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.