Sailing ahead with the International Maritime Organization

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Earlier today in London, Singapore was successfully re-elected as a Member of the Council of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). We have been a Council Member since 1993. With this re-election, we will serve our 12th consecutive term from 2016 to 2017.

The Singapore delegation here in London is honoured and grateful to IMO Member States for their support. Being a Council Member comes with heavy responsibilities, and we take them seriously and do our best. We will continue to be objective and inclusive, and always give balanced consideration to the different perspectives and concerns of IMO Member States and the industry.

First convened in 1959, the IMO is the United Nations’ specialised agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. The 40-Member Council is the executive organ of the IMO and is responsible for supervising the work of the Organization. As shipping is a lifeline for Singapore, we joined the IMO in 1966, shortly after our independence.

Sailing ahead with IMO_PictureIn our early years, Singapore benefitted greatly from the training and technical assistance generously provided by developed countries and the international community, including in maritime affairs. With their expert advice and support, we were able to create good jobs, transform our city, and build a better home for Singaporeans. And Singapore’s port has become one of the world’s busiest and sits on a vital sea lane for global shipping – with 1,000 vessels at any one time in our port, and a ship leaving or arriving here every two to three minutes. Our maritime sector is a key economic driver contributing some 7% to our GDP, and a source of good jobs for Singaporeans, with more than 170,000 people employed in the sector.

Today, Singapore is able to give back to the international community by providing training and technical assistance and sharing our experiences with other States. The MPA Academy had repositioned itself as a full-fledged academy with a dedicated facility in 2014 to be better able to deliver our global maritime leadership training programmes.

The re-election is a confirmation that our efforts are appreciated by the international maritime community. I hope Singaporeans too will join hands with MOT and MPA to build an even brighter future for Maritime Singapore.

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Deepening Capabilities

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As rail technology continues to evolve and improve, our rail engineers have to keep up.  Every new line and every new train must be better than their predecessors. This way, we keep our train systems and fleet up-to-date, more reliable, easier to maintain, safer and more cost-effective to operate.

This means that our rail engineers must continue to learn and re-learn. It requires a close relationship and partnership among LTA, SBST, SMRT and our Institutes of Higher Learning, from our ITEs through to the polytechnics and universities. Teachers and students will benefit from actual industry experience, and the industry will benefit from well-taught graduates. It is a virtuous cycle that we must continually strengthen.

LTA and our operators have been driving efforts on this front, including in course design, internship opportunities, and sponsorships:

  • Two years back, they worked with the Singapore Institute of Technology to develop an undergraduate programme in Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering focusing on rail engineering. The first cohort of about 50 students is now in Year 2 and they will soon be going for an intensive work attachment of up to a Depeening capabilities_pic1year at SBST, SMRT or LTA.
  • Earlier this year, Singapore Poly launched a new part-time diploma programme in Engineering (Rapid Transit Technology). Republic Poly also launched an Engineering Systems and Management diploma with an Urban Transport specialisation option.
  • ITE has just launched the Higher NITEC in Rapid Transit Engineering this April. These students, along with other NITEC/higher NITEC engineering graduates, can further deepen their skills through the SkillsFuture Earn and Learn programme, which will be launched by Singapore Poly and WDA next year.

Separately, SMRT engineers have been engaging researchers from A*STAR, NUS, NTU and SUTD on R&D in asset condition monitoring and transportation system planning. Over the past two years, they have also tested their ideas with a technical advisory panel comprising local and international rail experts.

In brief, the industry needs engineers trained in broader engineering disciplines, whom we can then further train to apply their knowledge to specialised domains. We will work with NUS/NTU so that their final year engineering modules include rail engineering. This will allow us to tap on a broader pool of engineering talent across all faculties.

We have made a good start. I intend to expand these programmes (both pre-employment and continuing education) rapidly. We need a step-jump in training capacity for the rail sector if we are to have enough skilled engineers and technicians.

Depeening capabilities_pic2We should also find a way to eventually amalgamate these training programmes and offer even more dedicated training for the sector. We floated the idea of a “National Rail Academy” with the Public Transport Tripartite Committee, and the Committee was very supportive.

