The driver, the passengers, and me

It’s the bus to Little India on a Sunday. When I got on, it was close to full. There was one Caucasian woman, there was me, and perhaps 80 Indians and Bangladeshis. The next stop, more people wanted to board, and rather than be crushed at the front of the bus, I tried my best to get at least to the middle. Bit by bit over the next three or four stops, I succeeded.

By then, it had become impossible for more passengers to board. No one was getting off; everybody was headed to Little India. Several times, the bus driver hollered, “Please move in” — in thick northern Mandarin. Ah, I said to myself, he’s one of the new hires from mainland China. Unsurprisingly, his appeal had absolutely no effect. How could it? None of his passengers (except me) understood Chinese.

But there was another reason why no one moved. With any busload of foreign workers, at least 10 – 20 percent of them would be relatively new to Singapore. Even I could spot them. They were the ones who positioned themselves at the front of the bus paying close attention to where they were going. They needed to learn the route. No way they were going to move in even if they understood the driver’s language.

Somewhere close to Newton Circus, the bus was flagged down by waiting passengers at a bus stop again. With difficulty, the driver opened the front door, but even so, it was not possible for anyone to get on. From where I was, nearer the rear door, I couldn’t even see how many people were hoping to board, my visibility being limited to 60 centimetres around me.

The driver then opened the rear door and shouted to the commuters outside to board  from behind.

Two men boarded and squeezed in close to me. They were from China; tall, heavy-set guys, probably from Manchuria. They tapped their farecards against the reader, but it only admonished them with its shrill staccato — deet-deet-deet-deet — accompanied by flashing red lights and a message, in English: “ERROR. Board from front of bus” or something to that effect. From the men’s lack of reaction to the small tantrum thrown by the reader, it was obvious that they remained unaware of the fare error. Almost surely, they didn’t know a word of English and couldn’t possibly have understood the error message.

Welcome to Singapore, the land of linguistic misses.

Even so, the bus didn’t move. Apparently there were more people outside the front door and the driver was speaking to them, though I couldn’t make out above the noise what was being said. Finally, those other people too showed up at the rear door. They were only two, a husband and wife, both Singaporean Chinese and English-speaking. They boarded. They tapped their farecards against the reader. Again, the reader heckled them. The woman was startled and almost lost her balance. But at least they were on board, the doors could be closed and we were off.

“Like that, how are we going to pay?” the woman asked her husband, but of course it was rhetorical. “When we reach our destination, I think we have to go to the front to scan [our farecards].”

“We’ll see how it goes,” replied the husband.

“We’re not supposed to enter by the back,” she continued. “How can the driver ask us to do that?”

I didn’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed to be Singaporean.

* * * * *

The Chinese bus driver adopted a “can do” attitude. When his bus was too full and his passengers not moving in, he had a choice: either to skip bus stops, or to find a way to let people board, even if it meant they wouldn’t be able to pay. In my view he made the right choice. Getting people to their destination was more important than getting a few more dollars to the bus company.

“Can do” solutions sometimes involve breaking rules, and if there’s anything that migrants can teach Singaporeans, it is that sometimes rules need to be broken in the interest of a solution.

The Singaporeans, however, evidently needed a lot of persuading outside the front door before they would board by the rear door, and even after having done so, remained bothered about having broken the rules with no easy way to rectify the situation. This testifies to a virtue of honesty, which is nothing to sneeze at, but it also means we are such sticklers for rules, we are not even comfortable with creative solutions, let alone be the ones to come up with them.

* * * * *

As we approached Little India, the two Chinese men took out their fare cards again, getting ready to tap the reader on alighting.  I told them not to bother. “The reader did not register your boarding, so there’s no need to tap again on alighting.”

“Why didn’t it?” one of them asked.

Explaining that only the front reader could accept boardings,  “When you came on board, do you remember the machine went deet-deet-deet-deet?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And there was a red light,” added his friend.

“Yes, that meant it did not accept your card.”

“So, no deduction from our cards?”

“Nope,” I said with a smile. “For you, this trip is free.”

“Oh, that’s good,” they both said, chalking up a lucky break for the day.

* * * * *

The Singaporean couple also alighted at Little India.

