Mosquito bus



The so-called “mosquito bus” is a small, seven-seater motor bus commonly seen on Singapore roads in the 1920s and 1930s. Following a raft of regulations implemented in the 1930s, mosquito buses were gradually phased out.1

Rise of the mosquito buses
In the early 1920s, Singapore’s rapidly increasing population and the growing number of people living outside the city area meant that the public transport system, which then comprised trams and trolleybuses, was overburdened. Rickshaws continued to be a vital form of transport, but soon faced competition in the form of privately owned and operated small motor buses.2


Such seven-seater buses began plying rural areas, which were poorly served by other means of transport at the time, and brought farmers with their produce from the outskirts to the city. The drivers eventually began operating in the town centre, competing with the trolleybuses owned by the Singapore Traction Company (STC). The seven-seater buses gained such popularity in the 1920s that the larger omnibuses operated by the municipality were nearly squeezed out of the competition.3

These buses later earned the sobriquet “mosquito buses”, probably due to their small size and the way they weaved in and out of traffic, hardly stopping.4 There were no fixed bus stops in the early years of mosquito buses, though standard stops were eventually implemented by the authorities.5

The mosquito buses were very popular with the working classes because they were cheap and faster than omnibuses and trolleybuses.6 In 1921, the registrar of vehicles reported that there were 147 mosquito buses in operation,7 and by 1929 the figure had risen to 456, although it was likely that there was a significant number of unlicensed operators.8

As a result of the fierce competition, tensions between the different transport operators started to heat up. In 1927, rickshaw pullers attacked and smashed three mosquito buses.9


Description
The mosquito buses were modified American cars, and the most favoured chassis was Ford’s Model T.10 The buses typically had timber bodies with an opening at the back. Seating was three-a-side on two benches with a single seat beside the driver.11 Bus conductors stood on the steps at the back of the bus by holding on to handlebars.12 The vehicular conversion was largely carried out by the Henghua dialect community, who were heavily involved in distributing and trading motorcar parts.13

Pneumatic tyres, then a relatively new invention, provided a reasonably comfortable ride on mosquito buses. The worldwide popularity of the Model T among private car owners at the time ensured that spare parts were readily available. Engines, chassis and other parts were renewed frequently, owing to the extreme wear these vehicles were subjected to because of their long daily operating hours.14 
Over 90 percent of licensed mosquito buses in early 1933 were using the Ford Model T chassis.15

Organisation
In 1933, there were 455 licensed mosquito buses in Singapore owned by more than 300 individuals.16 Because licences were only distributed to companies and not individuals, bus operators loosely organised themselves on a partnership basis as companies. Although each operator ran his/her share of buses and kept the takings, a fraction of their earnings was also contributed to the company fund.17

By 1935, 10 bus companies that provided regular services had been established, including the Green Bus Company, Keppel Bus Company, Soon Lee Bus Company and Ngo Hock Bus Company, which altogether provided about 500 buses.18 The mosquito bus companies were commonly collectively referred to as the “Chinese bus companies”, in contrast to the large municipal trolleybus operator, the British-owned STC.19

Before the abolition of mosquito buses, the companies plied four main routes: Tanjong PagarGeylang, Pasir Panjang, SerangoonPaya Lebar and Bukit Timah.20

Regulation
As popular as mosquito buses were, safety concerns surfaced with reports of reckless driving, speeding and even fatal accidents. There were increasing calls for strict regulation of mosquito buses.21

In 1923, a bylaw was passed to impose fixed bus stops, or “stopping places” as they were known then, to prevent drivers from abruptly stopping and picking up passengers wherever they spotted them.22

By 1927, buses had to bear direction boards, display registration numbers both inside and outside (in order to better identify offending drivers) the vehicle, adhere to a speed limit of 20 mph (32 kph), and were subject to no less than four vehicle inspections a year.23

