10 Types of Vehicles that Had Disappeared from the Streets of Singapore

The advancement in transportation technologies has brought convenience and efficiency, and their rapid evolution saw the human- and animal-powered sedan chairs, rickshaws, bullock carts and gharries replaced by motor vehicles on the roads in the early 20th century. Different types of vehicles made their appearances throughout the decades. Many had already walked into history, while some are gradually vanishing from the streets of Singapore, such as the classic blue pickups and yellow-top taxis.

Below were 10 iconic transportation vehicles that had disappeared from the streets of Singapore.

1. Rickshaw (1880-1947)

First introduced into Singapore in 1880, rickshaw was a type of hand-pulled transportation vehicle originated from Japan. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, rickshaw-pulling became a primary source of income for tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants.

The relatively low charges for rickshaws indirectly led to the demise of the more expensive gharry, a type of horse-drawn two-wheeled carriage available for hire. In the 1920s, the rise of motorised vehicles prompted the British government to gradually phase out rickshaws – by then, there were almost 30,000 rickshaws in Singapore – due to many safety-related incidents.

The life of a rickshaw puller was both physically demanding and prone to accidents. By 1947, rickshaws were banned, on humanitarian grounds, and were replaced by the bicycle-powered trishaws.

2. Trams (1880s-1927)

There were once two types of trams operating in pre-war Singapore – the steam trams and electric trams – used for ferrying of passengers and carrying of cargoes. In 1882, the Singapore Tramway Company was established, and tramways were constructed mainly at the city, wharves and docks and major routes to the suburban areas.

The costly fares of steam trams meant that demands often could not cover the operating costs. The tram operation managed to stay afloat for slightly more than a decade, before the company called it a day and ceased its operation in 1894.

Electrical supply’s rapid growth and stability in the early 20th century led to the increased feasibility in the implementation of electrical trams. Once again, infrastructures were constructed, and the operation of electrical trams debuted in 1905.

Ridership stood at 32,000 in 1909, but by the 1920s, the conditions of many tram tracks had deteriorated to the extent that the Municipal Commission refused to extend the tramway concessions. In 1927, the last electrical trams were decommissioned, having replaced by the trolleybus system.

3. Mosquito Buses (1920s-1930s)

Mostly converted from Ford cars of Model T, the mosquito buses proved to be popular among workers and students as they were fast, cheap and comfortable. At the start, the mosquito buses plied mostly between the city and its outskirts, often being the only public transport available at the rural areas in the 1920s and 1930s.

Able to ferry up to seven passengers, the mosquito buses were small and highly manoeuvrable, and could weave in and out of the traffic without stopping. By 1930, there were more than 450 mosquito buses in Singapore.

Issues arose due to their reckless driving and speeding, high accident rates and heated competition against the rickshaws and trolleybuses for passengers. More stringent regulations were imposed by the Municipal Commission, and with the stopping of Ford’s Model T production, the mosquito buses  were eventually ceased in their operations by the end of the 1930s.

4. Trolleybus (1926-1962)

The demise of trams saw the rise of trolleybuses in the 1920s. Trolleybus was a type of bus that was electrically powered from overhead wires by means of a trolley pole. The trolleybus operation, owned by the Singapore Traction Company, was meant to replace the tram system, with the trolleybuses covering the similar routes left behind by the trams.

Trolleybuses were more successful than the trams, in terms of ridership and popularity among the masses. However, the accident rates involving trolleybuses were high due to overcrowding and cases of passengers boarding or alighting the trolleybuses while they were still in motion.

By 1933, the trolleybus operation in Singapore was one of the largest in the world, with a fleet of over 100 buses plying in a 40-km long network. After the Second World War, the “slow and noisy” trolleybuses began to fall out of favour, and were gradually replaced by motor buses in the early sixties.

5. Mobile Library Van (late 1950s-1991)

The idea of a mobile library services came from Britain and was introduced into Malaya and Singapore in the fifties by the People’s Education Association in a bid to improve literacy of the people, especially those living in the rural areas. After the Second World War, the Raffles Museum and Library resumed operations and was reopened to the public. The Raffles National Library was established in 1958, with branches set up at the suburban areas, and mobile library services launched.

At the start, three mobile library vans were introduced, one of which was a gift from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The mobile library vans, converted from old army vehicles, were stocked with English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil books. The mobile libraries were later upgraded to larger buses, which could carry more than 2000 books during their fortnightly visits to primary schools at Nee Soon, Tampines, Sembawang, Jurong and Bukit Panjang.

The new iconic National Library was opened at Stamford Road in November 1960, and mobile library services were extended, throughout the sixties, to both adults and children at many community centres at Nee Soon, Chong Pang, Bukit Timah, West Coast, Tanjong Pagar, Paya Lebar, Taman Jurong and Bukit Panjang.

