Land Transport Authority chief Chew Hock Yong talks about the challenges of managing Singapore’s public transportation infrastructure. - Text by Wong Sher Maine, Photos by Norman Ng
Here is probably the question you have always wanted to ask the man at the helm of Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA): Do you take public transport?
The answer is a reassuring “yes”. Every workday morning, Mr Chew Hock Yong, 47, catches the train from Potong Pasir to the Little India MRT station just outside the LTA office at Hampshire road. “I try to get in early, before 8am,” he says, on his strategy to beat the crowds.
With that elephant out of the room, talk turns to how he has had to “fight fires” at a time when LTA is under intense public scrutiny.
Because of service disruptions on MRT lines and some niggling train faults, some commuters worry if they can get to work on time. Meanwhile, COE prices continue their unrelenting ascent, and car buyers are unhappy about the prices they have to pay.
Singaporeans, it seems, are increasingly dissatisfied with getting around in the city-state – and they are making it known.
Onslaught of feedback
LTA is receiving more feedback than ever. It now gets 1.5 million instances of feedback yearly, which is about one every 24 seconds!
What does Mr Chew make of this? “I think people want to be heard and to have their views considered as well. We’ve a population that’s better educated. They want to have a say in how certain things get done in the community, which is a good thing, rather than to have people who don’t care,” he says.
LTA has hired more frontline officers to handle the rise in feedback, and it pays even greater attention to listening to and communicating with commuters. But he concedes that it can get tricky when officers have to say “No” to customers.
“I always tell our officers in LTA, ‘Don’t be disappointed if people still don’t accept your explanation after you have carefully explained our approach’,” says Mr Chew. “As long as you have done your job diligently and fairly, given due consideration to people’s suggestions and addressed them, the management will always be behind you.”
Mr Chew, who has worked at five different ministries before LTA, acknowledges that the public transport crunch is due to a surge in commuter numbers, and transport infrastructure is struggling to cope.
“We’re doing a bit of catch-up in our transport hardware. The main infrastructure will be completed in the next few years,” he says. “The challenge is how we manage public expectations before the cavalry (new trains and MRT lines) starts arriving from about 2015. We are doing whatever we can to alleviate the situation. And we are laying the foundation for a better transport system and better ways of getting around, going forward.”
“On hindsight, what probably caught some planning agencies a bit off-guard was that the population grew at a faster pace than the forecast,” says Mr Chew. “When we look back we can always find things that we can do better. We’ve picked up from this experience, and we’re making our planning and coordination systems more robust.”
LTA will also increase its checks on MRT stations and tracks: “We are also tightening the regulatory framework so that the operator will put in more effort in maintaining the trains properly and running them well.”
Being a commuter champion
Away from the glare of policy and big engineering projects, Mr Chew’s heart is firmly with the commuters. He has tasked senior management staff to champion the man in the street.
His “pedestrian champion” walks the ground and “pays special attention to how things can be improved at street level”. For example, whether mothers with prams can walk around the MRT station easily. The “cycling champion” does the same for cyclists.
“There are things we won’t see if we approach it from just the higher perspective of train networks and lines, and engineering systems,” Mr Chew explains.
He recounts the story of the “pedestrian champion” who didn’t think there was a need to build a sheltered walkway from a train station to an HDB block in Jurong.
But when he was at the station and was trying to get to the HDB block, it rained. “He saw there were a lot of people who were all stuck. He came back convinced of the need for a sheltered walkway there, and we built it.”
From walkways to cycling paths, LTA aims to create what Mr Chew calls a “portfolio of mobility options” to further ease the nation’s dependency on cars.
Despite the challenging times, Mr Chew remains incredibly proud of his staff.
“I don’t know if it’s because we have to deal with difficult issues, but it takes people with resilience and a good spirit to deal with it on a daily basis and not get demoralised. At LTA, we have a strong adversity quotient.” He concludes: “You know what LTA stands for? It stands for ‘Let’s try again’ – to persevere and push on and do the right thing, even when times are challenging.”
What’s usually in your cup?
Where do you usually have your cuppa?
In the office. My secretary brews 2-3 cups a day for me.