Trials of a postal system

Day in the life of a postman: Two slices of bread and a toilet break between 12 hours of work

On Feb 7, SingPost was fined $100,000 for failing to meet delivery standards. To see what a postman goes through, The Straits Times followed Mr Rajab Abu Noh, who has been delivering mail for 43 years, as he goes about a usual workday.
Bulky items that cannot go into the letter box and registered mail take longer to deal with - especially when no one is home. Mr Rajab carting his mail (above) to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into
Mr Rajab carting his mail to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into the storage box on his three-wheeler scooter (above). He has to collect the rest later from a SingPost storeroom at an HDB block along his route.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Bulky items that cannot go into the letter box and registered mail take longer to deal with - especially when no one is home. Mr Rajab carting his mail (above) to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into
Bulky items that cannot go into the letter box and registered mail take longer to deal with - especially when no one is home.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Bulky items that cannot go into the letter box and registered mail take longer to deal with - especially when no one is home. Mr Rajab carting his mail (above) to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into
Mr Rajab and his colleagues gathering for a 9am meeting before they go out on their delivery rounds.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

That is the gruelling pace of a postman as The Sunday Times follows him on his rounds. SingPost delivers three million mail items daily, which works out to 3,000 pieces by each of the 1,000 postmen.

Mr Rajab Abu Noh has been a postman for 43 years. He started as a 22-year-old, weaving among kampung huts and farms on a motorbike, avoiding chickens.

Today, at the age of 65, he wields a smartphone and navigates high-rise buildings while dodging dogs.

It remains a tough - if not even tougher - slog, given the drastically changed nature of mail delivery, as Singaporeans fall in love with the convenience of online shopping.

SingPost, the national postal service provider, seems hard-put to keep pace with the developments. On Feb 7, it was fined $100,000 for failing to meet standards on the delivery of basic letters and registered mail here over six months in 2017. It comes after a string of delivery lapses, such as a postman being arrested for mail found discarded.

SingPost has since vowed to lighten its postmen's workload and review their pay, among other measures, to improve service quality.

To better understand how such service lapses could have occurred and the gruelling pace that postmen undergo, The Sunday Times followed Mr Rajab around as he goes about a usual workday.

FUEL FOR A DAY'S WORK

Bulky items that cannot go into the letter box and registered mail take longer to deal with - especially when no one is home. Mr Rajab carting his mail (above) to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into
Mr Rajab carting his mail (above) to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into the storage box on his three-wheeler scooter. He has to collect the rest later from a SingPost storeroom at an HDB block along his route. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

It is 6.30am on a Wednesday, and he is at the sorting area at Serangoon North Regional Delivery Base, one of seven across the island.

He scarfs down his breakfast - two slices of bread with butter and kaya and a cup of coffee. That would have to fuel him through the next 12 hours of work as he opts not to stop for lunch. Save for a 10-minute trip to the toilet at 3pm, he takes no breaks.

Mr Rajab's daily route takes him through 38 condo blocks of about 1,750 residential units in the Yio Chu Kang/Sengkang area.

At 7.30am, he begins to carefully sort the mail according to the floors in their respective blocks. Any error means he will later have to double back to the correct block or level during delivery.

At 9am, the postmen gather for a briefing. The inspector of post reminds them of complaints about missed deliveries or articles damaged when the bulky items were squeezed into letter boxes.

He tells them to report back if letter boxes are full so that residents can be reminded - by slipping notices under their door - to clear them. He also reprimands the postmen for leaving the master lock for letter boxes unlocked in four instances in one neighbourhood.

The meeting ends. Mr Rajab looks at the mountain of mail - a mix of letters and packages - piled high in a trolley and quickens his pace.

There is no way he can put it all into the storage box on his three-wheeler scooter without its heavy weight affecting his balance. So he takes half of it and will collect the rest later at a SingPost storeroom at an HDB block along his route.

He departs the base at 11am.

MOUNTAIN OF MAIL

Bulky items that cannot go into the letter box and registered mail take longer to deal with - especially when no one is home. Mr Rajab carting his mail (above) to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into
Mr Rajab Abu Noh, 65, who has been a postman for 43 years, begins his workday sorting out mail carefully according to block followed by unit numbers into the sorting frame to prepare for delivery. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SingPost has to deliver three million mail items daily. With a fleet of 1,000, this works out to 3,000 pieces for each postman.

However, 350 out of the 1,000 delivery persons are part-timers, mostly housewives and retirees.

There are no fixed hours: a postman has to deliver his mail load for the day, which varies, before he can knock off. Each usually delivers mail to some 20 blocks in an area.

In the past, this volume of mail might still have been manageable, given that they were mainly letters that could be shoved quickly into letter boxes. A postman made an average of only 20 to 25 doorstep deliveries of packages a day in 2010.

Now, such doorstep deliveries have doubled for non-peak periods and can go up to 50 or 60 during the year-end peak season.

This means Mr Rajab works from 7.30am to about 6pm every day, or up to 8pm if overtime work - for which he is paid extra - is needed.

In the past, he could have called it a day at about 3pm.

 
 
 
 

Despite such time pressures, he says no postman should have to resort to dumping mail to cope with their schedules or vent frustration.

