Alone at the top

You wouldn't want to be in Ms Saw Phaik Hwa's shoes. The past four days have been merciless. And they're likely to go down in the SMRT chief executive's book as one of the toughest situations she's dealt with in her nine years at SMRT.

She had to battle not one, not two, but three train service disruptions in four days.

The latest shutdown yesterday morning came just 15 hours after a press conference on Friday where she gave her assurance that SMRT would "spare no efforts in preventing such a recurrence" following Thursday evening's disruption.

But yesterday morning, her vow rang hollow. Seven trains stalled and affected train service on both the north- and south-bound lines between Ang Mo Kio and Marina Bay stations.

The latest disruption led to a last-minute press conference chaired by Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew and officers from the Land Transport Authority (LTA) yesterday afternoon.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cut short his vacation to attend to the matter. He told reporters yesterday afternoon that he had ordered a public inquiry into the service disruptions.

Noticeably missing from all the media conferences was the 57-year-old Ms Saw. She remained silent throughout the day.

But she was on the ground. She was busy. She was seen at Bishan MRT station.

The gravity of the situation is clear. But it's not the first time that Ms Saw has had to tread in difficult waters.

In August, Ms Saw also fielded tough questions from reporters following a second security breach - after the first incident in May last year - at SMRT's depots, which saw one of its trains being vandalised. SMRT was heavily criticised by the public for the security lapse.

So when Ms Saw had to address a roomful of reporters after Thursday's incident, she was calm, straight-talking, and took tough questions in her stride despite signs of fatigue on her face. When asked if she would take responsibility for the train service disruptions by resigning, she was stone-faced: "It's something I would seriously consider if it is necessary to do so, but I think I will reserve comment at this moment."

Amid the calls for her resignation by frustrated commuters and netizens, it remains to be seen whether Ms Saw will take the fall for the train service debacle. She is one known to be ready to take the brickbats.

When she joined SMRT in December 2002, the appointment raised eyebrows; she had no experience in running a public transport business.

But she said she had her vast retail experience to fall on.

"I didn't have to learn to be a CEO, all I needed was to learn a new trade," Ms Saw had said matter-of-factly in an interview with The Straits Times in 2008.

"It's like running the same show, just that you have a different cast, a different storyline..." She proved her critics wrong by nearly tripling SMRT's net profit to $161 million for its last financial year from the net profit of $56.8 million for 2002.

For a CEO who was paid $1.85 million in cash and shares for the year ended March 31, she was instrumental in several key initiatives at SMRT.

Under her stewardship, MRT stations were re-developed and transformed into lifestyle hubs catering to Singaporeans' love for shopping and eating.

This also led to a healthy growth in the amount collected from the rental of retail space in train stations. The initiative raked in $30.9 million for the six months between April and September, up from $28.2 million over the same period last year.

She is also not one to baulk at getting her hands dirty when necessary.

In one of the worst train service disruptions, in January 2008, which saw a seven-hour long service breakdown to the East-West line affecting 57,000 rush-hour commuters, Ms Saw was there at the scene from 4am.

Recalling the incident at Friday's press conference, she said that she travelled around to different stations in a taxi at 4am, making sure stations were well managed and the signs were up.

During yesterday's disruption, she personally visited several stations, including Bishan MRT station.

An SMRT staff told The New Paper on Sunday that Ms Saw was very concerned about operations at the station.

When she was there, she complained that she couldn't see clearly the information on a written sign informing commuters of the service disruption. She then asked for it to be changed to a printed one.

When asked on Friday for comments about the negative online remarks against SMRT staff, she said that as a service provider, she accepted that customers have every right to make judgment.

But she also backed her staff. They had worked overnight for three days and they have worked hard, she said, adding that they received more recorded compliments than complaints.

Her staff remain largely shielded from the frustration of affected commuters, as Ms Saw faces up to the fury, alone at the top.

"Beyond having free public service: free trains, never break down... We're never perfect but we've tried our best and by world standards, we're doing very well." - On her biggest challenge facing her as the chief of SMRT in a 2008 ST interview

This article was first published in The New Paper.