Afterthoughts – The SMRT Bus Driver Strike

The SMRT bus driver strike that went on from Monday to Tuesday was hardly a surprise to me even though the last strike by transport workers at the Hock Lee Bus Depot was in 1955. Furthermore, it’s really not the first time foreign workers stood up to fight for their rights in the past few years. If I am not wrong, some Gurkhas were reported to have been injured over a in 2008, about 100 mainland Chinese [PRC] construction workers also crowded the main entrance of the Ministry of Manpower [MOM] building in Havelock Road in Jan 2009, and a group of Bangladeshi workers staged a sit in earlier this year – all over wage disputes. The only thing that surprised me was that I first read about this strike on Facebook instead of my usual news feeds, and that it involved a Temasek-Linked Company (or TLC) – SMRT.

Regardless how some of us felt about PRC workers in general, they clearly have more courage than any Singaporean. In spite of my protectionists views as far as employment is concerned, I actually welcomed these workers because they do share some similarities with some of our ancestors who left their homeland to seek a living in Singapore. Thus, I would give a Bangladeshi construction worker more respect than that so-called “foreign talent” taking up a managerial position, or even taking up a job which I believe even a properly trained local ITE graduate can do better, and with more dedication.

I have always been in the opinion that Singapore’s continual exploitation of low wage foreign workers cannot continue, and it is inevitable that this matter would come to a head. Companies running essential services must come to realise and accept lower profits in the future, and in fact, its shareholders should stop expecting annual dividends through a two-way exploitation of commuters, and low wage foreign transport workers. I am not asking that we pay more to entice locals to take up these jobs because that would be unrealistic. I am simply saying the nonsense that commuters either accept paying more or accept lower wage drivers (who at times can’t even do the job equally well) must stop when transport operators are already making obscene profits. If we are to continue down this path, then this strike by the PRC drivers will not be the last, but instead be a harbinger of future industrial action to come regardless of what harsh actions the law will take against the ringleaders of this particular incident.

It took two days before the matter “boils over”. It gives me the impression that SMRT didn’t seem to expect it, or at the very least, the government seem to believe that SMRT could keep it contained. Above which, I was certainly floored by the statement from the National Transport Workers’ Union [NTWU], and the wayang of the local main stream media [MSM]. So, let me talk about them one at a time.

First of all, SMRT certainly did a bad job in containing the situation. I doubt the PRC drivers woke up one morning on the wrong side of the bed and suddenly decided collectively to go on strike without having first approach the management in the past to address their grievances, both real or imagined. My opinion is that they must have endured it for some time before they took action. They must have felt their feedback was not taken seriously before deciding on this drastic course of action. In short, the time to contain it was already over when the PRC drivers refused to report for work. If that wasn’t the case, why would the National Trade Union Congress [NTUC] say, “Management must maintain an open line of communication with their workers especially those who are not union members, and workers must recognise that there is a right and proper way to air their grievances”?

The way SMRT handled public relations [PR] in this incident remained atrocious in spite of the experience they gained from the train breakdowns last year. There was no statement coming from the company to inform the public why their drivers are on strike or what actions they were taking to resolve the situation. There was also nothing to inform commuters whether things are under control, which lines are most affected, or what measures are being taken to cushion any possible impact. SMRT seems to be day-dreaming throughout the duration of the strike. It wasn’t until Tan Chuan Jin, the Minister of Manpower, start calling it an illegal strike in a conference that SMRT released a statement about ‘a police report being file over “possible breaches of the law”, and internal investigations conducted to determine whether or not employment terms had been breached.’. By then, speculation is rife on social media and I no longer have any illusion that the new CEO would have been any better than his predecessor, the accursed Saw “Phiak Phiak”.

In any case, shareholders should give the new CEO his baptism of fire and a good grilling at the next Annual General Meeting [AGM]. They should find out what was the estimated loss of revenue and the cost of down time. A friend was saying that it shouldn’t be too difficult to do that because any guy who has barely passed his accounting will be able to extrapolate and work out some numbers on an excel spreadsheet using last year’s annual report. Let us not forget also the cost in terms of man hours needed to contain this PR fiasco, plus the loss of good will as well.

