S'pore transport pioneers recall tough early days

Retired pilot Kenneth Toft (right) was among a generation of transport pioneers at the Transport Ministry's SG50 gala dinner, which also featured an exhibition (above) on local transportation since independence.
Retired pilot Kenneth Toft was among a generation of transport pioneers at the Transport Ministry's SG50 gala dinner, which also featured an exhibition (above) on local transportation since independence.ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO
Retired pilot Kenneth Toft (right) was among a generation of transport pioneers at the Transport Ministry's SG50 gala dinner, which also featured an exhibition (above) on local transportation since independence.
Retired pilot Kenneth Toft (above) was among a generation of transport pioneers at the Transport Ministry's SG50 gala dinner, which also featured an exhibition on local transportation since independence.ST PHOTOS: DESMOND FOO

When Captain Kenneth Toft first started flying in the 1960s for Malayan Airways, the carrier that would later become Singapore Airlines (SIA), it was a risky business.

Often flying over uncharted areas without the benefit of radio aids or an electronic guidance system, he would sometimes have to descend below the clouds in bad weather and use the pinpricks of light from lighthouses to navigate.

The 78-year-old said: "In the old days, when we kissed our wives and girlfriends goodbye, we meant it, because not all of us came back."

Capt Toft, who retired from SIA in 1997 after 37 years of flying, was among a generation of transport pioneers thanked yesterday by Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew at the ministry's SG50 gala dinner.

In his speech, Mr Lui painted a picture of the chaotic transport scene 50 years ago - one plagued by pirate taxis and bus companies more keen on fighting each other than transporting passengers, and when SIA was still an infant airline operating just 10 planes from Paya Lebar Airport's single runway.

RISKY BUSINESS

In the old days, when we kissed our wives and girlfriends goodbye, we meant it, because not all of us came back.

CAPTAIN KENNETH TOFT, 78, who started flying in the 1960s for Malayan Airways, the carrier that would later become Singapore Airlines

Mr Lui said: "The world-class brick-and-mortar infrastructure which facilitates our overseas travel and the movement of cargo and goods in, out and through Singapore, the innovative transportation policies and measures which smoothen our daily commute, and the efficient, fuss-free transportation services... are the legacy of our pioneers."

Mr Lui commended late pioneers such as former Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore chairman Sim Kee Boon, the man behind the construction of Changi Airport, and MRT Corporation's first executive director Lim Leong Geok, the eldest son of war hero Lim Bo Seng and part of the team that built Singapore's first MRT.

He also lauded long-serving transport staff such as principal engineering assistant Thambiah Ramasamy who, with more than 60 years of service, is the longest-serving employee of the Land Transport Authority (LTA). Mr Thambiah, he said, was among the team who put up the first Electronic Road Pricing gantry, and at 79 years of age continues to supervise work on the gantries today.

Pioneers at the gala night were quick to reminisce about the teething trials of Singapore's early transport days.

LTA rail director Ow Chun Nam, 62, recalled the challenges involved in the first phase of the MRT's construction, such as having to treat the entire length of Robinson Road with grout to stabilise the poor ground. "That was quite a massive job," he said.

Looking towards the future, he added: "The important thing... is to have a group of youngsters to come forward and take an interest in underground construction. "

Mr Lui said: "Seated among us this evening are the pioneers that 50 years from now, some minister is going to stand at some podium in some hotel acknowledging.

"We are grateful that we can... stand on the shoulders of giants as we continue the work of building Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 13, 2015, with the headline 'S'pore transport pioneers recall tough early days'. Print Edition | Subscribe