Needless to say, this gentleman was not a Singaporean. Nowadays, no Singaporean would take on such a dirty and lowly job. Whilst so much resentment has been generated in the blogosphere about the foreign talents in our midst, I am sure many Singaporeans appreciate foreign workers like this rubbish collector who perform an essential service for our society.
This reminds of yet another lowly profession from my kampong days which has since become extinct in Singapore. Many years ago, I read of a survey about the ‘respectability’ of different professions. Right there at the bottom of the list was a profession known as The Night Soil Carrier. I wonder how many young Singaporeans even know what that is, let alone have seen one of them in action. So while others blog about Singaporeans’ favourite subject – food, I will play the ‘contrarian’ role and write about something at the other end of the food train instead.
The night soil carrier is a man who collects human waste. Back in the days when many of us stayed in kampongs, the so-called Bucket System was the most modern and hygienic method of waste disposal available. In those days, the family toilet was usually built several metres to the rear of our homes, away from the public view, as well as to keep away the smell. Thus if you needed to answer nature’s call when it rained, you would need an umbrella. Each day, we would deposit our ‘stuff’ into a metal bucket and the next morning, the night soil truck would come around to pick up the buckets. The night soil carrier would bring along an empty bucket to replace the full one. He would then attach a metal cover to the old one and carry it, 2 at a time to the truck. The truck looked a bit like the armoured vans used by our banks today. It had several rows of ‘deposit boxes’ for the buckets. These were brought back to the sewerage centre where they were emptied of their contents and the buckets cleaned. And all this was done manually!
The above 3 photos are Property of National Archives of Singapore
According to the PUB website, the bucket system was phased out in 1987. But actually, the bucket system was not the most primitive system. Even in my days, it was not uncommon to see what PUB calls ‘overhanging toilets’ built over fish ponds. (Photo on right taken by my friend Peh S K in Pulau Ubin). In fact if you go to Malaysia, you can still see these in some rural areas. I am sure many Singaporeans who have visited the fishing village of Kukup in Southern Johor and stayed at the holiday chalets there have experienced what it was like to ‘do your business’ directly into the sea.
And that reminds me of yet another interesting system which only our NS (national service) boys would have experienced – the Taiwanese army camp system. For those army boys like my friend Victor who missed out on this unique experience, I shall describe it below. Unfortunately I do not have any photos to illustrate.
Basically the toilets were made up of 2 rows of cubicles built over 2 long narrow drains over which you have to squat. The partitions were only about chest high, and so sometimes, when you and you neighbour happened to finish your missions at the same time, you would get bit of a shock to see another person face to face when you stood up. There were no individual flushes. Occasionally, somebody would turn on the tap and the water would flow from one end of the drain to the other. If you happen to be occupying the last cubicle, you would be treated to quite an unforgettable sight. I hope this is sufficient to motivate some of our reluctant young men to look forward to their NS.
It’s been about one year since I started this blog. Occasionally I find young people commenting that they wished they could be living in my kampong days. Frankly, I doubt they would want to do that if they fully appreciated the conditions that I have deliberately described in a nostalgic and light-hearted way.