“Aiyoh, still so crowded, how to go in front to scan?” the woman said, to no one in particular, as they were pushed towards the rear door by the passengers behind them.

“Just get down first lah,”  said the husband. “Then see whether can enter by the front door to scan.”

“So many people rushing down by the front door also,” she said. Everything’s all wrong. It’s so un-Singaporean.

20 Responses to “The driver, the passengers, and me”


  1. 1 ape 17 March 2011 at 13:29

    Regards to solution instead of sticking to rules – friend was in HK. Bus card reader broke down and friend offered to pay with cash. Driver said no need bcos it’s bus company fault that card reader not well maintained and no fault of commuter. Friend took that ride for free.
    Seems like the HK driver knew exactly why that rule (of paying bus fare) is for and knew when exception can be applied. The driver whom YB encountered knew that same logic too.

  2. 2 tk 17 March 2011 at 13:31

    Totally agree alex – the couples’ attitude is the same as that of the commenter (anon) on your ‘Strangely Depopulated’ post – “Going to work on a bicycle is indulging yourself for the sake of being different.” YES! That is exactly the point – different from all the compliant, non-thinking drones stuck in traffic, standing on the MRT, or squeezed onto the bus.

    But, one area where Singaporeans seem happy to flaunt the rules is on the roads. I know there’s no traffic cops around and only the occasional fixed speed or red light camera to enforce road safety rules, but then, there’s also no-one to fine the couple for fare evasion on the bus. So why the willingness to cut across three lanes of traffic to make a turn, reverse up an expressway or drive at 100 in a 70 zone (all behaviours I’ve witnessed in the last 2 days), but not to jump down off a bus? Weird.

  3. 3 Ah Kow 17 March 2011 at 14:05

    Lol, the Singaporean couple are so amusing in their unwillingness to break the rules.

    If they did go to the front to scan, they would have ended up paying more because the scanner would have deducted the maximum fare from their cards. It seems like they didn’t think about that, or they knew that but would rather pay more than not pay.

  4. 4 Asher 17 March 2011 at 16:24

    When I was in Vancouver a few years ago, I was surprised that the driver of a crowded public bus became apologetic about the ‘poor’ conditions which she has put her passengers under. The aisle was lined with a row of standing passengers. At one point, she turned back and ask us to feedback to her company about the ‘crowded condition’ as she has limited power to help us. No one was complaining.

    Here, passengers on a public bus get shouted at by the driver and are expected to squeeze further even though it is uncomfortably packed already. It is as if the passengers’ fault that the bus cannot take more passengers. But no one complains.

    Maybe Singaporeans are really too good with observing rules set by someone else that they cannot think and judge for themselves based on something more fundamental. Shouldn’t the couple’s angst be about how to tell the highly profitable bus company to stop yelling at their passengers and send more buses instead, not how to pay the fares?

  5. 5 georgia tong 17 March 2011 at 18:46

    Just wonder if a bus inspector boarded the bus, would those who did not ‘pay’ for the trip due to boarding via back door be fined ?

    Anyway, likely no bus inspector will check crowded bus. They can’t even make their way through the bus to do their job.

  6. 6 sloo 17 March 2011 at 19:23

    A wonderful nugget that made me smile – and thinking. Perhaps u could compile all these writings into a wonderful book!

    • 7 Woob 18 March 2011 at 10:09

      Agreed! Alex, you have build up collection of impressive essays over the years, and you should definitely consider publishing your best work in a book! Your essays could be organised under various themes – e.g. politics, gay rights, etc.

      This would help raise awareness of your writings among those who don’t surf blogs, and also the causes you are fighting for. I would definitely buy such a book over any collection of “hard truths” from our MM.

  7. 8 Chloe 17 March 2011 at 22:32

    This is a well written article on how Singaporeans are having “One Track” mind and are only able to think within the box. Again, we are being taught in schools to follow the rules and do everything by the book. Thus, this has become a part and parcel of a Singaporean’s life.

  8. 9 anon 17 March 2011 at 23:15

    Why is it no possible to have a card machine that reads both ways? Too costly to have two of such machines on a single bus? Cheaper to have an ‘up’ and a ‘down’ machine? That’s the Singapore corporate mind in action.