The Academy will signal the Government’s concerted and determined approach to build up and deepen rail capabilities. This will help brand the industry, assure those who enter the academy of a job after initial training, achieve economies of scale in trainers/training facilities, and allow us to implement apprentice schemes and hence start recruitment early, well before new lines come along.

*Photos courtesy of SBST and SMRT

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Restoring reliability of the North-South and East-West Lines (NSEWL)

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While discussions on the detailed plans are still on-going, the principal elements of the strategy to restore the NSEWL’s reliability are becoming clearer to us.

First, replace, overhaul and upgrade. The NSEWL are nearing their 30th year. Just like car parts need to be periodically replaced or extensively overhauled, the NSEWL’s station facilities, trains, tracks, signalling and power systems are similarly due for such an exercise. These replacement and refurbishment exercises are also an opportunity to upgrade the equipment. For example, not only must old electric motors be replaced, the power supply system may need to be upgraded to meet new demand. All these require very costly capital expenditures, but they are necessary to improve safety and reliability.

This process has begun. All the sleepers for the entire North-South Line have been replaced; the replacement on the East-West Line began in May. We have also begun replacing the third rail, which provides electric power to trains. We are also upgrading the signalling system to allow us to run trains at shorter intervals, and thus increase capacity by up to 20%.

When all these works are completed by 2018, we will essentially have an ‘almost new’ NSEWL.

Second, ramp up maintenance. The current level of maintenance is inadequate. SMRT and SBST have agreed, and are committed to significantly ramp up their maintenance resources, including manpower.

Building up the numbers is one thing. Building a strong engineering core with deep skills is another and will take time. The availability of skilled manpower is a challenge which we must overcome. To this end, we must also work hard to retain existing professionals and up-skill them at every opportunity.

Restoring reliability of NSEWL_PictureThird, better support maintenance. Currently, the maintenance crew has a limited window of engineering hours to carry out routine maintenance and major overhauls. They have asked for more time, during off-peak periods, to be set aside for maintenance. Examples include early Sunday mornings and especially during school holidays. If revenue service can be reduced by even half an hour during such off-peak periods, it will mean a lot to the maintenance crew, especially for the inspection and repair of tunnels and tracks.  We hope to get commuters’ support for such a measure.

Fourth, clear corporate and top management focus on engineering excellence. Rail technology requires advanced multi-disciplinary engineering, discipline and operational excellence to achieve a high level of reliability. Corporate focus on engineering excellence is essential and the management must reiterate it at every opportunity. SMRT’s top leadership have expressed strong commitment to me, to raise rail reliability. Frequent rail disruptions tarnish their reputation and demoralise their staff too. Shareholders  too, must, first and foremost, realise that they are buying into a specialised engineering company.

Fifth, ramp up LTA supervision. We are strengthening our regulatory regime, so that we can catch problems upstream, before they result in disruptions and delays to commuters. Till recently, we have taken a more outcome-based approach. But really, by the time a fault happens, it is too late. This is where doing things right is as important as doing the right thing. LTA is formulating a stringent set of maintenance performance standards, with more prescriptive, process-based requirements for the operators. This will complement the current outcome-based approach. A stronger maintenance culture cannot be cultivated overnight, so LTA will also help drive this by embedding dedicated teams in the NSEWL for a start to provide engineering expertise.

Sixth, forge an integrated team. As I have stressed before, rail reliability concerns everyone. Problems can emerge from design, operations or maintenance. (It may also be caused by an unintended act of a commuter.) When a problem emerges, it is more important to focus first on understanding the cause and addressing it, rather than to attribute fault (which can come later especially if it is criminal or negligence). I believe that the outcome everyone wants is for commuters to enjoy reliable service. Finger-pointing in the first instance will not get us anywhere near this outcome; it only causes distrust between parties or worse, leads to under-reporting or even cover-up. We need an enlightened approach of transparency and open collaboration amongst all parties, and I am insisting on such a culture.

