What is the history of the public bus service in Singapore?

When Singapore first gained independence in 1965, the public transport system was inadequate to cope with the population, while the buses were old and slow. Furthermore, the system was beleaguered with frequent problems such as poor management and substandard services and quality.

The clean and air-conditioned public buses that we take for granted today were unheard of back in the 1950s and 60s. Commuters recalled being “fried in the sun” or “soaked in the rain” by turns as they battled with grimy and scratched bus windows that could not be properly opened or shut. Crowded buses were also a haven for pickpockets, and the cramped conditions became worse when people squeezed themselves through open windows in order to hitch a ride during peak hours. Not surprisingly, tempers would fray and scuffles break out on board.

To add to the passengers’ woes, these creaky and hot (read, non-air-conditioned) buses spewed choking exhaust fumes as they rattled and honked their way up and down busy streets. Buses would break down frequently, and often arrived late or did not show up at bus stops at the designated time. To make matters worse, the drivers’ punishing schedules – working two shifts a day with no breaks – led some to resort to desperate measures, such as puncturing their own bus tyres, so as to get some rest while awaiting repairs.

The main bus operator was the Singapore Traction Company (STC), plying routes in the city area. Apart from that, there were many small and individual Chinese private bus companies, each plying a small part of the rural and fringe areas of the island, with only a few routes each. Therefore, a simple journey from the East to the West of the island could involve several bus transfers, and could last a few hours aboard noisy and rickety buses.

As Singapore Traction Company had a 30-year monopoly and had no direct competition, its services were usually substandard, while the small Chinese bus companies also had a shortage of resources and funds. Moreover, many bus companies had labour problems. There were quite a few cases of labour unrest. In the late 1950s, the situation deteriorated. Militant bus workers, manipulated by communist-controlled unions, resorted to strikes in a demand for better work conditions and pay. These work stoppages plagued the entire bus system into chaos.

In 11 April 1971, the bus system was reorganised. Many small bus companies were amalgamated into three larger bus companies, namely the Amalgamated Bus Company, Associated Bus Services, and the United Bus Company. However, the STC had suffered great financial losses within the period of 1971 and had to permanently close its bus operations on 1 December 1971, with the revocation of its omnibus license.

In 1 November 1973, the three bus companies were merged into a one single organisation, called Singapore Bus Service (the predecessor of SBS Transit), which came into operation in 1 November 1973. It was hoped that this would create economies of scale and ultimately improve bus services. Bus lanes were introduced in 1974 and Scheme B bus transport were introduced together.

In early 1974, it was reported that 400 buses were out of service at any one time, and out of 1,450 buses in operation, an average of 800 buses would break down in a day. In short, the bus transport system was in shambles.

In the meantime, SBS’s management team had other, more pressing problems to resolve. Before 1971, buses here were operated by the British-owned Singapore Traction Company (STC) and another 10 Chinese-owned companies. These 11 bus companies were later merged into four, and finally into one – SBS – in 1973 under the directive of the government.

It was believed that a single bus operator would help eliminate the problems of wasteful competition, lack of standardisation, and duplication in route services that had dogged public bus services since the very beginning. Not unexpectedly, the merger began on a rocky note as shares of SBS were still held by the former Chinese bus companies, with allocation based on the relative sizes of the companies prior to the amalgamation in 1971. In other words, SBS was a cooperative – and not a single entity – run by 10 different companies.

The mammoth task of reorganising and overhauling SBS’s operating structure and culture was left to a task force of senior civil servants known as the Government Team of Officials (GTO) in May 1974. Appointed by then Minister for Communications Yong Nyuk Lin, the team − comprising Wong Hung Khim, Yap Boon Keng, Ang Teck Leong, Yeo Seng Teck, Lo Wing Fai, Ong Chuan Tat and Mah Bow Tan − was seconded to SBS to oversee the transformation.

The government accepted the findings and recommendations of the GTO. The first priority was to institute a new organisational structure with checks and balances in place to break up the “little conglomerates” formed under the previous structure. New departments, such as human resources, finance, operations and planning, and warehouse and logistics, were also established.

Corruption and unaccountability rampant at all levels had to be quickly eradicated. For example, the GTO discovered, to their horror, that the daily collections of coins, concession cards and bus tickets were kept unlocked in branch offices and depots without proper accounting and security measures in place. Anyone could help themselves to the money and items. Section managers had their own vested interests; they ran their own hardware businesses or petrol stations outside of work, and frequently made purchases on behalf of the company without proper quotes or tenders.

The GTO went to work. One of the first things they did was to destroy all bus tickets and print new ones, after which takings went up dramatically. They kept records, computerised takings and closely monitored staff. There was some initial resistance at first from not just SBS management and staff, but also from government departments. With the backing of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the GTO managed to resolve matters with the government departments, and also worked closely with the unions to bring order and discipline back to the workforce. Khoo Ban Tian of Malayan Banking was approached to provide a loan of several million dollars as an emergency fund to tide the company over.

The government mobilised a team of trained mechanics from the Singapore Armed Forces to repair and maintain the company’s buses and equipment. The SAF team did such a good job that the number of breakdowns was reduced drastically, from 800 a day in 1974 to just 145 in 1976.

Other government departments were pulled in to help as well. A former Registry of Vehicles staff, Phua Tiong Lim, recalled the confusion when many bus routes were changed to streamline the network of services. When printed copies of the new bus guides ran short, the army’s Transport Logistics Unit was enlisted to roam the streets and pick up hapless passengers who did not know how to get home. 27

To address the issue of low staff morale, staff facilities and training were provided, incentives for honest and hard work were established, and a standardised structure of salary and staff benefits was introduced. The addition of new buses and workshops, and the rationalisation of bus routes, took longer to achieve, but when these improvements kicked in, they vastly improved SBS’s service standards and enhanced passengers’ experiences.

The transformation of SBS was so successful that the government decided to list it on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 1978 as Singapore Bus Service Limited. By the end of 1979, the government decided that SBS was in good hands and withdrew its team of 38 officers (of whom 19 chose to remain) seconded to the company. In 2001, SBS was renamed SBS Transit Limited to reflect its new status as a bus and rail operator.

This episode in Singapore’s history is also an example of the bold and decisive moves taken by the nation’s first generation of civil servants in ensuring the survival of a resource-poor and newly independent island. Singapore’s public transportation system would not be the model of efficiency it is today without such top-down intervention in the nascent days of its history.

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