    • 10 Woob 18 March 2011 at 10:13

      The back machine can be programmed to read both ways as well. The reason why it isn’t is because bus companies want commuters to board at the front, where the driver can monitor whether they have scanned their cards.

  9. 11 bh 18 March 2011 at 01:05

    Actually, it is possible for the driver to change the setting of the rear machine to read boarding scans. For example, service 170 which serves the singapore-johore route, passengers are typically allowed to board from the both front and rear doors.

    But that’s besides the point.

  10. 12 tan 18 March 2011 at 03:47

    I don’t think that is honesty or an unwillingness to break the rules. It is an unwillingness to possibly get caught and be punished for something that they have not set out to do, and for such a meagre amount.

    Singaporeans can be very determined and creative with solutions such as folding back tabs of parking coupons, tampering with fuel gauge, choping tables with packs of tissue paper, etc.

  11. 13 hahaha 18 March 2011 at 08:44

    citing the HK example by 1st comment owner, that’s the spirit we all should have, service providers have the responsibility to make things seamless and efficient. No fault of consumers.
    In singapore, if u tap from the front to exit, you get charged not the correct distance fare but the maximum fare, and there are no warning signs to tell you about it. So silly commuters are not aware, and bus companies continue to tiam tiam since they make more out of our ignorance.
    Sad state…

    • 14 tk 18 March 2011 at 09:40

      really?! thanks for that hahaha, certainly explains why my ezlink card gaps downwards on the odd occasion… won’t be taking that particular shortcut any more! cheers.

    • 15 Woob 18 March 2011 at 10:12

      Actually, if you have scanned your card when you boarded, it should deduct the correct fare when scan it while alighting, whether you tap at the front or the back.

      Wouldn’t maximum fare be charged only if you didn’t scan it when boarding (i.e. you only scanned it once)?

  12. 16 market2garden 18 March 2011 at 11:10

    If your card don’t have enough fare (from the bus stop you board to the bus terminal), you end up to pay by cash (coins) even though there’s the distance travel just only one bus stop.

    And should be extend the allowed entire journey from 2 hrs to 2 and a half hours.

    Yes, the couple ended up by paying full fare if they tagged the front door reader.

  13. 17 sggirlnextdoor09@gmail.com 18 March 2011 at 23:09

    @ Woob 18 March 2011 at 10:12

    Technically the correct fare should be deducted whether you tap at the front or back of bus when you alight. But there are times when one taps at the front to alight the bus, maximum fare would be deducted (due to error?).

    I would only look at the balance of my store value as I would not know the exact single trip fare and take the deduction as correct.

  14. 18 Great Observations 19 March 2011 at 14:53

    I’m in complete agreement about your observation of the Singapore couple.

    In situations where complete chaos reigns, Americans in my humble opinion tend to reign supreme. Their culture encourages them to “adapt & improvise”.

    Singapore has undergone an unusual amount of cock-ups in the last 12 months. It’s almost comical-tragedy to see our leaders and citizens pointing fingers at each other.

    But in the final analysis, “Leaders Must Lead”.

  15. 19 prettyplace 20 March 2011 at 22:25

    Its so fun to see such situations everyday in Singapore.
    Its even better to read it from someone who writes it with a tinge of humour.

    Its nice to see the Singaporean couple wanting to do the right thing, but sad at the same time because, they knew they did not tap.

    In case a checking officer gets on board, both the couple & the chinese guys would get a fine. Worst is, when the chinese guys would not even know what they did wrong.

    It is quite not right.

  16. 20 Anonymous 28 March 2011 at 15:13

    A very good article with good examples YB, as I was reading I thought it was going to be about the PRC bus driver and the language barrier but I can’t help but agree whole-heartedly on this observation which I can’t help being guilty about sometimes. A similar incident happened to me in Melbourne last year when I boarded the bus, but the validator wasn’t working so the ride is free, despite that, the kind driver still picked up passaengers along the way.

    Although here I have been caught out in the back ones unable to tap my entry in, although I feel helpless but can’t avoid thinking if people are looking at me as being a fare evader or the worry that I will get caught. As Singaporeans we have been brought up, being terrified of fines and getting caught, unfortunately it’s not really our EQ that works most of the time. We have been paved in a system where we have to “die die” find all means to do what is supposed to be done or wring our hands dry.


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