Seventh, integrate the industry structure. For a complex engineering system like our rail network, we need a tightly integrated approach to achieve optimal results. All parties involved in the different stages – design, build, operate, maintain – must work closely together. For example, the designer must appreciate the operational complications and learn from them, so that his future designs can address these issues. As an engineer, I subscribe to the mantra that “a good design is easy to build, maintain and operate”. The rail industry structure must promote and facilitate such an integrated approach. There is room to improve the integration in the current MRT industry structure, with the regulator, designer and builder, working even more closely with the operator and maintainer. We will have to consider whether to rework the structure or perhaps implement new processes to realise the ideal outcome. This is a strategic issue which we are currently thinking through.

These seven elements will collectively transform the state of rail reliability. The desired outcome is for good engineers to be able to do good work, for the larger public good, undistracted from secondary non-engineering objectives. It is a multi-year effort, but if we stay the course, we can experience distinct improvements in rail reliability in the coming couple of years.

The above approach applies to the NSEWL, as well as the other lines run by the SMRT and SBST. Indeed, the approach will also guide us in starting the new line, the Thomson-East Coast Line, on the correct footing from day one, unencumbered by legacy issues.

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Larger than trains

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When I joined MND 4 years ago, I spent a lot of time thinking about public housing, but I was mindful that MND is more than HDB, much more.  While HDB and housing were hot, I also could not lift my eyes off other issues: how to raise the quality of life of Singaporeans, transform our city, make Singapore a City in a Garden, enhance animal welfare, raise the professionalism of property agents, keep food safe etc.

Likewise, MOT is more than MRT trains, much more.  While I will spend a lot of time on rail reliability and buses, I know that I will also have to focus on other sectors, especially the aviation and maritime sectors.  These are significant sectors of our economy, the health of which can impact hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans.  Their jobs and their families depend on these sectors.  And there are strong headwinds and turbulence ahead.

insert pix_T1For example, the aviation industry accounts directly for about 6% of our economy and more than 160,000 jobs. It also enhances Singapore’s proposition as a business and financial centre. But passenger traffic growth at Changi Airport has slowed down in the last two years, even as some of our competitors continue to grow. We have to help it get back on the path of growth. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Indonesia wants to manage the flight information region (FIR) over the airspace above the Riau Islands. (The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had approved for this airspace to be managed by Singapore to ensure flight safety as well as efficient flight operations of airlines and airports. This does not affect Indonesia’s sovereignty. In fact, there are many examples of countries which manage their neighbours’ airspace for the same safety and efficiency reasons.)

Likewise, the maritime industry contributes some 7% to our GDP and provides more than 170,000 jobs. Our sea port faces competition from neighbouring ports all the time. Alternative trade routes such as the Arctic Route and the proposed Kra Canal could also result in ships bypassing Singapore.

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A little red dot in an unfriendly, fiercely competitive world, requires us to be highly focused on these strategic issues, or many Singaporeans will get hurt. How we negotiate these huge geopolitical challenges can be life-and-death to Singaporeans. We do not say a lot about such challenges in public, and Singaporeans may not be fully aware. But we spend a lot of our management time and bandwidth on these critical issues.

This is not an excuse for the next train disruption. We are doing our best to make our rail system even more reliable. I just hope to get Singaporeans’ better understanding and moral support.

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Let’s protect and give way to the weakest!


We want to encourage walking and cycling: a green and healthy lifestyle. We will have more footpaths and cycling paths. Meanwhile, the market is responding with different types of “personal mobility devices” (PMDs: skateboards, kick scooters, unicycles, electric scooters, skate scooters, Segways etc). No doubt, more new types of PMD will emerge.

We need a simple, clear and consistent set of rules and norms, to minimise conflict between pedestrians, cyclists and PMD-users, and ensure safety for all. Such rules, plus common sense and fairness, require that we should watch out for and protect the weakest users.

Parl Sec Muhd Faishal has been leading a Panel of experts and stakeholders to study this and to develop such a set of rules and norms. They have been conducting consultations with the public and are in the midst of organising focus groups to dive deeper into the subject. Parl Sec Faishal is passionate about walking and cycling and his position in both MOT and MOH put him in the best position to champion this cause.

Though he has left MOT and MOH, I have asked him to continue to lead this Panel as he has developed deep knowledge on the subject and a strong network with the stakeholders.  Moreover, it is a subject of continuing interest for him.  He has readily agreed to do so.

I look forward to his Panel’s recommendations in due course.

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