Next, the NTWU is an utter joke. This sham of a union said that it does not have the legal mandate to represent the PRC drivers as they are not union members. How nice! I didn’t know that a union works like an exclusive club these days. But the most funny part has got to be – “we urge these workers to return to work immediately as public transport is an essential service for the members of the public. They should approach the Ministry of Manpower or Migrant Workers Centre for assistance.” I am not surprised if the PRC drivers respond with a loud “Doh!” to that! Even though those drivers are not their members, my opinion is that the least the NTWU could do was to express concern and if not, just shut the f@#k up. It might even have been the NTWU’s finest hour had they stepped in and help negotiate a mutually beneficial outcome. That would have shown the PRC drivers why a NTWU membership is valuable and it would have enticed them to join. I find it even more amusing when Gerald Tan, a former Industrial Relations Officer with the NTUC, wrote an article to The Online Citizen saying that PRC drivers won’t bother joining because the $9 per month membership would be “too costly” for them and they would prefer to save that money to remit home. But well, while it was merely an opinion that all the trade unions in Singapore are utterly useless and an utter sham in the past, the actions of the NTWU merely affirmed it as a fact. After all, workers that won’t fall in line and dance to the tune of the government controlled unions can always be dealt with the Internal Security Act [ISA]. There is however one thing that Gerald Tan is right about. A union membership these days is only good for getting discounts or points at the NTUC supermarkets, and booking chalets at Downtown East.

The media response is another laughing stock. When it was first reported, the word ‘strike’ was used to describe the incident. Over the next few hours, it morphed into many different things – such as ‘refused to work’, ‘sit in’ etc. In Chinese, it went from 罢工 (strike) on the evening tabloid Shin Ming Daily (新明日报) to 旷工 (absent from work without reason, or failing to inform the employer of absence) on Mediacorp’s Channel 8 evening news at 10pm. After going through all the pains pussyfooting around the matter, it was finally called a ‘strike’ again in less than a day. And that only happened after the official press conference held jointly by the Minister of State for Manpower and the Minister of State for Transport. Clearly, the MSM was more interested in being political correct than keeping the people up to date and informed. As if that isn’t bad enough, I actually saw a picture circulating on Facebook which showed the MSM staking out at the dormitory. I would have expected it to get out at least to Yishun or perhaps even Choa Chu Kang Interchange – where the bulk of SMRT buses operates out of – to find out what the impact was like to the commuters. There was also scant information on about the drivers’ actual grievances, which only went on to fuel the flames of anti-PRC sentiments which certain sites are happy to fan. While an article about what other bus drivers have to say about their PRC colleagues maybe useful, what was really annoying was some clown threatening us with more fare increments so that we can “pay the drivers more fairly”. Oh, really? Was it to pay them more fairly, or just to maintain the profits? Seriously, it would be a joke to even consider this as journalism!

Lastly, the government response. I wouldn’t fault them on the response time, since I grudgingly accept the fact that they need to ascertain the facts before making a decision on what to do about it. However, I still can’t help but feel that had the drivers been Singaporeans, they would probably be enjoying some coffee in the Internal Security Department [ISD] faster than you can spell the name in full. The government can’t however do the same to a bunch of foreigners because it might turn into a diplomatic and foreign affairs fiasco if handled badly. Anyway, that joint press conference gave us very little details other than labeling the strike an illegal one, which thus allow the government to bring the full force of the law on the PRC drivers. That’s of little comfort to me because I still have no idea what was the impact of the strike on commuters. Mrs Josephine Teo told the press that SMRT was able to maintain services at 90% on the first day and then 95% on the next. Since bus ridership is 28,784,000 in the month of October according to SMRT, that means approximately 928500 riders a day. A simplistic view would be that 46,400 ~ 92,850 commuter trips were affected, even though different routes have different traffic profiles and thus the figures cannot be so easily determined. There was no word on the increase in waiting and traveling time as well, and I felt sorry for the chap who ends up being late for work and losing his monthly punctuality bonus as a result. The worst part of it all is that the poor chap has nothing to back him up if he wants to appeal against that.

Thus, even though this look like a really small strike, the media has failed to look deeper and give us a clearer picture on the impact of this. With only about two-thirds of our population being Singaporeans, the impact of a even larger scale strike would be staggering. A friend jokingly said over dinner that because certain trades are now dominated by certain foreign nationals, any of those groups could now easily paralyze entire departments of a company. If their fellow countrymen in one sector goes on strike and those in another sector decided to do the same in support, it might even paralyze our country. And what can we do about that? We simply don’t have the manpower in our police force to deal with this. Even if we mobilise the entire force of our Operationally Ready National Service force, we would be hard pressed to return things to normality. That’s not forgetting that mobilising a large part of the male population away from work would further hurt our economy. It is laughable that political leaders of the ruling party and our pathetic lapdog media would have us believe that Singapore can’t do without foreign workers when they have now become the Sword of Damocles poised over our heads! Of course it would sound a little paranoid or xenophobic for me to say this:

While threats from the enemy without maybe really low, it is now the threat of the “enemy within” that we should be really worried about.