The mosquito buses remained a thorn in the side of the municipality, which saw these outmoded vehicles as a nuisance to public safety. What worsened matters were the cat-and-mouse tactics the owners employed in order to pass the quarterly inspections. Owners would use brand new spares on vehicles sent in for inspection, only to replace the new parts with old ones after the inspection, then reusing the same new parts on the next vehicle in the fleet bound for inspection.24

Unsurprisingly, the municipality attempted to curb the rise of mosquito buses. These included proposals in 1928 by the registrar of vehicles to deregister all mosquito buses more than five years old.25

Decline
A severe blow to the mosquito buses came in 1933, when it was announced that licences would no longer be issued to operators of Ford Model T buses starting from July that year.26 The municipality’s aim was to improve public transportation by getting bus owners to modernise their fleets and use larger buses.27 The authorities planned to gradually phase out mosquito buses over a period of two years.28


The move to eliminate mosquito buses was met with resistance from the Singapore Bus Owners’ Association and from office workers and parents of schoolchildren, especially those living in the rural districts, who depended on the buses to get to work or school.29

However, even without this action by the municipality, the obsolescence of the Ford Model T, and thus the mosquito buses, seemed inevitable, as the Ford Motor Company had ceased production of the Model T in 1927.30


To replace the mosquito bus services, the municipality’s introduced the Singapore Omnibus Services in 1933; however, the company went into liquidation within a few months of operation.31 Following the dwindling number of mosquito buses, the STC, which operated omnibuses and trolleybuses, gained a monopoly on bus services in the town area. In 1934, when the STC trolleybuses and omnibuses replaced mosquito buses, the routines of office workers and schoolchildren were affected by problems such as overcrowding and poor accessibility.32

By 1939, mosquito buses had stopped plying main roads in the town centre, and were operating only the Pasir Panjang route.33

Legacy
At the lowest point of their popularity, mosquito buses were reported negatively in the daily newspapers and their operators were said to be discriminated against by the authorities.34 However, they were still called to perform essential public services during transport crises. In 1938, when STC employees went on a six-week strike, the registrar of vehicles had little choice but to arrange an emergency bus service provided by mosquito buses.35

At the onset of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), the state of civilian transport services rapidly deteriorated following the Japanese aerial bombardment in December 1941. This, in addition to bomb damage sustained by the trolleybuses’ electrical cables and poles, placed added strain on trolleybus services.36 As a result, some mosquito buses were repaired and seen on the roads again during the war, in an effort to supplement STC’s services.37

The legacy of the pioneer Chinese bus companies that operated the mosquito buses remains to this day. The 10 companies, or their successors, underwent a series of amalgamations to eventually form three companies in April 1970: Amalgamated Bus Services, Associated Bus Company and United Bus Company.38 In 1973, these three companies were merged to form the Singapore Bus Service Limited, now known as SBS Transit Limited.39



