Transport boss misses hard days of driving a bus

He worked long hours to turn 3-bus fleet into largest private outfit here

As Singapore steers its bus industry towards a new operating model in a bid to raise service standards, Mr Voo Soon Sang recalls the days when "service" merely meant being able to get on a bus.

The 65-year-old managing director of Woodlands Transport - Singapore's largest private bus operator - said the industry was fragmented in the 1970s, and buses were rickety, packed to the brim and broke down regularly.

"Back then, commuters had lower expectations. Most of them were just happy that they were able to get onto the buses."

But today, when buses are new, low-floor, air-conditioned and riding on air suspension, commuters seem less satisfied.

Mr Voo acknowledged that it is natural for expectations to rise as a country develops.

"The fast-growing population has also put a lot of pressure on the transport infrastructure," he added, explaining that it also led to more crowded buses and longer waiting times.

In response to this, the Government bankrolled a billion-dollar fleet-expansion plan that will add 1,000 new buses to the public fleet by 2017.

At the same time, it is shifting the public bus industry to a contracting model, under which the state owns operating assets and collects fare revenue, while operators bid competitively to run a package of routes.

The winner is paid a fixed sum - its bid - over a five-year contract. It stands to clinch bonus payments if it meets or exceeds stipulated service standards, and faces penalties - including contract termination - if it fails to do so.

Mr Voo said Woodlands Transport will be bidding for the maiden package of 26 services operating from the Bukit Batok, Clementi and Jurong East interchanges, as well as future contracts.

Even as the first tender has attracted several international transport operators, Mr Voo feels his company is on an equal footing with them because it has "cultural advantage".

"Every company will face the same challenges, such as a driver shortage," he said. "But the tender is very detailed and transparent, and we will endeavour to offer more than what is specified.

"At the end of the day, talking is easy, doing is hard."

Mr Voo is used to hardship. When he bought his first bus "from a kampung friend" in 1969, he was a 20-year-old provision shop assistant without a primary school certificate.

"I would work in the provision shop, and later drive the bus to fetch workers in the evening," he recalled, adding that working on weekends and public holidays was the norm.

In 1974, he started Woodlands Transport with a few partners - and three small buses.

"There was a lot of work, because Singapore was growing fast and demand for transport was soaring," he said. "But our cash flow was tight, so we could not expand as fast as we wished. That was demoralising." Still, Woodlands Transport grew its fleet every year "without fail".

Today, it has 350 buses and 950 other heavy vehicles such as lorries, tippers and tankers.

Its annual revenue crossed $130 million last year. It has 1,090 employees, 41 of whom have been with the company for 20 or more years.

But Mr Voo has not forgotten his humble beginnings.

He used to sleep on the bus to save time and fuel, he recalled.

"Some workers worked in Jurong and lived in Punggol. After I took them home from a late shift, I would sleep on the bus because the next day, the pick-up was very early, before 6am."

Back then, car ownership in Singapore was low, and driving a bus was an attractive job with its perks.

"Whenever I was free, I would take my family out or sometimes give a ride to my kampung friends," he said, adding that he sometimes misses driving and interacting with commuters.

"I still want to drive, but my managers stop me," he said.

"They said it's not befitting an MD (managing director), and it might give the impression that we are short of drivers."

Attracting and retaining drivers remains a goal for Woodlands Transport, even though about 70 per cent of its drivers are Singaporeans, with the remainder being either Malaysians or Chinese nationals.

Singaporeans make up about half the bus drivers between SBS Transit and SMRT, the two listed public transport operators.

Still, Woodlands Transport is looking at ways to improve working conditions and drivers' welfare. Even in 2003, when business was affected by the severe acute respiratory syndrome scare, it did not resort to layoffs.

"In fact, we distributed our annual bonus for the staff."

Asked if he thought commuters would be better off under the new bus contracting model, he said:

"The public will be happy if more routes are available. But adding routes can be costly in terms of capital investment, so bus companies are usually reluctant to do it.

"But since operators do not own assets under the new model, the public is definitely in a better position. Service standards, such as frequency of bus arrivals, will be higher than they are today."

christan@sph.com.sg