SingPost says it intends to alleviate their load by hiring 100 more postmen as a short-term measure.

Four hours after he starts work, at about 11.30am, Mr Rajab arrives at his first port of call, a condominium in Yio Chu Kang. He has to deliver letters to 13 blocks there.

At the bottom of a block, Mr Rajab whips out a Samsung Galaxy A4 smartphone.

Since January, all postmen are issued smartphones loaded with SingPost's Smartpost app. It is meant to assist the postman as well as ensure he delivers mail in a timely and appropriate manner.

Mr Rajab uses it to scan a Near-Field Communication (NFC) tag mounted on the wall next to the centralised area of letter boxes. This is for the postman to clock his time of arrival and departure.

He then proceeds to slot mail and advertisements into the letter boxes. Registered articles, and regular mail that cannot fit into the letter boxes, have to be taken to the doorsteps of the residents.

He goes up to a residential unit, rings the doorbell twice, knocks on the door and calls out "Postman". There is no response.

So Mr Rajab opens the app on his phone and scans the barcode on the registered mail. Once the code is detected, a countdown timer of 45 seconds is activated to ensure that the postman waits for a sufficient amount of time at the door.

After 45 seconds, the smartphone screen switches to camera mode for the postman to take a photo of the unit number as proof that he had attempted delivery. Then Mr Rajab notes down the time on the delivery notice, and slots it in a crevice in the door.

"No luck this time, no one in," he mutters under his breath.

Contrary to the perception that postmen prefer to just leave a failed delivery notice at the door and scoot off quickly, it actually takes him twice as long to complete all the steps to log a failed delivery on the smartphone system, compared with if the recipient was home.

The ST times Mr Rajab, and finds that he has to spend about two minutes outside the door to complete the process if a person is not home. If someone is at home, it takes just one minute. "I know doing all these can protect us from complaints from customers but sometimes technology can also be a waste of time," says Mr Rajab.

For instance, the app at times cannot detect the barcode even after multiple tries and he ends up having to manually key in the barcode number. This happens at least three times throughout the day.

DELAYS AND BOTTLENECK

At 3.20pm, Mr Rajab finishes at a second condo, and the box at the back of his scooter is finally empty.

But he is not done. He heads over to a nearby mail storeroom to collect his second batch of mail for two more condominiums. This means another bottleneck as the mail has not arrived from the base. It takes half an hour. The time ticks by.

At 5.50pm, he completes all his deliveries. By then, he would have covered 38 blocks for the day, including some landed properties.

He heads back to the Serangoon North base to return undelivered mail as well as returned mail.

He changes out of his blue uniform at 6.30pm, some 12 hours after he started his day there.

OLDER POSTMEN, LOWER PAY

Bulky items that cannot go into the letter box and registered mail take longer to deal with - especially when no one is home. Mr Rajab carting his mail (above) to his vehicle - but this is only half of his full load for the day, which won't fit into
Any error would result in delays along his route. Above: A colleague gives Mr Rajab a shoulder rub while waiting for the morning briefing after two hours of mail sorting. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

After working for 43 years, Mr Rajab's basic salary is about $1,800. He works five days a week.

It is a big jump from the $300 he earned when starting out in 1976, but still below Singapore's median gross income of $4,400, which includes employer contributions to the Central Provident Fund.

It is thus perhaps unsurprising that of the 650 full-time postmen, just half are Singaporeans. The rest are work permit holders from countries such as China and Malaysia.

The average postman is older than the average Singapore worker - 51, versus 43 years old.

SingPost says its entry-level full-time postmen draw a basic salary of $1,600 a month. It is now reviewing salaries and career progression as part of a larger review of mail operations. "The pay is not enough and it needs to go up for more people to join. The work looks easy but it is very tough and only fit people can do this," says Mr Rajab, who walks with a limp.

Years on the job have partly worn out his knees and he has done a knee replacement surgery on his left leg and is due for another surgery for his right knee soon.

Three weeks ago, he was bitten by a large bulldog because the door was open and the dog was not leashed when he was delivering a registered article to the resident. He had to go for a vaccine injection.

He had worked in a few contractor jobs after leaving Geylang Serai Vocational School but those jobs did not last long. He then joined SingPost, going for a stable job with medical and other benefits.

Today, Mr Rajab is one of the oldest and longest-serving postmen.

He still enjoys what he does. "No enjoy, no work 43 years," says Mr Rajab simply.

His wife is a housewife, and they have three children.

The cheery and self-composed man chokes up when describing what makes his day.

"It is when residents say: 'Hello Mr Postman, long time no see' and I will answer: 'Every day I will come and I can see you'," he says.

His only son also works in the delivery line, but as a courier.

"I think he finds being a postman embarrassing and courier jobs are more popular with young people today," says Mr Rajab, who also has two daughters and one grandson.

He says that he has no plans to retire, even though his children are all working and can support him.

"I want to work as long as is possible. I don't want to retire, stay home and just makan (eat) and grow a belly," he says with a guffaw, gesturing wildly at his stomach.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 17, 2019, with the headline 'Two slices of bread and a toilet break between 12 hours of work'. Print Edition | Subscribe