that import military type management.

Whilst everyone is calling for “zero tolerance”, “firing the staff” and to “hang the lot”, I think it will not be useful. The culture will remain. This culture: twang, eat snake…whatever you call it, will return. Even if the original sinners have been cast out of SMRT, this attitude will remain.

So how do you kill this kind of attitude? 

a.) Senior staff must lead by doing; get hands dirty with team

Soldiers on the ground hate it when officers speak brimming with morale. Of course they’re enthusiastic. They have promotions, pay and recognition waiting for them should a team get a job done properly. Soldiers are not asking for a share of all these, but at the very least the officers should get down and dirty with the men when the going gets tough. And not just bask in glory when the results show.

b.) Remind workers that SMRT is not too big to fail

Unlike the SAF, private organisations do not have the support of tax payers to continue running. The best way to remind workers that they have a stake in the company, is to tell them that the SMRT can be shutdown and they will have to look for new jobs. When an organisation appears to have a sheen of immunity (for example, when the CEO or Minister of Transport are the only people to take the hit), people will think that their actions don’t matter.

c.) Morale, enthusiasm and attitude is the job of managers

Senior staff cannot be immune from blame. When things get hot, dirty and tiring, you can always count on a skilled Platoon Sergeant to keep things going with a quick joke, a word of encouragement or a reminder of bigger goals to keep things going. SMRT is facing a lot of discouragement, a lot of overtime and a tremendous lot of criticism. Can you imagine the awkwardness and conversations that follow when you tell friends you work at SMRT? 

d.) Install a Regimental Sergeant Major

Where morale fails, discipline needs to take over. We do not know if the SMRT has such a system. If little faults are allowed to pass, the big failures will happen. This is precisely what was observed in the flooding incident.

e.) Education and conversation

There must constantly be reminders and feedback from the workers. Even MINDEF knows the importance of this, despite being largely a top-down command system. If you’re not interested to listen to what workers have to say periodically, you are paving the way for an incident to happen.




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