The History of Singapore’s Night Soil Bucket System

The modern liveable city of Singapore today has a complete sanitation system supported by a network of sewers and water reclamation plants. Since 1997, Singapore has achieved 100% accessibility to the modern sanitation system.

Toilets of modern sanitation system used to be a luxurious amenity. They were usually fitted at the colonial houses, villas or office buildings in the city areas. But for the suburban and rural parts of Singapore, at the villages and shophouses, most of them were served by the night soil bucket system.

The night soil bucket system was not unique to Singapore. It was also commonly used in other parts of Asia and Europe. In Singapore, the history of night soil bucket system began in the 1890s. Before that, it was unregulated and largely depended on Chinese coolies to go around collecting faeces from houses and transporting them to plantations to be used as fertilisers. However, the wooden buckets storing the faeces often could not be sealed properly, resulting in seepage and stenchful situations.

To improve the situation, the municipal government passed a law in 1889 to restrict the operating hours of night soil collection. Two years later, they banned the wooden buckets, and replace them with galvanised iron buckets. Cesspits were also disallowed. House owners were instead required to place pails or jars on solid grounds for their excrement. Meanwhile, the municipal government also built more public toilets in the late 1890s.

By the turn of the new century, the municipal government wanted to implement a better sanitation system for Singapore. But the progress was slow and ineffective. In 1909, they hired G. Midgeley Taylor, a British sanitation engineer to design the new sewerage system. Robert Peirce (1863-1933), the British municipal engineer based in Singapore between 1901 and 1916, took Midgeley Taylor’s design and improved it further.

In the early 20th century, a treatment plant was built at Alexandra Road to extend a sewerage network to parts of the downtown area. The treated waters were eventually disposed into the Singapore River. As the new Alexandra Sewage Disposal Works served only a small portion of the municipality, the night soil bucket system had to be continued.

The Alexandra Sewage Disposal Works soon could not cope with the rapidly increasing population. An examination at the Singapore River showed that half of the discharge into the river was crude sewage. The Alexandra facility was later upgraded and expanded, but more installations were needed by the 1930s. A Municipal Sludge Disposal Works was built in the late 1930s at present-day Lorong Halus, along Sungei Serangoon.

In 1941, new pumping and disposal stations were built at Rangoon Road and Kim Chuan Road respectively, and sanitation systems were made available at Kampong Kapor, Kampong Java, Geylang, Katong, Siglap and parts of Bukit Timah and Balestier. During the Japanese Occupation, many prisoners-of-war (POWs) were forced by the Japanese to carry out the night soil collection.

After Singapore’s independence, the government rolled out the Sewerage Master Plan in the late sixties. Singapore was divided into six regions, including the Kranji, Bedok, Jurong and Seletar areas, where the sewage was collected and pumped to a centralised treatment station. The waste water was then treated according to international standards before being discharged into the sea.

In 1972, the Ministry of the Environment (ENV) was formed with the staff recruited from the Public Works Department (PWD) and Environmental Public Health Division. One of its main tasks was to greatly improve the efficiency in controlling the environmental health and pollution of Singapore.

Singapore of the seventies was still largely rural and unsewered. Under ENV, hundreds of night soil collection workers worked daily to clear the buckets from the villages and shophouses’ toilets. By the early eighties, additional sewage treatment plants were added and the sewerage network was massively extended. In more than two decades, $1.6 billion had been spent on the sewerage system to improve the living standards of Singapore.

Public health and hygiene were further enhanced through various other means. Thousands of street hawkers were relocated and housed at the hawker centres and markets. Slums and squatters, with their latrines hanging over the rivers, were cleared and demolished. Pig farming was phased out. A 10-year cleaning program, from 1977 to 1987, was also carried out at the once murky and foul-smelling Singapore River and Kallang Basin.

By 1984, almost 90% of Singapore had modern sanitation system. It was time for the night soil bucket system to be phased out. The night soil collection centres at Albert Street, Toh Tuck Road and Jalan Afifi (off Paya Lebar Road) were subsequently closed in the eighties. More than 15,000 night soil buckets were disposed of.

On 24 January 1987, Singapore’s last night soil collection centre, located at Lorong Halus, was officially shut down. As the century-old night soil bucket system walked into history, the remaining 78 night soil workers were redeployed as cleaners or retrenched. The famous night soil collection trucks, fondly known as the 32-door trucks, also vanished after plying on the roads of Singapore for decades.

At the closing ceremony of the Lorong Halus’ night soil collection centre, the last night soil bucket was cleaned and retained by the ENV as a reminder of Singapore’s obsolete night soil bucket system. It was also a tribute to the thousands of former workers who had contributed to Singapore’s public health and hygiene through this manual and laborious job. An replica of the night soil bucket is currently one of the exhibit items at the Sustainable Singapore Gallery at Marina Barrage.

Since 2000, the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System (DTSS) has been developed as Singapore’s new sewerage system in the 21st century. Managed by the Public Utilities Board (PUB), it will gradually replace Singapore’s existing sewerage network and waste treatment and disposal facilities, with the residential and industrial used water channeled through three main networks to the water reclamation plants at Changi, Tuas and Kranji.

Published: 7 July 2020

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1 Response to The History of Singapore’s Night Soil Bucket System

  1. Lynne Copping says:

    Very informative. I lived on Pulau Brani from 1958-1961 and 1963-1966.
    On my first time there we had Elsan chemical toilets that were emptied daily
    by the night soil man.

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