Saturday, September 06, 2008

Public Bus Transport - No More STC Buses in Singapore!!!! (by Peter Chan)

Recently I did a spring-cleaning exercise and found torn and tattered pieces of an academic assignment dating back to 1971. Ms. Phua Soh Hoon, our Economics teacher gave the class a written assignment for the end-of-year school holidays and it had to be submitted on the first day of school the following year.

Adam Smith’s concept of the "invisible hand" - to refer to the ability of the market to correct for seemingly disastrous situations with no intervention on the part of government – was seemingly theoretical and difficult to comprehend until we found the Singapore Traction Company (STC).

Fig 1: Left; Sunday Times Headlines (circa 1971). Right; Singapore Traction Company shareholders report (circa 1973)

That assignment brings me back to an unforgettable Monday morning of December 6, 1971. A day earlier, the “Sunday Times” front page headlines screamed “No STC buses on the roads today”.

It would be a strange Monday morning. Instead of seeing a Green Bus Company #1, it was #170; #1 was replaced by #170. I saw more changes as more buses rolled into the bus bay. A Green Bus Company #2 was #172 and #171 for #4. Once in a while, I saw that familiar STC Albion bus travelling up to Bukit Panjang with its STC logo and corporate stripes on its green and silver body intact. More students than adults were waiting for buses each day. The bus conductor - each bus was a 2-man operation comprising a driver and a bus conductor - raised his voice to pacify confused passengers who were angry or frantically waving at every passing bus. Those who had read “Sunday Times” would have gotten news about what was to happen on the next day but for many, the public had no idea. There were no early public announcements by the authorities. Only the presence of the white safari suite bus inspectors at the bus-stops helped to calm the situation.

Fig 2: A Guy Arab Mark 4 from STC travelling down Shenton Way towards the Singapore Polytechnic. What is the name of the building is on the right of photo? (circa 1968)

As I lived in the Buki Panjang area, I had to get off at the Rex Cinema bus-stop which was the informal “interchange”1, 30 meters from the junction of Serangoon Road and the Bukit Timah Canal. This was an important place where Tay Koh Yat (#2, #3, #6 & #14A), Green Bus (#1, #2, #3, #4 and #5) and STC (#6) bus routes converged. With so many different and new service numbers, the crowd comprising adults and students swelled. The buses snaked to a halt at the bus-stop with congestion tailing back to Kampung Java Road.

Another change was STC bus conductors and drivers (Indians, Bengalis, Malays and English-educated Chinese were its primary employees) did not wear their regular khaki-colored uniforms and breast-pinned company badges. Instead they wore civilian white shirts and dark trousers. However they continued issuing the old STC tickets until many months later before switching to those issued by the 3 Chinese bus companies; “ABC Ltd, ABS Ltd and UBC Ltd”.

Fig 3: Prior to the days of on-line and scriptless trading, this is how a share certificate looks like (circa 1969)

On Dec 16 1971, STC was placed under receivership and as a consequence, 407 of its fleet of buses were sold to the other 3 bus companies. In FY’71, STC recorded a $9 million loss which first began in FY’65 with a small loss of $0.764 million. From 1965 to 1971, the only thing consistent of STC was its losses; each year became far worse than the previous year. In fact the company could have collapsed even earlier in 1967 but it was not in the shareholders’ interest to opt for voluntary liquidation.

December 6 was “Black Monday” for STC shareholders too. The counter was suspended on the Singapore Stock Exchange until its liquidation in 1973, by which time STC shares became zero value. I heard stories of many disgruntled shareholders who burnt their share certificates and laid the blame at almost everybody; the government, stock exchange and STC management.

After STC, we did not live long with the 3 Chinese bus companies because Singapore Bus Services (fore-runner of SBSTransit) was created in 1973 and culminating two years later with the “Restricted Zone” scheme. So I safely conclude that Adam Smith’s concept of the “invisible hand” cannot work in Singapore.

1 Little India is presently an MRT Station and by 2015 becomes an “interchange for the NEL and future DTL

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yg said...

i seem to have quite a number of blanks in my memory bank. thanks for filling up some of these blanks - now, i remember the 3 chinese bus companies.

the building is the former singapore conference hall.

Zen said...

The thing I like most of STC bus service was the ticket price. Just imagine going on a merry-go-round route, from end to end, cost only 25 cts, very economical for the working class, but the company ended up broke. Many STC bus drivers at that time were irresponsible scums. I had a bad experience of travelling in an STC bus (service no.130) back home, after working night shift. The driver, with only
a few passengers, drove at a break-neck speed, while negotiating along dimly lighted small roads in the Jln Besar area, he swerved into one of them, totally disregarding the safety of other road users. The next moment, we heard a loud bang and most likely caused a fatal accident. The few of us remaining passengers, already physically worn out, just walked off from the bus, letting the 'murderer' faced his music.

Anonymous said...

Could the building on the right in the photo be the "Singapore Conference Hall"?

alex said...

I was told the main reason for the losses was corrupt ticket conductor, they collect the fare and either issue recycle ticket, or just keep the coins. That is why the inspectors were non-chinese in the early days. Any truth in the above?

Zen said...

Running transport companies was certainly not a cup of tea those days - high maintenance cost for buses, depots, related infrastures and on top of that having to pay pretty high salary to many unproductive bus crew. Poor management was the order of the day, not only applicable to STC, but also to other chinese bus companies. On top of all these problems, bus companies had to face leftist worker unions ever ready to undermine the government of the day through stoking up bus workers sentiments. Hock Lee bus riot, one of the worst civil unrests in Singapore history, was good example. How could bus companies under such trying condition survived? Later on the government took a drastic 'iron fist' approach to turn round the situation. The present SBS rises from the ashes of such a chaotic transport system of earlier years. As for recycling of bus tickets by
incorrigible conductors, it should be considered a petty act of corruption, but it did play a minor role in the collapse of the whole 'white elephant' transport system of that time.

Anonymous said...

Worker strikes were very common problems facing STC. In 1956 there was a major strike for 190 days which paralized the public transport system in Singapore. As a result the Colonial Government had to turn to the Malayan Railway for alternative transport. Tanglin Halt Station, Bukit Panjang Station and Pasir Panjang Station were opened to transport people from the rural areas into the city. Interestingly, Bukit Panjang Station and Pasir Panjang Stations are in the same locations which are now a part of our Circle Line and Downtown Line MRT system of the future.

If you read the STC company's agreement with the government you will find that the government of the day could have easily nationalized the company. This was offered to the PAP Government on 2 occasions but was rejected on both occasions because there were other pressing needs. Dr Goh Keng Swee told parliament that housing and employment were 2 pressing national objectives in post-1959; public transport was not. Now fast forward to 1973 for the answer.

Anonymous said...

My apologies. It was Dr. Toh Chin Chye who made that speech to the Legislative Assembly. Back then it was not called Parliament until we left Malaysia in 1965.

Chun See - that bus was a STC )model = Guy Arab)in front of the Clifford Pier. There is a pedestrian overhead bridge on the left of the photo which opened in 1964. The overhead bridge is now the Change Alley bridge.

oceanskies79 said...

The name of the building on the right of the photo of Fig 2 should be the Singapore Conference Hall? I have performed there on a few occasions and could recognise its overall structure.

My goodness, that's how the place had looked like in the past, so different from how it is now.

Anonymous said...

The building is definitely Singapore Comference Hall. I remeber going there on Sundays with my extended family. They had a fantastic timsum restaurant that served the most divine coconut jellies on the timsum carts.(to my 7 or 8 year old taste buds) You could see the sea from the restaurant on the second floor.