Sunday 20 November 2016

No, MRT lines did not 'show best performance in 29-year history'

Last week, Oxford Dictionaries named its Word of the Year 2016 and it’s “Chinese helicopter”.

No, that’s a lie because “Chinese helicopter” is two words.

Actually, it’s not a lie. It’s “post-truth”.

And “post-truth” is Oxford’s true Word of the Year.

But isn’t “post-truth” also two words?

No, the hyphen joins the two words to make it a compound word, which is counted as one word.

But ironically, in a post-truth world which we live in now, “post-truth” feels like two words.

What does it mean anyway?

You want the meaning of “post-truth”? You can’t handle the meaning of “post-truth”!

Oxford defines it as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

I told you that you couldn’t handle it.

To cut all that verbiage, Oxford could’ve just used a picture of US President-elect Donald Trump.

“Post-truth” was chosen because “Oxford Dictionaries has seen a spike in frequency this year in the context of the EU (European Union) referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

But can “post-truth” apply to Singapore too?

Take, for example, this online Straits Times headline that appeared on Friday: “North-South, East-West MRT lines show best performance in 29-year history.”

I don’t know about you, but I take everything I read from The Straits Times as an objective fact.

However, in a post-truth world, this online headline went against my personal belief.

It’s right up there with other dubious public transport-related headlines like “Bus fares will be affordable if raised” and “Rise in major breakdowns but MRT gets more reliable”.

And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, judging by the reactions on social media like “You’re kidding??!!!” and “Hahahahaahaa”.

On The Straits Times’ own Facebook page, the report was greeted with some incredulity. One person commented: “Joke of the day. I laughed till I almost hit the car in front!”

Another: “I smell breakdowns coming... they always have a way to jinx the MRT.”

The latter comment was rather prescient as later that day, SMRT tweeted:

Then 14 minutes later:

Yes, it seems that every time SMRT blows its own horn, the MRT just blows.

In February last year, SMRT patted itself on the back for receiving the award for Delivering Value Through Risk Management in London.

Almost immediately after that, the train delays started with four incidents over five days, including a fire that shut down the entire Bukit Panjang LRT system.

Five months later at the SMRT annual general meeting, CEO Desmond Kuek bragged about winning that risk management award and another one for Best Public Sector Campaign given by the Singapore Institute of Public Relations.

Hours later, both the North-South Line and East-West Line were shut down during evening rush hour. The breakdown was so epic, songs were written about it.

A month later, Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew quit.

So was SMRT tempting fate again last week? Is history repeating itself like another NKF CEO scandal?

As it turned out, the online Straits Times headline was wrong.

What the online report actually said was:
“The North-South and East-West MRT lines achieved 144,000 train-km before breakdown in the first 10 months of this year, the best recorded performance for the two lines in recent years.”
“The North-South and East-West lines started operating 29 years ago.”
Somehow, the headline writer conflated the facts and the result was “North-South, East-West MRT lines show best performance in 29-year history”.

The headline on The Straits Times website has since been corrected to read: “North-South, East-West MRT lines show best performance for first 10 months of 2016.”

Unfortunately, the error is preserved in the web page’s URL itself:

And I have the screengrab.

As they say, the Internet is forever. Unlike today’s newspaper, which will be tomorrow's recyclable.

Speaking of which, in yesterday’s print edition of The Straits Times, the headline for the same report went a totally different route: “Rail reliability target ambitious, says SMRT chief.”

This illustrates how the projection of a report can change drastically from online to print. The online version is pretty much just the rough draft.

But erroneous online headline aside, SMRT should just stop trying to shape public opinion with stats about improved performance because no one is buying it.

And that’s the post-truth and nothing but the post-truth.

Meanwhile, to avoid getting stuck in a train breakdown in the near future, I recommend you take a Chinese helicopter instead.

But remember to add a hyphen.

As Spandau Ballet sang, I know this much is post-true.

- Published in The New Paper, 20 November 2016