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I'm single... I should spend as I wish: Ex SMRT CEO

Saw Phaik Hwa on her Ferrari, Mercedes and $1.85m salary. -TNP
Benita Aw Yeong

Tue, Mar 20, 2012
The New Paper

She has been criticised for what she said, how she spent her money and that infamous photo of her seated on a sedan chair carried by young men. Ms Saw Phaik Hwa addresses them head-on: "People can board the train - it is whether they choose to."

It is a remark commuters refuse to forget.

In fact, the quote has been repeatedly raised in forum letters which slam the ex-CEO for her lack of empathy.

It was also circulated in online forums with a new vengeance after the series of train disruptions late last year.

Ms Saw says her words were taken out of context and they have now "taken on a life of its own".

The comment was made at a doorstop interview three years ago in response to a journalist who asked her about not being able to board a train at City Hall MRT station at about 9am in the morning, she explains.

"I said then: 'The peak ends at 8-something and at 9 o'clock, you should be able to board if you wish to because it's not crowded.'"

She explains at length that her answer was about a specific situation and time at a particular station three years ago, when the trains were not as crowded as they are now.

"But now that that has been turned (around) to say that I disagree that trains are crowded. Of course, the trains are crowded now."

"Why would I say it's not crowded? I'm not blind; I take the trains myself. So it's crazy."

And the outgoing SMRT CEO says she has done her part to ease the crunch.

"I have added a thousand over trips on trains per week so that I have more trains to take away the crowd.

"And I have put in people to man the platforms, to tell the customers to move in and go to the further ends of the trains, which are less crowded," she adds.

Ms Saw goes on to address another inaccurate perception of how she ran things.

"People feel that I am insensitive to the crowdedness and that customer service is not important us.

"And because I want to make money, I cut down on cost and maintenance, and that's why the breakdown happened.

"It's almost like I don't care about the consumer and nothing is further from the truth."

A look into the life of Saw Phaik Hwa
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP, BT, Zaobao, Wanbao)
For more photos, click here.

That sedan chair photo

Simply put, the photo taken during a SMRT dinner-and-dance event went viral.

But it wasn't disgruntled SMRT employees who put up her photo, she says. It was posted by an agency in charge of organising the event for its own publicity purposes.

How did she end up on the chair in the first place?

"It was a staff party and I told them, 'Just tell me what to do and I'll do it, as long as it's not indecent or off any OB (out-of-bound) area. If you want me to look stupid or silly, I'll try my best,'" she says with a chuckle.

Another time, they performed the haka, the traditional Maori war cry, made popular by the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks.

"But every year, they want me to come in in a certain way. One year was on a motorbike. They got a Harley-Davidson. I was sitting behind one - things like that. They had all kinds of funny ways of getting me to enter the room, being the CEO. So last year, they said, 'I want you to be carried in.' So I said: 'Okay.' Then I was all decked up."

"I was at the door and the music was on, and the drum roll was there, and these guys took off their tops, and I thought I shouldn't be so prudish," she says.

"I just told them: 'Make sure I don't fall,' because I'm quite fat and heavy, you know," she jokes.

Her salary and her Ferrari

Her porch houses two cars - a Ferrari California and a Mercedes-Benz S500 - and a three-wheeled Can-Am Spyder motorbike.

But Ms Saw, who earned $1.85 million in 2010, feels she does not have to defend her spending habits. "I think I should spend it as I wish. Nothing wrong with that."

Asked about her remuneration package, she says she has "absolutely no say" over it.

"The laymen can say what they want. But the truth of the matter is that the package is scrutinised, benchmarked to the job that I do - what is required of a CEO like me - and the pay is not top-end. It's not top-end."

"Every year, the shareholders get to vote. They see my package. It's in black and white in every annual report and they approve it. So what can I say?"

After a pause, she adds: "I don't have the fortune that many people have to get married, have many children and dote on them.

"I'm single. I've been a CEO for many years. I don't gamble, I give to charity. I spend a lot of money on my extended family, especially the older people in my life - my aunts and uncles. I take them on cruises. I'm buying my aunt a new BMW. But to me, I have the means. I've worked for so many years at a reasonably high income."

Is the blog a PR exercise?

Ms Saw launched her blog last week and posted her second update yesterday, which saw her recounting her first 30 days on the job at SMRT.

Why did she start the blog?

"For a person in the corporate world, a lot has been said about me. The media has engaged me quite thoroughly and consistently in the nine years."

In the nine years as SMRT CEO, there were good times, she says, but she also feels that there were instances when she was perhaps misquoted or misunderstood.

"Sometimes these come back and haunt you. Some of these misquotes or misunderstandings have been blown out of proportion to colour me in a way that I feel almost indignant, so I need to put the record straight and I can write what I want to write."

Ms Saw accepts that she can't stop some people from seeing it as a PR exercise.

"I can't help what people think. The blog is about saying things I want to say," she maintains.

She adds: "And it's not only about the incident obviously. Nine years is a long time - longest-serving CEO in SMRT. I have a lot of things to reminiscence (about) and certainly, I enjoyed my time. I learnt a lot... My nine years is not just about two days."

How do people react to you when they meet you on the street?

The most common question she is asked is: "Is there going to be a fare increase?"

While most people she meets are polite, some have been rude and it hurts, Ms Saw admits.

She recalls an incident when she was going to the carpark to put some of her purchases into the car. A man came up to her and asked: "Are you going to take the train?"

She said: "What?"

He replied: "Tsk, tsk, tsk." And walked away.

At the same time, there are people at the market who say: "We support you. You've done a good job."

Retrenchment from DFS and resignation from SMRT. Which was more difficult?

"It's like asking me, 'If you lost your son and you lost your daughter, which one is more painful?'

"I can't answer that. They were both painful.

"As the Chinese say, it's part of your flesh. A cut is a cut. I feel the complexity and the depth of the loss.

"There are people who matter to me and they will always matter to me, that's why I will feel that complexity and the depth of the hurt, of the loss. So I cannot compare."

But the professional setbacks were not her most emotional moment, Ms Saw says.

"My most emotional moment was when my grandmother died. I don't think anything else in my life will ever beat that because I was very close to her.

"I remember that very well because it was 1995, two years before I left for Hong Kong. She died in my arms."

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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