Every day, close to four million rides are taken on the hundreds of public buses plying Singapore’s roads. Their drivers, affectionately nicknamed ‘bus uncles’, are icons of local culture – to the extent of being immortalised in their own ‘Bus Uncle’ chatbot two years ago. Chiang Wai Mun, who began working with Trans-Island Bus Services (TIBS) in the 1980s, first as a technician and then as a bus driver, spoke with us about his career on the road.
Wai Mun using steam to wash an engine part, circa 1995. Photo courtesy of Chiang Wai Mun
With their distinct colour scheme, TIBS buses – in particular, the snake-like, multi-carriage model affectionately referred to as the ‘Bendy Bus’ – were an indelible part of Singapore’s transport system and its citizens’ daily commutes for decades. Servicing heartland neighbourhoods like Yishun and Woodlands, TIBS, now known as Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) Buses following its 2004 merger with SMRT Corporation, had been steadily ferrying commuters across the island since its humble beginnings in 1982.
Mr Chiang Wai Mun, who first joined TIBS as a technician in 1983, is a veteran of Singapore’s public transport industry. From the days of non-air-conditioned buses with ticket machines and creaky windows, to the modern, fully air-conditioned buses with EZ-link card systems today, Wai Mun has seen it all.
In his early career as a technician, Wai Mun repaired buses and worked on components such as suspensions and breaks. From there, he progressed to fixing engines and transmissions, before moving on to work as an electrician. In the early 1990s, however, Wai Mun was called on to switch gears and double up by also working as a bus driver. “Part-time, lah,” he said. “Because not enough drivers.”
This reflected the labour crunch that many industries in Singapore faced in those trying times, when the country was still finding its feet and racing to set up infrastructure in many areas.
Back then a typical day in Wai Mun’s life consisted of rising in the wee hours of the morning to begin driving at about 4am, before resuming his duties as a technician in the later part of the day. When asked if the long hours were hard for him, he said, “For me, it’s okay. Last time, we didn’t really think about hardship – as long as we had a job, it was okay. We didn’t think so much.”
Quizzed about changes in the industry over the years, Wai Mun recalled the days when Singapore’s transport system had to do without the convenience of modern technology. “Last time, we didn’t have the Passenger Information System. Now, you have it everywhere. And air-con! With air-con, we feel a lot more comfortable in the bus.”
Beyond these, Wai Mun also brought up developments in road safety legislation over the years. “There was a period of time when we didn’t even have bus stops,” said Wai Mun. “The bus would just stop in the middle of nowhere for you to get off. But now, there are laws in place that require us to stop in the [designated] boxes at the bus stop.”
“Last time, I can open the bus door for you to alight at the traffic light,” he continued. “But now I cannot do that. It’s a safety precaution.”
With little experience in building its own infrastructure, Singapore had much to learn from other countries when it came to establishing its public transport network. For Wai Mun, this meant opportunities to travel overseas for courses and learn from other countries’ public transport systems. It was a learning experience reserved for those in the pioneer batch of workers at TIBS. What he saw was an eye-opening experience for him.
“I went to Spain, where I sat on their high-speed train, and Germany in 1994 or 1995 to learn about their automatic transmission systems,” said Wai Mun. The differences in culture came as a surprise to Wai Mun. “Their buses are very on-time. But people there are not so uptight. They’ll take their own sweet time and be very relaxed, and walk slowly. Not like us, so kanchiong [anxious],” explained Wai Mun. According to him, however, such opportunities for overseas courses are now harder to come by, with foreign professionals coming over to Singapore to teach instead.
Wai Mun (in the background, wearing shades) and his colleagues then, some wearing medals won at a basketball game at a company sports meet, circa 1997. Photo courtesy of Chiang Wai Mun
Despite the demanding work, employees were not without opportunities for play – literally. Wai Mun revealed that TIBS would organise inter-departmental sports meets, bringing together employees from different divisions – drivers, technicians, timekeepers and so on – to play sports like football and basketball. It was through such meets that Wai Mun and his colleagues grew closer as workmates, and as friends. “I used to be very close with my colleagues then, maybe because we were all young last time,” he reminisced.
In addition, Wai Mun shared that work in the transport sector used to be much more divided along traditional gender lines. Although he had female colleagues in the 1980s and ’90s, they were mostly based in TIBS’ administrative division, where they tend to work as clerks. Things are different today, with women working in traditionally male-dominated roles like engineering and driving. “Last time there weren’t any female technicians. Now, yes,” said Wai Mun.
Wai Mun (back row, second from right) with his colleagues, at a barbeque at his general manager’s house, circa 1996. Photo courtesy of Chiang Wai Mun
Today, Wai Mun is a supervisor managing a crew of around 60 employees who examine electrical issues, such as broken air-conditioning or door faults, that arise in SMRT’s fleet of buses. A lot of their work is data-driven, according to Wai Mun. “We need to collect a lot of data – when things break down we need to collect data and understand why.”
“Last time, we relied on our knowledge. We will listen to the sounds that the bus is making, and diagnose the problem from there,” he went on. “Now, everything is computerised. We just need to plug it in and the computer will tell us what is wrong with the bus.”
For Wai Mun, this means making use of new technology and constantly upgrading his skills to stay relevant. This is a challenge that he welcomes and sees as a necessity, even at the age of 59. “It’s not too difficult to learn – even at my age, I’m still learning, because there’s always something new to learn,” said Wai Mun. “We must keep moving forward.”
To this end, his own interest in technology and commitment to professional development have been fundamental in his 30-year career. “I used to study electronics, so I have a greater interest in technology, mechanics, things like that. That’s why I’ve been doing it until now.”
With the continual technological advancements in technology, Wai Mun anticipates a bright future for Singapore’s transport system, albeit one that he expects to come with its share of challenges. With the new changes implemented by the Land Transport Authority (LTA), which prioritise customer satisfaction, Wai Mun admitted that the pressure is on to meet changing customer demands.
“There’s a lot of pressure on us. Even as drivers, we cannot be too fast or too slow. You must try to control your time. To LTA, customers are the priority. Everything is for them. We get audited and checked every month,” explained Wai Mun.
Wai Mun was clear that he continues to derive satisfaction from his job today, even as he conceded that he – and the industry at large – have struggled to keep pace with the public’s rising expectations about public transport. Amidst the debates plaguing Singapore’s public transport network – about accountability and ownership, expectations and resources – we would do well to appreciate those who have toiled to keep Singaporeans on the road all this while: our bus drivers, still rising before dawn to begin their shifts, just as they did 30 years ago.
 The system that provides real-time information to commuters while en route, such as the time of arrival and upcoming stops.
Written by: Sophie Chew
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