Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Foreign bus drivers: Driving the Singaporean Dream

Advertisements for jobs as Singapore bus drivers attract hundreds of applicants in cities across China. In the first of a two-part series, Wong Kang Wei, Malcolm Koh, Lee Jian Xuan and Natalie Teo observe the keen competition for what many consider a dream job. Applicants face rigorous tests and interviews just to get a chance at the job
By Wong Kang Wei in Shandong (China), The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2012

Dressed in a smart suit, Mr Zhu Baoliang steps into the lobby of the five-star Le Meridien Hotel, and is quickly ushered up to the ballroom on the fourth floor.

Taking a seat alongside 145 others, the 33-year-old begins to tick off answers to a list of multiple- choice questions in a basic theory and psychological test.

Above them, a sprawling red banner reads: "We warmly welcome the arrival of Singapore's bus company for the recruitment drive."

At each question, Mr Zhu contemplates the options carefully. "Which best describes your personality?" He glances through "soft", "romantic" and "virtuous", before ticking "cheerful". How would he react in situations? He picks "courteously" over "daringly" or "adventurously".

The test is only the beginning for Mr Zhu, who is on his second attempt to work in Singapore. It is just the first of many steps that he and many men - there are no women in this batch - have to go through to get a job as a bus driver in Singapore.

For many like him, Singapore is a bustling metropolis with job opportunities aplenty.

"It's not just about the money," says the distribution manager for electrical goods, who drove inter- city buses as a part-time job four years ago.

"I want to experience what Singapore is like, and understand how the service industry manages to grow at such a fast pace."

The money, of course, is a draw. Singapore transport operators offer total monthly salaries of up to 10,000 Chinese yuan (S$1,970), plus bonuses, housing and free transport - four times or more what a public bus driver earns in China.

Every time a recruitment notice is posted on online forums and Qzone, a Chinese version of Facebook, there is a rush of applicants who send recruitment agents their resumes and photocopies of their education certificates and driving licences.

The requirements are strict: Applicants must be between 25 and 42 years old, hold a Chinese Class A driving licence - which allows them to drive bigger vehicles - and have more than two years' experience driving large vehicles.

If they are shortlisted, they will be sent a photocopy of the Basic Theory Test textbook to study.

And only then does the actual recruitment drive start.

STAGE 1

GETTING READY

Since late 2007, these recruitment drives have been held in cities across China, from Chengdu, Nanjing and Zhengzhou to Jinan, Qingdao and Changchun. Often, they attract crowds of 200 or more.

Singapore-based recruitment agencies such as PeopleWorldwide Consulting act as middlemen between the transport operators and Chinese agents. The process is similar for both SBS Transit and SMRT, according to one Chinese agent.

At a recent drive to recruit 50 drivers, the Chinese agent sent the Singapore employer a shortlist of 146 names. (He declined to be named and did not want to identify the Singapore operator he represents.)

Two days earlier, the men had undergone some training, which involved revising basic driving theory, simple English lessons and some practice on a driving test route.

The training was done in two batches, in the office preparing for the theory test, and on the road to practise their driving skills.

While waiting for their training bus, the men practised their English, saying "Good morning" and "I am a bus driver".

Taking a long puff on a cigarette, Mr Zhang Yong, a 33-year-old Shaanxi native earning 3,000 yuan a month as a public bus driver, said he wanted to go to Singapore to "learn new things".

Besides, he added, Singapore's mix of East and West makes it a good stepping stone for finding employment in other English-speaking countries like Canada.

When the training bus eventually pulled up, the men rushed on board, eager to take their turn at the wheel. A coach sat near the driver, rapping out reprimands for any fault.

The practice drive ended at nightfall, but the day was not over yet: The men still had to get ready for the next day's written tests and the all-important interview.

STAGE 2

GRILLING SESSION

It is one of the most feared stages in trying to become a bus driver in Singapore, notorious for knocking out the most applicants.

After introducing himself in English and Mandarin, the applicant is grilled on his personal background, driving experience and reactions to different scenarios. Examples: What would you do if a drunk man gets on the bus? What if a pregnant woman goes into labour?

Recruitment agents say this round is extremely stringent - two out of three were struck off in a recent drive because of poor performance or their looks.

Mr Qu Zongzhen, 37, never got to the scenario stage although he had stayed up until 1.30am to prepare a 15-page memo on them.

He was rejected less than five minutes into the interview.

He said he was told he looked too fierce. "Do I really look like a bully?" the 1.7m Shandong native asked repeatedly, tears welling up in his eyes.

He pointed to his cleft lip scar and said: "This is not fair. How can they disqualify me for looks? I may look fierce, but I am gentle deep down."

Mr Qu had quit his bus driver job of 18 years to try his luck here, but might now have to return to earning 2,000 yuan a month.

He asked the Chinese agent if the interviewers would reconsider, but got a crushing reply: "No, don't even think about it."

He slouched into his chair and stared into space for several minutes before calling his wife to break the news.

Mr David Leong, managing director of PeopleWorldwide Consulting, explained that the industry needs people with an "amicable personality".

"You can't pick drivers who look like bullies or look very rough. After all, this is a customer service business. Apart from driving, you need to be able to smile and interact with the passengers."

Mr Nan Jun believes his unsmiling countenance cost him his interview.

The 37-year-old started out smiling when he was asked: "If your good friend wants to change shifts with you, what would you do?"

He delivered a textbook answer: "I would first consult the company to see if they agree. If they don't, there's nothing I can do, and I'll inform that friend nicely that I'm unable to help him."

But when he was asked the same question repeatedly, his smile faded and he got nervous.

"I don't have many years left to be adventurous in my job options," said the former lorry driver, tearing up. "I don't want to start from the bottom again and work my way up."

He turned on the Chinese agent, accusing him of not warning him that the interview would be so challenging. "You have wasted my time and money," he said.

The agent replied: "If you have gone through this company's interview, the other interviews won't be a problem for you next time."

STAGE 3

WAITING... AND WAITING

By the time it comes to the last stage - the driving test - the original batch of more than 140 has been whittled down to around 40.

The men have to drive along a 6.8km-long route as officials from the transport operator and agents assess their skills and confidence.

One nervous applicant hit the kerb while turning: Immediate failure.

Those who pass heave a sigh of relief. But that does not mean they are clear to go to Singapore. They have to wait to be informed by cellphone whether they will get to attend the prized contract-signing ceremony the following day.

In the end, only 35 are chosen.

There is one last step, however. Even though the 35 sign a "guarantee contract", they must now clear a medical check-up, get their driving licences verified and wait for the Singapore agent to get a work permit from the Manpower Ministry.

Only then will they finally sign an official employment contract with the Singapore operator. Not all 35 will get work permits, said the Chinese agent.

As for Mr Zhu Baoliang, his attempt to go to Singapore proves futile once again. He had cleared all the stages and waited all night for the call, but it never came.

The next morning, the agent told him he had failed the psychology test. His first attempt at becoming a Singapore bus driver had also failed for the same reason.

"This is frustrating," said the father of a three-year-old daughter.

He said he probably would not apply again to be a public bus driver, but he was not ready to give up his Singapore dream. Thinking aloud, he said he might try to be a chauffeur or tourist bus driver.

"There's nothing to be disappointed about," he said. "It's not like there are no more opportunities."

Wong Kang Wei, Malcolm Koh, Lee Jian Xuan and Natalie Teo are final-year students at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University. This article is part of their final-year project on the lives of foreign bus drivers in Singapore.


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