Singapore Public Transport


“Good evening, happy Tuesday, welcome to bus service number 196,” says the beaming turbaned driver in a musical Indian accent.

And so my love-hate relationship with Singapore’s public transport flips over to love again. Stays on love when I climb up to the upper deck and find the front row seat free. I slide into the corner and proceed to ignore the rest of the commuters.

Ten minutes later my meter has swung back. Not all the way to hate, just to mild annoyance. A chubby guy has sat next to me and he’s touching me, bumping me with his arm as the bus bumps along. I can’t squish myself into the window any further to get away. God I hate commuting in Singapore. With a passion.

I’ve trying cycling to work and it’s just too damn hot. I’ve tried the bus and the train. I’ve tried taking the bus to the train. I’ve tried walking to the train. Every method sucks. Sucks an hour of my time each way. My valuable baby-cuddling time. And every method delivers me to work dripping with sweat. Classy.

What really rankles is that it takes 12 minutes to get to work by taxi. Twelve minutes and about $20. We just can’t afford it. I can almost see my office from the end of my street. But the buses don’t go directly to the financial district, they shun the expressway and meander through various back streets for half an hour or so, before delivering me two blocks from my office. The two block walk includes three pedestrian crossings, all on long cycles, which means two blocks takes 10 minutes. Maddening.

Then there’s the bus timetables. Or lack thereof. No timetable, just a sign saying buses will be along every five to 15 minutes in peak hours, nine to 20 minutes in off peak. So every day about 15 minutes of possible standing at the bus stop time has to be added to the commute. Every day I leave the house at the same time. Some days I arrive at work 30 minutes early, other days a minute or two late. Maddening.

Then there’s commuter behaviour. Kiasu I’m told it’s called. The fear of losing. I’ve been pushed out of the way, pushed in front of, prodded with handbags, squashed and poked and generally ticked off in innumerable ways. I’ve watched teenage girls charge across an empty train carriage to get a seat. I’ve gotten on a half-full but full bus. Half the seats are empty, but they’re all window seats, the selfish commuters taking the aisle seats so no one can sit next to them. If you approach one of these seat-hoggers, they will just twist in place, leaving you to edge past them, your bum inches from their faces. (Kinda serves them right, I think.) But still, maddening.

Singapore double decker

An uncommonly uncrowded Singapore bus, top deck.

At the train station, people surge onto a train before those aboard can get off. When I wait at what seems to me to be an appropriate distance from where the train door will be (it’s well-marked on the platform), someone always comes and stands in front of me, edging themselves in between me and the yellow line. Maddening. (I know, I know, Asians have a much smaller concept of personal space than Australians. It’s not that they’re standing so close that bothers me, it’s the pushing in. It’s rude, even in Asia, I’m sure.)

At the weekends, when we pack up Miss M for an excursion, it’s same-same but different. Our first week in Singapore, at the MRT station, the people on the platform pushed through our family group, shoving the pram out of the way, in their desperation to board a train. The three of us barely made it on board together. Darling Man and I clung to each other as the crowd continued to push and shove, we were trying to hold the baby, hold on and hold the pram. It was too frightening to leave her in the pram when the crowd had such disregard for it. She was only six months old, so small and fragile and still wobbly-necked.

Nowadays she’s sturdier and much more active. She wants to hang from the bus straps, press buttons, stand up, jump around and smirk at other commuters. She’s a handful. And she’s heavy. And despite all the signs indicating which seats are reserved for the sick, elderly and those with children, rarely does anyone heave themselves up to give us a seat. We usually finish a bus journey with at least one dislocated shoulder in the group. And it’s not the baby’s.

Yes, there’s a lot more hate in my relationship with Singapore public transport. Today there was a flash of love for the lovely Indian bus driver. There have been other lovely bus drivers, too, who have made boarding the bus a pleasure. But they’re the exception rather than the rule.

On good days, I have hardly any waiting time at the bus stop and I get on to find a spot on the top deck at the front. Then I can look out over some of Singapore’s most appealing attractions – the Merlion, the Fullerton Hotel, Marina Bay Sands casino, the Arts Science Museum, the Singapore Flier, the durian building, better known as Theatres On The Bay. From the top deck of the bus, I also get a great view into the gardens of some of Singapore’s most fancypants mansions, along Mountbatten Road. Yes, named after the fancypants English lord who founded the Boy Scouts.

Singapore's Marine Bay Sands casino

Singapore's Marine Bay Sands casino, Arts Science Museum and a teeny-tiny-looking Merlion, from the bus

A fancypants house in Singapore's Mountbatten Road

When the morning sun is bright, the bus air-conditioning is strong and I have no eye contact with other commuters, I love the bus. I love Singapore. I love life. This is rare though. I can ignore the commute when I’m on the bus (which is why I usually take this mode of public transport). I can read a book, I can stare out the window, I can scribble notes in my important navy-blue notebook. On the train, all I can do is stare at the other frowning grumpy-faced commuters or stare at the ceiling. I usually choose the ceiling, which delivers me to work with a crick neck.