Author
Ibrahim Tahir



References
1. People movers of the past. (2004, November 6). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Sharp, I. (2005). The journey: Singapore’s land transport story. Singapore: Land Transport Authority of Singapore, p. 47. (Call no.: RSING q388.4095957 SHA)
2. Warren, J. F. (2003). Rickshaw coolie: A people’s history of Singapore, 1880–1940. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 64. (Call no.: RSING 388.341 WAR)
3. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of the trams, trolleybuses & buses: Volume one, 1880’s to 1960’s [sic]. Surrey: DTS Publishing, p. 32. (Call no.: RSING q388.41322095957 YOR); Khoo, B. L. (1972, November 17). Singapore’s first power station. New Nation, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Land  Transport Authority. (n.d.). Early transport modes, p. 3. Retrieved from Land Transport Authority website: https://www.lta.gov.sg/ltgallery/files/04%20Early%20Transport%20Modes.pdf
5. Municipal commission. Public amusements. (1923, June 6). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Rimmer, P. J. (1986). Rikisha to rapid transit: Urban public transport systems and policy in Southeast Asia. Australia: Pergamon Press, p. 115. (Call no.: RSING 388.40959 RIM); Romance of mosquito bus service. (1934, July 5). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Rimmer, P. J. (1986). Rikisha to rapid transit: Urban public transport systems and policy in Southeast Asia. Australia: Pergamon Press, p. 115. (Call no.: RSING 388.40959 RIM)
8. A half-century of Ford cars. (1957, September 27). The Singapore Free Press, p. 8; Mosquito buses. (1927, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Rikisha coolies smash motor buses. (1927, January 3). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. A half-century of Ford cars. (1957, September 27). The Singapore Free Press, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Rimmer, P. J. (1986). Rikisha to rapid transit: Urban public transport systems and policy in Southeast Asia. Australia: Pergamon Press, p. 115. (Call no.: RSING 388.40959 RIM)
12. Sng, S. (Interviewer). (2005, April 15). Oral history interview with Khoo, Benjamin Beng Chuan [Transcript of CD recording no.: 002911/26/08, pp. 179, 187–188]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
13. Ong, L. K. (1977, January 25). Henghuas still in control of the vehicle parts trade. The Business Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Mosquito buses. (1927, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Singapore transport problem. (1933, March 1). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Singapore transport problem. (1933, March 1). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Boon, G. T. (1950, June 8). The battle of the bus companies. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Boon, G. T. (1950, June 8). The battle of the bus companies. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Varaprasad, N. (1989). Providing mobility and accessibility. In K. S. Singh & P. Wheatley (Eds). Management of success: The moulding of modern Singapore (pp. 420–435). Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 421–422. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 MAN)
20. Singapore transport problem. (1933, March 1). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Dangerous buses. (1924, June 12). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7; Condemnation of buses. (1928, August 10). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Municipal commission. Public amusements. (1923, June 6). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Mosquito buses. (1927, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Condemnation of buses. (1928, August 10). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Condemnation of buses. (1928, August 10). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. ‘T’ model motor buses to go. (1933, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Singapore transport problem. (1933, March 1). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. ‘T’ model motor buses to go. (1933, April 29). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Condemnation of buses. (1928, August 10). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 8; What workers think. (1936, October 24). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Mosquito buses. (1927, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 11; 22,000,000 Fords sold. (1934, October 25). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. City’s bus services. (1933, December 3). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. A municipal responsibility. (1934, June 25). The Straits Times, p. 10; Singapore goes strap-hanging. (1934, January 6). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Municipal bus revenue. (1939, August 22). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Mosquito buses. (1927, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 11; Unfair to mosquito bus company. (1938, June 3). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7; Why commissioners took sting out of mosquito bus owners. (1934, June 30). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Emergency mosquito bus service arranged. (1938, August 13). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 9; Mediation failure between traction men and company. (1938, August 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Khoo, B. L. (1972, November 17). Singapore’s first power station. New Nation, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. York, F. W., & Phillips, A. R. (1996). Singapore: A history of the trams, trolleybuses & buses: Volume one, 1880’s to 1960’s [sic]. Surrey: DTS Publishing, p. 60. (Call no.: RSING q388.41322095957 YOR)
38. Boon, G. T. (1950, June 8). The battle of the bus companies. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Rimmer, P. J. (1986). Rikisha to rapid transit: Urban public transport systems and policy in Southeast Asia. Australia: Pergamon Press, p. 126. (Call no.: RSING 388.40959 RIM)



Further resources
Bus services. (1940, June 28). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Crowded buses. (1935, February 12). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Model T: The end of the legend. (1986, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

No limited transport competition for city. (1940, June 1). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Our traffic problem. (1928, January 2). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Tan, A. (c. 1930). Tanjong Katong, Singapore [Image no.: 19980005108-0079]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline

The buses. (1934, January 18). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

York, F. W. (1935). A ‘mosquito’ bus along Bukit Timah Road [Photograph no.: 19980005846-0052]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline

York, F. W. (1955). Tay Koh Yat Bus Service Chevrolet ‘mosquito bus’ at Sembawang [Photograph no.: 20090000079-0019]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline



The information in this article is valid as at 28 August 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.

Subject
Commerce and Industry>>Transportation
Heritage and Culture
Ethnic Communities
Transportation