The smart HR professional's blueprint for workforce strategy

Cover story - All aboard

By: Jacelyn Woo, Singapore
Published: Jan 01, 2005

SMRT's headquarters is situated in one of the busiest part of town. Yet, many people, including those who have gone past it to get across to Raffles City shopping mall, just opposite the road, seem to pay little heed to the brown low-rise architecture. As you enter the nondescript building, locating the reception area presents another challenge. As the centre of the building's cylindrical foyer has been sealed and cordoned off for refurbishment, you'll have to walk around in circle, literally, until you come to the ‘front desk'. That's going to change, however, once the renovations are out of the way. The new reception area will no longer be recessed like it is now but will be situated at the front to greet incoming guests.


Other facelifts are also taking place at SMRT's headquarters concurrently. The human resources department, for one, has just had a fresh coat of exuberant blue paint over its dowdy grey walls, with new soothing sky blue partitions to match. Over at the corporate communication division, lime green is fast replacing beige as the new department colour. But more significant than the physical changes taking place is the wave of radical organisational restructuring that has gained momentum in the last 18 months.

Referring to the speed at which changes are taking place at the transport company, Yeo Meng Hin notes that the rate of development at SMRT is not very different from that of a typical change process. The speed of change is first impeded by resistance then picks up after the people affected have taken the first step to embrace the change. The executive vice president of SMRT's corporate services, which include human resources, IT and security and emergency planning, believes that SMRT has cleared the speed hump and is well on its way to achieving what its redefined corporate mission sets out to do.

Instrumental to achieving the corporate mission is the need to internalise the mission and vision and align its 9,000 staff with its new set of core values, a role which falls squarely on the shoulders of Yeo and his team, who relish the challenge.

Task-oriented and driven, Yeo joined the organisation about one and a half years ago. Though he confesses to being a workaholic, he maintains he is serious about work-life balance. His wife and he coach their two home-schooled children, aged six and ten. Yeo also runs a charity organisation that helps abused children rebuild self-esteem and connect with the society in a positive way.

Yeo's career has gone from corporate HR to HR consultancy at former Buck Consultants, now Mellon Consulting, and back to line again. "If you're a consultant, you get access to the best ideas and best practices in the world and you get to implement the cutting edge of HR practices with your clients," explains Yeo. He attributes having to chase the dollar and making sure of earning his keep as the main challenges of consultancy. The then director of consulting for Buck Consultants' Asian operations, Yeo says he joined the firm back then to revive the business which he describes has "gone into a bit of a slumber". During his one-year tenure, he opened a whole new line of revenue for the business and one of the major contracts he helped clinched was the benefits administration for MINDEF's 20,000 staff.


Yeo notes, however, that even in line, HR practitioners should think of how their contributions to the company justify their salaries. "You think like a consultant when you're in line and like an HR practitioner when you're a consultant; the two roles compliment each other."

To describe his career, Yeo says a friend of his once commented that he is "doomed for the hard life". "In fact, my wife puts it more blatantly by saying I always go in (an organisation) to clean shit!" One tough assignment he took on was at KFC International. His remit was to change the union relationship which turned sour when a manager, his predecessor, stopped the funding for a Chinese celebration during the lunar seventh month. Yeo successfully turned things around and helped the fast food company negotiate and sign a collective bargain in the six months he worked there. No mean feat, considering that the employees were almost on a brink of a strike shortly before he joined.

The SMRT story began in August 1987 with transportation as its core business. The company offers multi-modal public transport services in Singapore through its subsidiaries, such as SMRT Trains, SMRT Light Rail, SMRT Taxis and SMRT Buses. In December 2001, SMRT merged with TIBS and in May 2004, aligned its businesses under a single SMRT brand. The move positions the organisation as a holistic, integrated public transport service provider offering a complete range of public transport services to facilitate seamless travel. It also strengthens SMRT's competitive advantage in overseas business ventures through reflecting its wide-ranging expertise in providing multi-modal public transport and related engineering services. In addition to the provision of train, bus and taxi services, SMRT also provides maintenance consultancy and project management services in railway systems. The company announced net earnings of S$81.3 million for the six months ending 30 September 2004.

With so much restructuring and growth taking place, it's a good idea to ensure the foundations aren't wobbly. "Employee engagement is a major issue", says Yeo. And communication is an integral part of that. Apart from the dialogue sessions that are conducted every other month with every business, SMRT also holds quarterly performance updates and issues memos to staff to help them understand what the changes are and where the organisation is heading so staff continue to feel that they are in control to help forward the company's strategic goals. "During changes, we put a lot of emphasis on communication to engage the staff and align their efforts behind these changes," says Yeo. "One of key challenges we face is in ensuring that we make our messages understandable and meaningful to the different levels of staff."

As for forging a new culture, Yeo says the organisation is focused on building a more friendly and service-oriented approach. "Our staff are proud that they're providing a service to the public. But more than that, we want employees to view not just the two million people who use our services as customers but the entire population of four million people as our customers."

The physical, structural and cultural changes add to the impetus to invigorate SMRT's environment. With the Circle Line scheduled to be up and running in 2009, one of Yeo's priorities is to ensure that SMRT has the resources to continue running the business effectively. "SMRT is a 20-year-old organisation. While a lot of our staff are very experienced and competent in their work, it's time we start looking at building a new line of successors. We have to take a long term view towards developing our leaders as the business is not built overnight" says Yeo.