Now, don’t let me put you off Singapore’s public transport. If you travel to Singapore for business or for a holiday, a quick trip on the train or the bus is great, especially if you travel in off-peak times. Even for a month it would be ok. But it’s been 14 months now and it’s a real grind.

Singapore Merlion

Singapore's Merlion at dusk (with the Marina Bay Sands casino in the background)

Not that I’ve experienced anything very much better. In the little-known capital of Australia, Canberra, there is no public transport to speak of. But I had a car and a bike and I cycled to work, except when the radio said it was below 2 degrees Celsius. In Melbourne the trains were so crowded I also chose to cycle. In Brisbane the trains were wonderful, but I’ve heard things have changed. In Ho Chi Minh City, the commute was challenging because I wasn’t used to riding a motorbike and it was HOT in a helmet in a traffic jam in the sun. Especially when Darling Man told me protect myself by wearing a mask and a long-sleeved shirt over my work clothes.

How’s your commute? Does it drive you nuts like mine? (I am so looking forward to working from home after our next dropout, so there’s no commute.)

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8 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.

39 Comments

  1. Runaway Brit says:

    I have just finished a year of what can only be described as the commute from Hell. On a good day it took 1hour 20 minutes, in the winter it took almost 3 hours. EACH WAY, and unfortuntately, the Swedish winter is 6 months long.

    The trains are VERY expensive but for 6 months I faced cancellations, severe delays, busy trains where I would have to stand or sit on the floor (very frustrating given the ticket price of $650 a month).

    My alarm clock would go off at 4.45am and I would get up to go to work, I wouldn’t get home until 7pm when I would have just enough time to grab a snack enroute to the shower before heading to bed in the hope of getting enough sleep to do it all again next day.

    This is what happens when you initially try out the journey on a hot Swedish summer day in the holidays when the trains are not disrupted, and decide from that that the journey will be bearable!!

    Thankfully I have now quit that job and I will never agree to commute again!!

  2. jade says:

    I have a love/hate relationships with most buses… especially in Beijing. Almost impossible to figure out which bus was which and what time they left. we eventually just got on one and hoped for the best!

  3. I just took the bus for the first time in San Diego and I was just happy to be using public transportation in a place where there is barely any. But I know what you mean about crowded buses and uncomfortable seat mates. It’s no fun if you have to do it for work, but when I’m traveling, I find it to be all part of the experience.

    • The Dropout says:

      Yes, Christy, I love public transport when I’m traveling too. When I tested the commute before we signed the lease on our house, I thought the half an hour on the bus time would be fun. I can’t believe how wrong I was.

  4. Ugh, sounds like everything that could be wrong with public transportation in your one poor commute! Thank gawd I don’t have a commute at all – definitely one of the benefits of working from home.

  5. ayngelina says:

    Since I have come back to Toronto I have tried to renew my love for public transit. I try to ignore the stinky, mean people and just be happy that I’m not going to get pickpocketed!

    • The Dropout says:

      Well, that’s one great thing about Singapore – there’s barely any crime. I don’t have to worry about pickpockets at all. 🙂
      Hope you are enjoying Toronto Ayngelina, even if only for a short time.

  6. When I was working in Singapore, I had a choice of either a >1 hour commute by train or a 55 minute commute by bike. I lived 20km away from my workplace. Yes, over a distance of 20km, it was still faster to bike than to take the MRT. The only reason I took the MRT most of the time was that I’d have to leave the house at 6am to bike to work, since after 7am the traffic gets crazy.

  7. robin says:

    I have a little commute to my part time job at the English school but it has none of the crazy making big city trappings.

    Take deep breaths, lose yourself in the important notebook…

  8. I don’t envy you one bit with your commute. I remember my commute to work in the UK – sometimes sat in traffic on the motorway or, like you, crammed onto a bus. No, not missed at all. Hope you find a way of getting rid of your commute soon! 🙂
    Julia

  9. auntielucia says:

    I agree with you 110 % that Sg’s public transport sucks, not because the infrastructure is old or unreliable. It’s just the timetable that sucks.

    And while all your respondents seem to have it bad too elsewhere, u n they shld try what Hongkong has to offer. It makes having a car a pointless luxury there… read this link to the end and know y HK is the fav of so many

    http://singaporegirl.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/in-the-old-days-arguments-dont-fly-any-more/

    • The Dropout says:

      It’s crazy that in a country the size of Singapore (which I’ve crossed in a taxi in 25 minutes) that people should need a car because the public transport system is so sucky! I like your “good old days” post, although I don’t believe you are so old, Auntie Lucia!

  10. naomi says:

    loving this post. i’m sorry to be loving something that you are despising so much, but it was a great one!

