Kuek's tenure marked by setbacks as well as improvements; ex-general is likely successor
SMRT chief stepping down after 5½ years in charge SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek (left) and his likely successor, former chief of defence force Neo Kian Hong.

SMRT chief executive Desmond Kuek is stepping down after 5½ years at the helm, and his successor is expected to be former chief of defence force Neo Kian Hong.

The development comes as the rail network looks to be turning a corner for reliability after a rough patch last year that saw train tunnels flooding and trains colliding.

Mr Neo, 54, is currently Permanent Secretary for Defence Development and this is not the first time he will be stepping into Mr Kuek's shoes. In 2010, he succeeded Mr Kuek, 55, as chief of defence force.

The Straits Times understands that a formal announcement of the change will be made as early as today, after months of speculation that Mr Kuek will vacate his post.

A Singapore Armed Forces overseas scholarship holder and a guardsman, Mr Neo had a 30-year military career, rising to the rank of lieutenant-general. After serving as chief of army and chief of defence force, he was permanent secretary in the Education Ministry from 2013 to last year.

Mr Neo holds a bachelor's degree in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of London and a Master of Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Professor Hong Hai, a former MP who has also served as dean of the Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School, hoped the incoming chief executive would get stronger support from SMRT's board than what some of his predecessors received. "The new CEO also has the advantage of riding on the experience gained by the company in recent troubled years," he added.

Mr Kuek, also a former permanent secretary, took the helm of the rail operator in October 2012, replacing retailer Saw Phaik Hwa after her 10-year tenure.

Under his watch, the rail operator faced major challenges while shoring up ageing infrastructure.

In July 2015, the North-South and East-West lines - Singapore's two main lines - broke down during the evening peak, affecting nearly half a million commuters.

There were other setbacks too - two SMRT technicians were killed by a train in 2016 and train tunnels became flooded in Bishan last October on account of wilful lapses in maintenance. Just a month after that, a train collision at Joo Koon station injured more than 30 people.

But it was also under Mr Kuek that fundamental and structural changes were made. These include the privatisation of SMRT, and the implementation of a New Rail Financing Framework where the Government assumes ownership of all rail assets - a move expected to lead to more timely replacement of those assets to keep major breakdowns at bay.

He also oversaw the replacement of several major components of the ageing system, such as the power-supplying third rail and the signalling system, while SMRT's rail reliability improved significantly.

Last year, the North-South Line averaged 336,000km before a delay occurred, up from 70,000km in 2012, while the East-West Line clocked 278,000km, up from 60,000km in 2012.

During an annual performance review last month, Mr Kuek spelt out bold targets for SMRT's network - to be at least three times as reliable by 2020, and to eliminate major delays (those exceeding 30 minutes) altogether. Those targets may well rest with Mr Neo now.