For its succession planning system, SMRT has opted not to go with "the too traditional models", such as the one-to-one model where the company identifies and trains a chosen staff member as the next C level executive or a many-to-one approach, whereby a group of high potentials receive training for a particular role before the most suitable candidate is picked.

What SMRT has done for the first time last year is it cherry picked a group of about 60 "perceived high potentials but definitely high performers" comprising managers, executives and junior executives. The group, known internally as the Development Pool, will be groomed and trained for the prospect of becoming the next generation of SMRT leaders.

Companies often face the dilemma of whether or not to announce their high potentials. "My point is if it's open and they fall out of the pool in two years, wouldn't that be embarrassing? We had a discussion with the pool about this. They said they'd like to be open". Yeo says announcing the crème de la crèmes opens them up to the constant scrutiny by their peers, bosses, and subordinates - everyone around them. "People in the pool must start thinking at all times that they may become future leaders of SMRT." He predicts, however, that at some point, someone will drop out of the pool because they would have reached their maximum capacity; unable to progress further.

There have been changes in the last few months since SMRT announced its high potentials. For instance, a 33-year-old executive from the planning division was moved to the station operation department to run all 51 MRT stations. Another case in point is one of its escalator engineers of many years, who was assigned the task of managing SMRT's participation in the 2003 national day parade. In carrying out the assignment, the engineer demonstrated key leadership qualities such as problem-solving skills and adeptness at engaging his team. Already pleased with the engineer's track record, the organisation was so impressed with his performance at the assignment that he was given the role of managing the East West train line.

On how the human resources division figures in the succession planning process, he reveals, "Choosing leaders and talent is not HR's role, it's that of the other line managers. But HR has incubated and hot-housed the process to get it on its way." As for challenges, Yeo says it would have to be retention. "You'll never know whether the people whom you train will leave you. We just have to be very cautious with our selection."

In the recent months, there has been a spate of accidents involving people falling into MRT tracks. These accidents have chocked up so much bad press and finger-pointing against SMRT that several public inquiries were being called into the security and safety of their train system. Surely, that must have a negative impact on staff morale, particularly frontline employees working at train stations.

"Every one of our four million customers (by SMRT's definition) feels they are transport engineers and experts and all of them have a view about how the system should be managed. As far as the safety of our train system and our stations are concerned, SMRT has satisfied, even gone beyond, the safety criteria and regulations set out by the LTA (Land Transport Authority). And because of that, our employees can face up to the scrutiny because they know they've done an excellent job," Yeo asserts.

As a transport provider for 2 million commuters, SMRT can never be too careful when it comes to security issues. So, it is good to know that disaster preparedness is highly regarded by the organisation. To that end, the organisation has put in place a system known as Major Instant Management Programme (MIMP), which deals with exigency and epidemic planning and training.

Early last year, SMRT, in conjunction with the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) and the Police, conducted a drill exercise on chemical biological attacks. "Until the last drill, one of the areas we hadn't practised was logistics. If you look at the Gulf War, the major deciding factor on the win of the war then was logistics. If you extend your line too far, you can get cut off and you won't be able to re-supply your frontline. I'm not a military man but I learn the strategies," says Yeo.

Epidemic outbreaks like SARS is another major concern for the organisation and an area covered rather extensively in its MIMP, adds Yeo. "In the event SARS strikes again, we have a plan to spilt the company into two groups, including the management team, so that we're still able to operate, should one of the teams be infected." Yeo adds that by early 2005, SMRT will have developed a document that covers every conceivable emergency pertaining to its different modes of transport including trains, buses and taxi. "It's a living document that will keep evolving."


With so much changes and developments undergoing at SMRT, it must be an exciting time for the organisation. But more than just the fleeting buzzes, the highpoint for Yeo being in the HR role is that it offers him a good blend of two of his most desired careers - teaching and social work. "I feel like I've been an underdog all my life but I've been given opportunities to develop. Being in HR allows me to help people in that way." Yeo is also motivated by the opportunity to help companies establish an emotional bond with its employees. "It's like if you're overseas and Singapore is playing an international match, you'll feel a sense of pride for the country no matter how badly it performs. If I can get any organisation I work with to feel that connection, that will be a good reward for me."


Yeo Meng Hin


Graduated from National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Arts (Economics), Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management from the Singapore Institute of Management (1989), Certified Compensation Professional (CCP) and Global Remuneration Professional (GRP) certification, 1997-1999  and awarded University of Phoenix MBA Scholarship in 2003.



Started his HR career in training, HR and established credible relationships with unions in industrial relations during his tenure with Hotel Royal Ltd and Kentucky Fried Chicken Mgt Pte Ltd as the personnel manager.


Consultant, HR. Provided consulting and advisory services in the area of industrial relations and HR management to various industry groups whilst with Singapore National Employers Federation

Enhanced HR's capabilities as a strategic business player in Maybank Singapore as the head of HR


Joined Buck Consulting as director, consulting services


Group vice president, Human Resource APAC. Provided strategic HR leadership to DFS Group's regional HR teams

2004 - Executive VP, corporate services. Leads the HR & administration, IT and security & emergency planning teams at SMRT Corporation Ltd

Companies featured:

  • SMRT Corporation Ltd


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