  11. WOW. this is awful! that is just too horrid – esp the lack of personal space. i remember when i worked in japan, 2 hrs each way. packed, with gropers trying to get all up on you, and sweat, and rudeness. i was SO glad when that was over.

    • The Dropout says:

      Oh, two hours sounds like torture. And here’s the reverse situation — I thought Japanese trains were OK when I was in Tokyo. But I wasn’t commuting, just tripping around. I got on a train at peak hour with my backpack and it was FUN. Because it was only once.

  12. Grace says:

    Mine is an easy 10 – 15 minute drive. But I remember how horrible it was when I was living back in Asia. The heat, humidity and traffic make everyone mad. No laws, no rules- it’s survival of the fittest.

  13. Ren says:

    I moved to Singapore from Manila about a year and a half ago, and maybe it’s a matter of context or whatever, but commuting here in Singapore is HEAVEN. Sure, I miss being able to get off the bus right beside where I actually want to go (bus stops being a suggestion in Manila), but apart from that, I don’t feel as stressed out commuting here. That “kiasu” thing in commuting is a pain, but it is seriously, honestly much worse in Manila or Bangkok (as examples).

    As for bus timetables… well, they’re starting to add those “next bus” counters on some bus stops (and if you’ve got a smart phone, you can access Iris Next Bus online to figure out what time the next bus arrives). But judging by stuff I’ve read in the papers, the locals don’t WANT to have that shit. It’s nuts.

    • The Dropout says:

      Hey Ren, Manila trains are crowded and I can imagine commuting would be a nightmare.
      But Singapore is a supposedly a developed country that promotes its efficient public transport system. But it’s not very efficient from my point of view. It only works well when everyone is at work.

  14. adventureswithben says:

    There’s a great restaurant near the Merlion – Over Easy. They serve breakfast for dinner!

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  16. 21st Century Mummy says:

    My husband commutes on the bus, I think his biggest problem is the heat, here in Singapore – he goes to work in jeans/shirt. But, it still beats the Tube in London. There are always delays and millions of people trying to squeeze on. I used to commute by bus over there, which was okay – just too much traffic.

  17. Mstislav says:

    It takes me 90 minutes to get to work. The bulk of it is taken up by waiting and traveling on the bus, which is really the shortest part of the trip in terms of distance. I’d walk or cycle to the mrt station but it’s way too humid in Singapore.

    Ever tried Taipei’s train system? I thought Hong Kong’s was good. I’ve changed my mind.

    • The Dropout says:

      Commuting is such an awful time-waster, isn’t it? I’ve never tried Taipei’s train system and my only experience with trains in Hong Kong was quite pleasant, but I wasn’t commuting, just sightseeing.

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  19. DJ says:

    If were to write about my daily battle with Singapore public transport, it would read exactly like this. Having worked in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and now Singapore I have to say that despite all the positive reasons for living here with a family, the public transport is shabby in comparison to other top ranking cities in Asia.

    Cycling to work takes 15 min for me, but I have to shower at the office. Train takes 25, but I have to be aggressive to get through the door – lucky I am a big ang mo. Bus takes 45+ if you include waiting times, but the buses are ALWAYS late and full. Its just slack.

    Now they’re talking about nationalizing the public transport system. Heaven help us, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it will!

  20. auntielucia says:

    Haha, Dropout, I’m really old. I wasn’t commuting either in HK but because every time i want to grab n see everything I cld in shortest possible time, I wld have noticed it, had transport system been anything like SG’s!
    auntielucia recently posted..Co-incidence or super-fast reaction?

  21. To be fair – the every 15 minutes schedule is what they also have in London – and New Yorkers are probably just as pushy! But add those annoyances with heat and humidity and I can understand your annoyance. Still – Im super super excited to come visit Singapore in just a few weeks!

    Jade Johnston | http://www.ouroyster.com
    Jade Johnston recently posted..Eat Your Way Around Thailand – 10 Best Foods To Try

    • The Dropout says:

      Jade, the public transport here is great when you’re just visiting. Even if you catch peak hour, it’s kind of interesting — if you don’t have to do it every day.

  22. Luke says:

    Well what can we expect. They don’t have money for cars so it natural that public transport is over used. Although that not may be the case for other similar countries.

    The casino looks just spectacular !
    Luke recently posted..What degree should i get

  23. […] the company retirement plan. I try to remind myself how miserable I am at the prospect of catching the bus every day, getting into the lift in my office building, facing the crowds at lunchtime, then […]

  24. Liz says:

    Hi there! I love your blog, its fantastic! This post particularly caught my eye because I have such a love/hate relationship with Singapore Public Transit, I have created a whole blog about my blood, sweat and tears with Singapore Public Transit. Your comments are sooo true! Thank you for your post!
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  26. Singapore sucks says:

    I would agree with you 2000%. Unfortunately transport has deteriorated since because of the increasing population size that the country can’t actually cope with. Even taking a taxi requires a wait for 20 minutes.

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