The year 1970 saw the opening of Queenstown Library, the National Library’s first full-time branch. By the late seventies and eighties, the mobile library services were in declining demands, due to the establishment of library branches at the new towns. For instance, the Joo Chiat mobile library service ended in November 1978 due to the opening of the new Marine Parade branch library.

National Library’s mobile library services eventually ceased in 1991. In 2008, the National Library relaunched “Molly the Mobile Library” to bring reading pleasures to special-needs schools, orphanages, senior citizens’ homes and selected primary schools.

6. Sentosa Double Decker Bus (early 1970s-early 1980s)

After Pulau Blakang Mati was renamed Sentosa in 1970, the newly-formed Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) introduced a bus service as part of the development plans for the new island resort. Consisting of a fleet of green London-style double-decker buses, the Sentosa bus service was mainly used for ferrying tourists and visitors to the island’s attractions at Fort Siloso, Coralarium and the Maritime Museum.

The double-decker buses were phased out by the early eighties when the monorail started operating in 1982, although the single-decker buses continued plying the routes on the Sentosa island.

7. Lorry-Bus (1974-late 1970s)

In 1974, under the Singapore government’s supplementary transport Scheme B service, lorries were allowed to operate as private buses. Known as lorry-buses, they were retrofitted with service number plates, stepladders and wooden benches to transport factory and office workers. The lorry-bus operators were also required to display a Registry of Vehicles (ROV) disc at the back of their vehicles.

Each lorry-bus typically could carry up to 16 passengers – 1 sitting at the front of the vehicle that had no doors, and 15 at the rear. As many as 34 routes were initially approved for these lorry-buses to ply, together with other private buses, as the authority sought ways to relieve the overcrowded public buses and congested roads during the morning and evening peak hours.

The service, however, was generally unpopular, especially among women passengers who had difficulties climbing up and down the vehicles in their dresses. The lorry-buses became a history on Singapore streets just a few years later.

8. 32-Door Truck (1970s-1980s)

The nightsoil collection truck was also commonly known as 32-door truck due to its unique design of 16 compartments on each side of the vehicle that were used to store the nightsoil buckets.

In the seventies, many of Singapore’s public and private latrines were still using nightsoil buckets. The workers would collect the nightsoil buckets, two at a time, from the latrines and swapped them with empty ones. The filled nightsoil buckets were then deposited into the 32-door trucks, where they would go to the nightsoil collection centres at Albert Street, Lorong Halus and Jalan Afifi off Paya Lebar Road for disposal.

In the eighties, the government invested $600 million to improve Singapore’s sewage and sanitary network. Newly built housing estates were also mostly fitted with modern sanitation. Data showed that in the 10 years between 1971 and 1981, modern sanitation at homes jumped from 65% to 81%.

Nightsoil collection was gradually phased out by the mid-eighties. As the system officially walked into the history in January 1987, so were the famous 32-door trucks.

9. Volkswagen Police Car (1973-1980s)

In the early seventies, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) patrol cars were mostly made up of brands such as Land Rover, Toyota and Ford (Falcon, Cortina, Escort). In 1973, the SPF made a bold introduction to the public of their new fleet of Volkswagen “beetle” patrol cars. The new police cars were said to have completed their assemblies in Singapore with special modifications to their engines and internal compartments.

Painted blue and white, with the word POLICE printed on their bonnets and side doors, the new police cars were attached to Pearl’s Hill Police Radio Division, where each Volkswagen patrol car was assigned to two policemen of the radio patrol crew team. Internally, the cars were fitted with wireless sets at the luggage compartments, with the radio mouthpieces wired and extended to the dashboards.

The iconic Volkswagen police patrol cars were phased out in the eighties.

10. Tricycle (1960s-1990s)

Except for the licensed ice cream vendors, most of the street hawkers have since vanished from the streets of Singapore. It was a common sight in the seventies and eighties to see different street vendors riding on their tricycles from one place to another, peddling a wide range of items from food, milk and bread to masks, brooms, cooking pots and other daily necessities.

By the late eighties, many street vendors – those who had remained in this line – switched from tricycles to motorcycles installed with modified sidecars that functioned like mini stores. One example was the street rojak hawker, who would go around the HDB neighbourhoods in the eighties and nineties selling his rojak that was cooked directly from his mobile food stall.

Today, one can still spot a few old rusty tricycles parked by the roads, but they are no longer used for street hawking.

Published: 29 October 2018

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One Response to 10 Types of Vehicles that Had Disappeared from the Streets of Singapore

  1. Paul Ridgway (GB) says:

    Not forgetting the bullock tonga in pic 2.
    The tonga was known as transport on Blakang Mati 1926-1929.

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