I drive a bus.

Not many people pay attention to me more than giving me a cursory glance or a small smile as they beep their way on board.

Ask a commuter what they think of their bus captain and chances are, they don’t, at least very much! After all, we are hidden behind our masks and (sometimes) our sunglasses so I don’t blame you if you think of us as dour, sour, grumpy and gruff.

I hope not all the bus captains you’ve met are like that.

At least, I try not to be!

Life as a bus driver

Ce Xun on his evening bus shift. Image source: Ce Xun

But to be honest. Driving a bus isn’t easy.

Some might think driving a bus is simple. After all, you just sit, steer, and step on the accelerator and brakes. How difficult can it be?

But it’s not easy driving full time on Singapore’s roads. It’s a daily battle with other road users.

For example, driving a long vehicle like a bus means that you need to consider more things than just stop and go.

You have to gently pick up speed so people don’t lose their balance. But at the same time, you must make sure that you accelerate quickly enough into the next lane, before the car behind cuts you out. It’s tricky.

Once, I even had to manage a drunk passenger who almost picked a fight with me.

Most people don’t see this. Some of them even take out their frustrations on us when they wait a long time for the bus.

Managing commuters and expectations

Being a bus captain also means managing expectations of commuters.

There have been times when commuters have raised their voices at me, angry that they have been waiting for a long time for the bus to arrive.

Sometimes, these comments get too personal.

Once, a woman boarded my bus with her child, and told her son, “Bus drivers are those with no future. They can’t find anything else. Don’t be like them, okay?”

When I heard that, oddly, the feeling I got wasn’t disappointment.

It wasn’t anger, either.

It was probably a bit more nuanced – a combination of negative feelings. But it did give me a sense of self-doubt – it made me question if I had made the right decision to drive a bus.

After all, I am 28. I have a poly diploma in facilities management. I have other options. I chose to drive a bus.

Leaving my first job as a facilities manager for an estate in April 2020 was scary. It was the middle of the pandemic and friends asked me why I gave that up to join such a “blue-collar job”.

My parents were concerned too but they didn’t have strong opposition to my choice. They were just worried over that there would be long hours.

I had to train for three months before I finally qualified, but it felt like a breath of fresh air.

You see, I’ve always been interested in buses. Since young, I’ve been one of those people who would “chase” buses as a hobby. Even now, I make it a point to read up on the various flashing indicators on the bus panel so that I can make the right report on what’s not working.

But that parent’s disparaging comment made me question my decision. Again.

I felt that I needed to do something to remind myself why I chose this profession.

Toy story

Ce Xun with a Pusheen he placed at the front window of the bus. Image source: Ce Xun

So, one day out of the blue, I decided to do something different.

The idea came out of nowhere. Why not put a soft toy in the front window of the bus?

It could cheer up commuters. Give them something to laugh about, especially after a long day at work.

So I put a grey Pusheen stuffed cat right at the front windscreen, so commuters would see its cheerful little face grinning at them right before they board the bus.

Sure, some of my colleagues think it’s childish.

It was a silly idea, but somehow, it started to work.

Commuters started smiling at me. Children squealed at the sight of Pusheen and wanted to touch it. And funnily enough, some regular commuters began telling me that they look forward to boarding my bus!

Behind the scenes

Ce Xun driving Service 53 from Bishan interchange. Image source: Ce Xun

The happiest time of my career so far as a bus driver is when I went on my first revenue-generating trip. It was the first morning bus of a feeder service. That morning, even though there were few passengers, it felt like I had come quite far.

To see these passengers board the bus, trusting me to get them to their destination was a big moment for me.

Often, commuters don’t see what goes behind the scenes to make your bus journeys operate like clockwork.

Try to think about the last time you were in an accident on the bus, or if it broke down. If you are a little older, do you remember the times when we had non air-conditioned buses that had roller windows that we had to strain at to push open on a hot day?

Much goes on behind the scenes to make sure buses even show up on time!

You don’t see the strain on a driver’s body, as he sits for long hours, driving for up to 90 minutes per trip, sometimes with only a few minutes break in between before starting the next journey.

You also don’t see it when he ends the final night shift at 1.10am and needs to slowly drive the bus back to the depot for it to be washed and refuelled.

Other stories you might like

array(2) { [0]=> int(15174) [1]=> int(11716) }

One of the ways I unwind is to shop at the 24-hour supermarket after my shift, where I pull out a pocketbook to record how long I worked that day.

I often do this at the supermarket, because that’s the time when you’re out of the zone, and you’re reminded that you can do normal things. Like buying bananas.

Because when you drive constantly on weekends and public holidays, the days can fade into a blur. A simple act of jotting down “3pm to 1am – 8 hours worked” helps me differentiates the days.

What keeps me going

Cu Xun ending his last shift for the day. Image source: Ce Xun

Bus captains, like other frontliners, are human too.

That’s why I treasure moments like these.

At the end of the night shift, when there are no more buses, and we drivers gather at the bus depot for the Citaro bus (yes, we use the same buses at our company) to send us home, the designated driver would tease me and say: “Eh, Ce Xun! When are you going to get married?”

It’s a strange sight at 1:30am: Bus captains joking, laughing, and unwinding after a long day at work.

It’s a reminder of the relationships we share as bus captains, amid the difficulties involved in making sure every passenger has as pleasant a journey as possible.

More importantly, it’s a reminder that behind the bus captain uniform, we are all human, just like you.

We do try our best, and even if you just say a little “thanks” or give a small smile, it would mean the world to us.

This is Ce Xun’s story, as told to John.