Thursday 26 January 2012

PM Lee gives transport workers a boost on the first day of the Chinese New Year

He thanks them for hard work during a 'demanding year'
By Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2012

AMID public frustration over last month's train breakdowns, the Prime Minister has urged Singaporeans to understand that SMRT staff are toiling to get at the root of the problem, even as they strive to rebuild public confidence in the MRT system.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong made this appeal after visiting public transport workers on the first day of the Chinese New Year to thank them for their hard work after a 'demanding year'.

'We've had some mishaps on the MRT, and Singaporeans have been upset with it,' he said. 'The MRT and SBS staff have been under considerable pressure but they have been working away quietly to try and put right the problem and improve the service.

'So I came to say thank you to them, and also on behalf of Singaporeans, to express our appreciation and to encourage them to keep up the good work.'

Speaking in Mandarin, he added: 'Their work is not easy and they are trying their best, so we should understand that while there are problems, our MRT staff deserve our respect and thanks.'

Two massive breakdowns struck the MRT system on Dec 15 and 17, affecting some 200,000 passengers. They were the worst in the train system's 24-year history. SMRT chief executive Saw Phaik Hwa has since resigned, and investigations into the breakdowns are under way.

Mr Lee spent over three hours early on Monday morning meeting 220 workers at seven MRT stations and the Jurong East bus interchange. He distributed mandarin oranges and hongbao, and joined the workers in tossing yusheng (raw fish salad).

He was accompanied by his wife, Ms Ho Ching, labour chief Lim Swee Say, union leaders, and senior executives from SMRT and SBS Transit.

The Prime Minister traditionally visits workers on the first day of the Chinese New Year to thank them for keeping things running while the rest of Singapore is celebrating or resting.

The last time he visited public transport workers on Chinese New Year was five years ago.

Mr Lee observed that much about their job scope had changed since.

'In the last five years, their work has grown. The transport system has expanded, there are a lot more passengers, commuters, and a lot more expectations of good service from the train as well as bus services,' he said.

Among the workers he met was senior bus driver Ong Yeo Seng, 64, who has been at the job for 29 years. He told The Straits Times that he was touched by Mr Lee's gesture and that he had no problem with working on Chinese New Year.

'It is something I am mentally prepared to do, since I am in the service line,' said Mr Ong in Mandarin.

Also appreciating Mr Lee's visit was SMRT's interim chief executive Tan Ek Kia, who said that the staff worked hard to restore services after the recent breakdowns.

'We will continue to work hard and make improvements based on what we have been able to identify in the last few weeks,' he said.

Speaking to reporters after visiting the workers, Mr Lee also touched on the economy and the upcoming Budget on Feb 17.

'The economy is likely to be slower this year, but it is not going to be like (in) 2008, 2009, so I think we have to take it in our stride,' he said.

Asked what that meant for possible goodies in the Budget, he said: 'I think this is Chinese New Year, so hongbao are on everybody's mind, but we will see how our Budget works out.

'The Government will know what it needs to do, but hongbao are usually (given) around Chinese New Year.'

The global financial crisis hit Singapore in 2008 and the economy grew 1.5 per cent that year. In 2009, the economy contracted 0.8 per cent.

The Government expects this year's growth to be between 1 and 3 per cent, down from 4.8 per cent last year.

For one, larger Baby Bonuses are unlikely to be immediately on the cards.

Singapore's total fertility rate reversed its downward slide last year, going up to 1.2 - from a historic low of 1.15 in 2010.

Mr Lee said that there was already a comprehensive range of incentives to lessen parents' burdens.

'The critical point now is social mood and social climate as well as attitudes of parents and couples towards children... That's something we have to get across progressively, step by step.'

However, he promised to review the scheme from time to time. He also urged married couples to think about starting a family.

'If you are thinking about possibly having a baby, why not make up your mind. And if you're not yet having it first on your agenda, let's think about it.

'If you start thinking now, there's just enough time to have a Dragon baby,' he said with a laugh.

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