Making It Personal

Mr Ngien Hoon Ping takes his role at the helm of Land Transport Authority (LTA) personally. He shares with Challenge his motivation, how he nurtures the relationship between public transport operators and his organisation, and his personal stake in making hard decisions.
LTA Chief Executive Ngien Hoon Ping

In March 2016, before he was offered the role of Chief Executive at the Land Transport Authority (LTA), Mr Ngien Hoon Ping promised himself that, if asked, he would accept.

This was not a matter of personal ambition. When he heard that two SMRT technicians had died while on the job, the news struck a chord. “I felt the pain deeply because I worked with technicians for a good part of my career in the Singapore Armed Forces,” he says. As a long-time “maintenance practitioner”, he felt moved to help prevent such accidents in the future.

Prior to being Deputy Secretary (Performance) in the Ministry of Finance from 2013 to 2016, Mr Ngien had served over 15 years in the Ministry of Defence in the fields of maintenance, engineering, logistics and operations. Equipped with this background, he made good on his promise when he joined the LTA in November 2016.

Several people had dissuaded him from accepting the role, citing career and health risks, but Mr Ngien was prepared to give it his all, buttressed by a mix of personal stake and national pride. Having a reliable rail system is a national imperative, he says, affecting not just confidence in the government, but how Singapore is viewed by the rest of the world.


“I should, as a Singaporean, try to do my part to restore the MRT system. And even if I fail – I didn't know if I would succeed – I just thought that I must give it my best shot."

Put to the test

His resolve was put to the test many times. The first year into the job, a viaduct on the Pan Island Expressway collapsed, two trains collided at the Joo Koon MRT station, and a tunnel near the Bishan MRT station flooded.

These and continued disruptions led to moments of self-doubt for Mr Ngien. But it was critical to him that these incidents did not drive a wedge between the public transport operators and the LTA, but instead form the foundation for better partnerships.


After all, tackling rail system issues is not purely technical – it goes beyond rail renewal works. “There were relationship issues with SMRT that we had to deal with, relationship bridges to be restored, and trust to be built again.”

This required both parties to reframe incidents and failures as opportunities for learning and working together. “I've worked very hard on that at a very personal level, working to regain that trust so that we can share information freely and just focus on dealing with the problems without pointing fingers,” adds Mr Ngien.

Between 2017 and 2018, he and his team of directors would meet SMRT and equipment manufacturer Thales after office hours. Top LTA engineers were also seconded to SMRT to help with technical issues. The meetings not only cemented collaboration and built capabilities; they created a culture of openness. This outcome, Mr Ngien says, is the mark of true success.

Learning process for all

“I am more concerned about the process by which we get things done,” he points out. “Otherwise it would be a wasted opportunity. The project would get done, but only a few people would have learnt.”

Mr Ngien frequently engages with the transport operators and his own team at the LTA. He keeps in touch with project directors in various chat groups, encouraging them to highlight issues and problems so they can be solved together.

At meetings, he is known to prompt his staff to sum up the good news, and focus on highlighting the risks and difficulties. “That's very important because if you want to hear only good news, then by the time you hear the bad news, it's too late.”

Mr Ngien acknowledges each report by offering ideas or extending praise, ensuring that his guidance to share bad news does not become mere rhetoric.

“If you're not open about issues and problems, then you tend to fear when things go wrong,” he says.

Space, and courage, to fail

This open culture has a bearing on what Mr Ngien calls the “dare to try” mindset. Be it a trial for coloured LED lights at pedestrian crossings, protective screens for bus drivers, or the use of drones and security robots, he urges LTA officers to experiment and gather feedback. Each proof-of-concept project is done within short six-month blocks to keep officers energised.

With such experimentation, “by definition, there will be mistakes made”, says Mr Ngien. “But it's about accepting it and giving that space for our colleagues to try and fail.” And should things not work out, he reassures his team: “Don’t worry, let’s do it all on my shift. If we don't try, we'll never know how we can improve our operations.”


Taking charge as leaders

When the Joo Koon collision happened in late 2017, the reliability and safety of the new signalling system was being questioned. After a rigorous technical and safety review with the SMRT team, Mr Ngien and SMRT Trains CEO, Mr Lee Ling Wee, decided to continue with deploying the system for passenger service the next day.

Mr Ngien emphasised that when it comes to the crunch, leaders have to make the call on behalf of the team and take full responsibility for decisions made. The incident illustrates not just the importance of personal responsibility as a leader, but also the value of banding together to weather difficult times.

For all the challenges that the LTA has been through, Mr Ngien takes pride in the LTA staff’s resilience and dedication. “Sometimes they encourage me, sometimes I encourage them. But it's about that whole belief that we are making a difference whether or not the public understands fully what we're trying to do.”


What’s in your cuppa?
Teh C Kosong

How often do you have it?
Every morning at home, and two more cups at work

    May 15, 2019
    Sheralyn Tay
    Norman Ng
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