TL;DR – Paper cannot cover fire.
You must have read by now that a number of SMRT trains have some hairline cracks.
The news was first reported by a Hong Kong alternative media news site called Factwire. Somehow, Factwire heard that these SMRT trains, which are made by a Chinese company called CSR Sifang, were being shipped back to Qingdao, China for repairs. Factwire then took photos of the trains being transported from Bishan Depot to Jurong Port.
Factwire even took drone photos of the trains at Jurong Port, waiting to be loaded onto a ship to be transported to China.
As expected, Singaporean alternative media sites pounced on this piece of news and had such a field day. Especially after it was revealed that LTA had known about the cracks since July 2013 and had been shipping back trains to China for repairs since 2014. In response, LTA scrambled to explain that the cracks are just hairline cracks. They desperately sought to convince Singaporeans that these cracks did not pose a critical safety concern and that the it was still safe to operate the trains.
We think that the government should learn three key lessons from this incident.
Netizens know more engineering than professional engineers
LTA conducted laboratory tests. These tests showed that the “hairline cracks were due to localised impurity in the aluminium car-body material that occurred during the manufacturing process.”
We think that means that the cracks were limited to a particular location of the train body and weren’t likely to spread. Given the nature of the cracks, LTA’s engineers then ascertained that it was still safe to operate the trains.
But to be safe, LTA even got in an independent third party assessor, TUV Rheinland, to examine the cracks. TUV Rheinland concurred with LTA’s findings.
Were Singaporeans convinced?
Many weren’t. They took to the Internet to find examples of how hairline cracks posed safety concerns. They questioned the findings of the engineers. Which is interesting. It is as if Singapore suddenly has a whole lot more engineers who possess intimate knowledge and acute understanding of material science.
Unfortunately, engineering and science don’t work that way. Just like in medical science, you can’t just listen to the symptoms that a person has and diagnose what disease he is afflicted with. A person who has a wracking cough doesn’t necessarily have tuberculosis. You actually have to take a closer look at the person and run some tests before you know if the cough is a symptom of something more serious. And to do that, you would actually need to have gone through a few years of medical training.
Similarly for this incident. Some hairline cracks can indeed spread and pose safety concerns. But it really depends on a whole host of factors, including: the nature of the alloy, the impurity that caused the crack, the position of the crack, the amount of stress that is placed on that piece of aluminium during normal operation.
Maybe that’s why LTA and SMRT chose not to announce the discovery of these cracks in 22 out of 26 trains made by CSR Sifang that were already in service then. Perhaps LTA and SMRT somehow knew that no matter what they said, there would be a vocal group of Singaporeans who wouldn’t believe them, no matter what they said. And perhaps LTA and SMRT wanted to avoid panicking the public. Consequently, they decided not to make any announcements.
Paper cannot cover fire
MRT is one of the key pillars of our public transport system. Anything that happens to our MRT system, whether trains, tunnels, power systems, cables, whatever, is something that is of public concern. That 22 SMRT trains are being shipped back to China for repairs because they have cracks sounds scandalous. Especially since LTA and SMRT didn’t make any announcements about it. It makes it seem like SMRT and LTA have something to hide.
Anything that is so potentially scandalous will definitely attract eyeballs. Anything that attract eyeballs will be of interest to media platforms. While (many believe) the Singapore mainstream media can be
whipped into silence convinced to not publish any news on this, the Singaporean government probably doesn’t have as much influence, if at all, on foreign alternative media platforms.
And you know what they say – when there’s a will, there’s a way.
Factwire seemed to have spent much effort on this story. From digging out information that the trains were being transported to China because of hairline cracks, to staking out the depot to photograph the trains being transported, and even to taking photos of the trains in Jurong Port using drones. We wonder if it’s even legal to fly the drone over Jurong Port (not protected area?) You must really give it to them for all that they put in to scooping this story. In fact, Factwire paid so much attention, dedicated so much resources, published so many posts that a few people have started wondering if Singapore is but a pawn in a larger political game.
And what it shows is that if something is potentially scandalous about the government, someone, somewhere will dig it out and make a big deal out of it. And then the echo chamber of the Internet will amplify it.
Better to be frank and upfront as early as possible
We do not know exactly why LTA and SMRT decided not to make any announcements about the cracks back in July 2013. But on hindsight, it seems that they couldn’t have done any worse had they made some announcements earlier. All their press releases that are coming out in dribs and drabs only now make them seem really defensive. It makes it even harder for Singaporeans to be convinced that the cracks are not something that we should be seriously concerned about.
After all, if it weren’t serious, why not be upfront about it? Why only tell now that someone else has published the story? Given the way things have turned out, you can’t blame Singaporeans for thinking that LTA and SMRT had something to hide. Consequently, you can’t blame Singaporeans for not trusting what LTA is now saying.
And you can’t blame Singaporeans for being angry too. Angry at both the government and at mainstream media. What else is the government hiding from us? What are the mainstream media doing? Can we still trust the mainstream media to report news that matter to us? Or are they just a mouthpiece of the government?
Honesty is the best policy. As Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Prime Minister advised:
“Open government, Prime Minister. Freedom of information. We should always tell the press freely and frankly anything that they could easily find out some other way.”
Hopefully, the government will learn from this and improve its PR team.
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