#1: Do your job as a citizen and the system, in theory, will function as it should
It’s 5.30 AM, and you stand bleary eyed at the first floor of your HDB block. You’re in your immaculate school uniform, bag placed on the ground next to you. You still have bed hair. Your equally bedraggled father stands next to you in a singlet and shorts, unable to string words together before his morning Kopi-O.
The Bus is late. You silently curse the Bus driver and possibly your compatriots who are late and thus causing the delay. You skipped your morning shit to be on time. Maybe it’s traffic.
At long last, you hear the unmistakable rumble of a crumbling, mauve-coloured 30-seater Bus. Rounding the corner, its headlights light up the buildings around yours. It’s a week to National Day—you see a litany of national flags arranged in neat rows.
The bus stops in front of you. This is not Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus that’s full of laughter and learning. It’s a fucking tinpot on four wheels, designed to get you from Point A to Point B, no special powers included.
The doors open and the unmistakable smell of leather seats, packed breakfast (char siew bao, moderately day-old bread in plastic wrapping bought from the neighbourhood bakery, sometimes curry puffs) and lavender wafts outward. Your Bus driver barely looks at you as he closes the door behind you and speeds off to the next location.
Even before you reach school, you learn your first lesson. The Bus driver and his hulking piece of metal work as long as you pay them. This exchange is somewhat politically symbolised in the exchange of rights for freedoms: do your job as a citizen and the system, in theory, will function as it should.
#2: Well-built systems allow for social mobility, and it is possible to move between different strata
Everyone’s sleeping on the bus as you move through its darkened interior, taking up your assigned spot halfway through the bus. In Primary 4, the middle is where your seat is. It represents your seniority and sway in the Bus. No-one knows how these seats are assigned, but somehow you always know where to be seated.
The folks at the back are the ultimate enforcers of this rule.
The front is for the friendless. These people have neither the friends nor the cool to be in the same social circle as those sitting at the back. They could also be new. The back of the bus is actually the centre of attention because the senior-most, noisiest, most boisterous individuals sit there: the Bus bullies.
You think back to the days when you sat in the front as a lowly Primary 1 kid—your then school buddy used to walk to the front from the back to talk to you.
At least you’re in the middle now. You may even sit at the back in a year or two. You’ll have to behave the part though.
More on that later.
The Bus demonstrates that well-built systems allow for social mobility, and it is possible to move between different strata if you behave the part. Just because you sit in front as a Primary 1 newbie doesn’t mean that you won’t occupy a place at the back in a matter of five years.
As you arrive in school, everyone rubs their eyes open and trudges off the Bus. Breakfasts have been consumed and sleep debts have been partially paid. The sun has just started to break the horizon. The sky turns into a faint shade of light purple.
Today, the Bus is late because of heavy traffic. Cb, you think. You learned this word on the bus too. Must be because people were dodging that big gantry thing with “ERP” on it.
The school is already in the middle of morning assembly—you hear the national anthem blaring from the school hall, where everyone is probably whispering its lyrics—and school prefects (seriously, fuck them) are standing at the ready with their notebooks and G2 pens out, ready to take down the particulars of an entire bus of latecomers.
Their booking quotas would be fulfilled that day, not because anyone did anything particularly wrong. The looks of glee on their faces makes you want to punch them. You make a mental note to spit into the prefect’s room later.
You could do nothing wrong and still get fucked by the system. It isn’t necessarily the system’s fault, either.
One only needs to look at acceding to calls to use more public transport, use less water and have more kids, only for cost-saving sacrifices to be offset by rising costs of living—rising public transport fares, rising utility prices and what have you. It’s not really the system’s fault, but that’s the way it works.
#4: You can’t hope to beat someone by joining them (if you’re new)
You go through your day. No school Bus here. CA2 is coming up. Teachers are on their usual stress-fuelling spiel: “Two weeks left to CA2! No time already!” All you really care about, though, is playing with and collecting country erasers. Gambia was always available, but you wanted the rarer ones of which Singapore was one.
The final school bell rings and you trudge over to the Bus bay to board your bus, which is waiting at the ready.
The entire environment of the Bus changes in the afternoon. Everyone is far more energetic and excited at the prospect of going home.
The sun shines and heats the interior of what could be a makeshift coffin for 30 young boys (this story takes place in an all-boys school), aiding the steady spread of the smell of pre-adolescent sweat gracing everyone’s noses. To say it stinks is an understatement; that the bus is a biological war zone is more appropriate.
To a group of rowdy 11 and 12-year old boys, sleep is a punishment, not a luxury. So, the number one thing to do on the Bus after a long day at school is to play and talk, not to sleep or rest.
A personal story: on one of these hot afternoons in Primary 1, I heard a very curious word being screamed on the Bus (in rabid ecstasy). The repeated usage of the word seemed to garner more positive responses; people laughed harder and harder.
Midway through this, my Bus bully walked up to the front—he was also my assigned school buddy (he was supposed to show me the ropes of being in primary school)—and started insulting my House (there were 5 Houses in my primary school. We were arbitrarily assigned to them and displayed some false sense of pride cheering from them at school events).
Thinking that the best way to beat bullies was to join them, I let loose with my newly learned vocabulary: “Yeah, my house fucks!”
Boom. I know how wrong it sounds, but I learned swearing on the Bus. It was the start of a bright linguistic future replete with creative vocabulary. The only competition to a group of young boys who’ve just learned the meaning of the word “fuck” is a group of soldiers who’ve just received the freedom to use vulgarities at will and in any context during National Service.
The next day, I got into trouble with my school’s discipline master because my Bus bully bao toh–ed me.
You can’t hope to beat someone by joining them if you’re new. Only when you achieve seniority after experience can you start thinking about beating the system. Which my batch did, as the next lesson shows.
The penultimate lesson is painful. I was Primary 6 this time. I was sitting at the back of the bus and I was the Bus bully (The Joker is right: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”)
We’d always play this inane version of Counterstrike or Halo on the Bus: everyone would split themselves between the front and the back of the Bus, hide behind seats for cover, and pretend that our Pikachu adorned Velcro wallets attached to our shorts with rainbow coloured rubber link bands were the most advanced semi-automatic rifles.
We’d duck and cover, pop up to fire off a few “bullets” and make noise over the Bus uncle’s repeated screams (in Chinese) to keep quiet. The battle included everyone, was judged by the Bus bullies, and was our way of changing the system of the back bullying the front.
As the journey progressed, the Bus driver would scream more and more. We could tell he was angry, but we couldn’t tell what he was angry about. Maybe it was road rage. We carried on.
It was a hoot and a half. For some of us.
At what seemed to be a predetermined time, the Bus uncle would slow down and stop by the side of the road (don’t you get fined for that?), at which point all of us would rush back to our seats. We knew something was going down.
My Bus uncle would walk down the aisle of the bus, a small bottle of Axe medicated oil in hand. He’d give everyone a hard look in the face, trying to determine who the troublemakers were, while rubbing the open bottle on to his right pointer. When he found one, he’d force his oil covered finger into our faces, smothering our face with a generous helping of medicine. Sometimes he’d get our nose, sometimes our teeth.
It was punishment, of course. Try to break the rules, and the system will warn you before wrecking you.
#6: Don’t underestimate the power of collective bargaining
Fast forward to secondary school. After what must have been one medicated oil incident too many, a group of students had banded together, collectively informed their parents of the sordid nastiness their disturbed Bus driver peddled in, and got them to register their profound shock with the school authorities.
Only then must they have realised the power of collective bargaining. After a while, I heard that he was never to be seen again.
That’s the final lesson. Democracy, bitch.