Tuesday 11 December 2012

Who wants to be a bus driver?

Firms find it hard to recruit drivers, given the low pay and daunting hours
Christopher Tan and Royston Sim speak to the two bus operators, SBS Transit and SMRT, as well as talk to four drivers to put faces to a job that is now in the spotlight.
The Straits Times, 10 Dec 2012

DRIVING a bus may be among the things young boys dream of doing, but everyone soon wakes up to the bleak reality.

Bus drivers are among the lowest-paid workers in Singapore, making more than cleaners but a bit less than factory operators - two of the lowest-paid groups of people here.

After this year's round of adjustments, the average Singaporean driver takes home between $2,000 and $2,500 monthly after overtime and allowance.

Drivers from Malaysia and China make even less.

Salaries aside, working hours can be daunting. They wake up as early as 4am if they are on the morning shift, and knock off after 1am on the late shift.

A split-shift system also means they can be rostered to drive during the morning and evening peak hours on the same day; and days off are not as predictable as those of, say, office workers.

It is no wonder then that SBS Transit and SMRT find it increasingly difficult to hire Singaporean drivers. In the 1990s, they started sourcing from Malaysia.

Soon, with rising education levels and growing affluence, even Malaysians were hard to come by. In 2008, the two operators started hiring drivers from China.

There are currently about 7,300 bus drivers between the two operators. About half are Singaporeans or permanent residents, followed by Malaysians and Chinese. Chinese drivers make up 11 per cent and 22 per cent of SBS' and SMRT's drivers respectively.

According to the two firms, drivers typically have secondary school education and are between 21 and 65 years old. Prior to joining, they must have held a Class 3 (car) driving licence for at least a year. An understanding of simple English is about the only other criterion needed for application.

Successful applicants undergo training of between 31 and 60 days, depending on their familiarity with Singapore roads.

On average, 15 per cent of the 7,300 drivers leave each year.

But some make a long-term career of it. SBS says its longest-serving Singaporean driver has been on the job for 44 years, while a Malaysian has been at it for 38.

While some used to be drivers in previous occupations, others have held various jobs, such as being cooks and policemen.

The Straits Times understands that those who leave usually go on to drive trucks. Demand for truck drivers - who typically earn 60 to 70 per cent more - has soared with the construction boom.

Malaysians typically start their own businesses back home.

Who is the Singapore bus driver?

Restaurant cook for 18 years before job switch

NAME: See Chip Yew

AGE: 45


ROUTE: SBS service 157

BEFORE he became an SBS Transit bus driver, Mr See Chip Yew was a cook for 18 years in a restaurant serving Hong Kong cuisine.

The 45-year-old said he wanted a change of environment back then. "No job is permanent, and I had been there a long time."

He left the restaurant about six years ago, and applied to join SBS after seeing a newspaper advertisement for bus drivers. "I felt I could handle it, and the salary and working conditions fit my requirements," he said. "The attractive thing about this job is that the company is very stable."

Mr See, who stopped studying after Secondary 3, said he had thought about taking up driving as a profession since he was young - whether as a lorry or bus driver. He now drives trunk service 157, which plies between Toa Payoh and Boon Lay.

He lives in a five-room flat in Woodlands with his wife, 46, who is a bookshop keeper and their nine-year-old daughter.

A Credit to his profession

NAME: Robert Credit

AGE: 29


ROUTE: SBS service 174 regularly

MR ROBERT Credit was driving a tour bus in Malaysia when he met a passenger to whom he took a fancy. They dated and got married about three years ago.

She was working at McDonald's in Singapore then, and did not want him to continue working as a tour bus driver - the hours were too long and they would be apart often.

Her former landlord, who used to work in SBS Transit, suggested that Mr Credit apply to join as a bus driver. He did so, and has been with SBS since.

His wife is now working as a restaurant manager at fast-food chain Wendy's.

The couple, who have no children, rent a room in a Boon Lay flat.

They return to their house in Johor Baru several times a week on their days off.

Familiar with nearly 20 bus routes, Mr Credit regularly drives service 174 from Boon Lay to Chinatown. Over time, he has built a bond with regular passengers on that route.

He said: "I recognise my passengers, and we have a very good relationship... I'm very thankful."

Some have bought him food, while others pass him newspapers to read after his shift.

Mr Credit's habit of greeting every passenger who boards his bus and requesting people to give up their seats to the elderly has also won him many commendations.

Passengers have become his friends

NAME: Kor Ing Chwee

AGE: 55


ROUTE: SMRT service 854

THE desire for a stable paying job drove Mr Kor Ing Chwee to join Trans-Island Bus Services (Tibs) more than 20 years ago, before it merged with SMRT.

He was doing sales and delivery back then, but his employer kept delaying the payment of his salary every month.

"I saw a newspaper ad from

Tibs... I needed to support my family, so I decided to try a new job," he said.

At first, he struggled to wake up early when working on the morning shift, but has long since adapted to the hours.

Apart from driving, he arranges for more experienced drivers to mentor the new ones.

These days, he no longer needs to support his two sons, aged 32 and 29. His wife, 53, works in a factory, and they live in a five-room flat in Sembawang.

He said: "The passengers become our friends over time. I know their stops, and tell them when it's time to alight if they fall asleep on the bus."

90-minute commute from JB to get to work

NAME: Ragunathan Gurusamy

AGE: 42


ROUTE: Many, including SMRT service 851

EVERY day, Mr Ragunathan Gurusamy spends at least 90 minutes commuting between his house in Johor Baru and SMRT's Ang Mo Kio bus depot.

For his morning shift, he leaves home on his motorbike at 3.30am to avoid the Causeway jam.

He rented a room in Yishun for three years when he first joined Trans-Island Bus Services, but found the costs too high.

The commute is taxing, but he does it to support his family. His wife, 40, does not work. Their four children are aged nine to 17.

He said: "I'm used to it, after doing it every day. If I'm tired, I'll request to be put on the split shift so I can sleep in the afternoon."

As a standby driver, Mr Ragunathan is able to drive all 26 routes that originate from Ang Mo Kio depot. These include service 851 from Yishun to Bukit Merah.

He notes that driving a bus is more difficult now: "There are a lot more cars on the road."


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