  1. Good analysis. Pay And Profit (PAP) Govt have compromised NATIONAL SECURITY (be it in transport, commerce, healthcare, etc) through poorly calibrated laws and policies.

    To draw parallel analogy – Ex-Health Minister KHAW BOON WAN so kindly offered “option” of packing off our frail elderly to JB NURSING HOMES.

    Khaw cawed:
    – Land/Labour much cheaper there,
    – Chartered bus service to bring family members to visit on weekends (anyway, even in Singapore, visits are usually only on weekends) and even do some shopping/feasting in JB,
    – Near enuf to come back to Spore in medical emergency, etc.

    Despite Multi-Million $$$ Pay, Minister Khaw FAILED to see the risk of elderly abuse by Nursing Home Staff in FOREIGN JURISDICTION when he so kindly gave “option” to help Singaporeans.

    But Sembawang GRC voters are big fans of Minister Khaw Boon Wan because he replies directly to their e-mails – Khaw’s PR skill flatters the “small people’s big ego”!

    If the Nightingale Nursing Home saga had happened in JB, could MOH do anything (eg, suspend new admission, decline biennial licence renewal, etc).

    Even then, MOH and msm had the temerity to withhold public release of the abuse even AFTER MOH had completed their Nightingale investigation in Apr 2011. Why? GE 2011 in May 2011. So Mediacorp broadcast only in Jun 2011 (one month AFTER GE).

    The BIGGEST JOKE is PAP always tell Singaporeans to vote for PAP based on their RECORD IN PAST YEARS. But PAP hide the issues that will mar their RECORD. To milk public sympathy, Minister Khaw even cried at GE2011 Rally after paying $8 cash for his heart surgery in Class A ward!

    Now for MOM – Since SMRT have admitted culpability (“could do better”) and bus drivers resorted to strike as LAST STRAW, MOM should be TEMPERED in enforcing the law. Issue severe warning letter and dock pay for no-show work days.

    Win their hearts and minds when it takes 2 hands to clap.
    The Pariah´s last blog post ..April Fool’s Day

    1. Good point raised there. That is why I have been in the opinion that the performance of our so-called “elite” ministers have been far from stellar, and that when the PAP gets given the boot it is not so much because the opposition has gotten better but that everyone felt the opposition can’t do any worse.

  2. With “2/3 of our population being foreigners”, our ISA may invite you for tea for “instigating” your readers, you know ?

  3. Thank you for a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the situation.

    Certainly the PRC fellows have far more courage than Sporeans, who will only wait till the next GE to try and change things. Despite some Sporeans sneering that the Chinese have nothing to lose and can just go home, these Sporeans forget that the men have families to support and no doubt owe their agents a sizeable sum for a job here. That they too dream of better lives.

    There’s also a high probability that these fellows were never told what they’d have to go through here, and of course, they have no means to check it out. But I’m sure word is getting around in China, and the rest of Asean.

    I am also grateful to the drivers for highlighting how badly this country treats the lowly-paid foreign worker, who Spore claims is essential for its well-being, and what a joke Spore’s so-called helplines for ALL workers are.

    SMRT is proving to be an utter disaster as a company. Makes you wonder if all GLCs are run in the same shoddy, amateurish way.
    It does not help that the quality of newspaper reports today are equally amateurish, even though SPH is not officially a GLC.

    I would like to point out tghat this potential diplomatic hot potato did not stop the govt from seizing the opportunity to slip in an amazing hike in property tax for HDB flat dwellers, while people are distracted.

    The enemy in this country certainly is not without but within. It starts at the top with unthought/poorly thought through policies, and the govt’s determination to grow the economy At All Costs. It goes right down to the encouragement for decades of an unthinking, money-worshipping attitude.

    We have become a sad, squashed, stressed-out and dispirited people, wimps, with priorities which need re-examination. It’s a pretty poor base from which to proceed through this new century. It doesn’t help when the latest govt effort is to talk us into accepting more of the same dodgy decisions.

  4. The enemy within may be the clown running this country to the ground by opening the floodgates wide open.

    When he disenfranchise the citizens, who is going to stand up for the country?

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