Mosquito bus

Singapore Infopedia


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ibrahim Tahir

1. “People Movers of the Past,” Straits Times, 6 November 2004, 15 (From NewspaperSG); IIsa Sharp, The Journey: Singapore’s Land Transport Story (Singapore: Land Transport Authority of Singapore, 2005), 47. (Call no. RSING q388.4095957 SHA)
2. James Francis Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore, 1880–1940 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 64. (Call no. RSING 388.341 WAR)
3. F. W. York and A. R. Phillips, Singapore: A History of the Trams, Trolleybuses & Buses: Volume One, 1880’s to 1960’s (Surrey: DTS Publishing, 1996), 32 (Call no. RSING q388.41322095957 YOR); Betty L. Khoo, “Singapore’s First Power Station,” New Nation, 17 November 1972, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Early Transport Modes,” Land Transport Authority, n.d., 3.
5. “Municipal Commission. Public Amusements,” Straits Times, 6 June 1923, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Peter J. Rimmer, Rikisha to Rapid Transit: Urban Public Transport Systems and Policy in Southeast Asia (Australia: Pergamon Press, 1986), 115 (Call no. RSING 388.40959 RIM); “Romance of Mosquito Bus Service,” Straits Times, 5 July 1934, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Rimmer, Rikisha to Rapid Transit, 115.
8. “A Half-Century of Ford Cars,” Singapore Free Press, 27 September 1957, 8; “Mosquito Buses,” Straits Times, 20 December 1927, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Rikisha Coolies Smash Motor Buses,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 3 January 1927, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Half-Century of Ford Cars.”
11. Rimmer, Rikisha to Rapid Transit, 115.
12. Benjamin Khoo Beng Chuan, oral history interview by Samuel Sng, 15 April 2005, transcript and MP3 audio, 58:37, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002911), 179, 187–8.
13. Ong Leck Keong, “Henghuas Still in Control of the Vehicle Parts Trade,” Business Times, 25 January 1977, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Mosquito Buses.”
15. “Singapore Transport Problem,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 March 1933, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Singapore Transport Problem.”
17. G. T. Boon, “The Battle of the Bus Companies,” Straits Times, 8 June 1950, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Boon, “Battle of the Bus Companies.”
19. N. Varaprasad, “Providing Mobility and Accessibility,” in Management of Success: The Moulding of Modern Singapore, ed. Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989), 421–2. (Call no. RSING 959.57 MAN)
20. “Singapore Transport Problem.”
21. “Dangerous Buses,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 12 June 1924, 7; “Condemnation of Buses,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 10 August 1928, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Public Amusements.”
23. “Mosquito Buses.”
24. “Condemnation of Buses.”
25. “Condemnation of Buses.”
26. “‘T’ Model Motor Buses to Go,” Straits Times, 29 April 1933, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Singapore Transport Problem.”
28. “‘T’ Model Motor Buses to Go.”
29. “Condemnation of Buses”; “What Workers Think,” Straits Times, 24 October 1936, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “Mosquito Buses”; “22,000,000 Fords Sold,” Straits Times, 25 October 1934, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “City’s Bus Services,” Straits Times, 3 December 1933, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “A Municipal Responsibility,” Straits Times, 25 June 1934, 10; “Singapore Goes Strap-Hanging,” Straits Times, 6 January 1934, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Municipal Bus Revenue,” Straits Times, 22 August 1939, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Mosquito Buses”; “Unfair to Mosquito Bus Company,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 3 June 1938, 7; “Why Commissioners Took Sting Out of Mosquito Bus Owners,” Straits Times, 30 June 1934, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “Emergency Mosquito Bus Service Arranged,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 13 August 1938, 9; “Mediation Failure Between Traction Men and Company,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 19 August 1938, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Khoo, “Singapore’s First Power Station.”
37. York and Phillips, History of the Trams, Trolleybuses & Buses, 60.
38. Boon, “Battle of the Bus Companies.”
39. Rimmer, Rikisha to Rapid Transit, 126.

Further resources
A ‘Mosquito’ Bus along Bukit Timah Road, 1935, photograph, F. W. York Collection, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. 19980005846–0052)

Bus Services,” Straits Times, 28 June 1940, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Crowded Buses,” Straits Times, 12 February 1935, 13. (From NewspaperSG)

Model T: The End of the Legend,” Straits Times, 6 July 1986, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

No Limited Transport Competition for City,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 June 1940, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Our Traffic Problem,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 2 January 1928, 10. (From NewspaperSG)

Tanjong Katong, Singapore, 1930, photograph, Andrew Tan Collection, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. 19980005108-0079)

Tay Koh Yat Bus Service Chevrolet ‘Mosquito Bus’ at Sembawang, 1955, photograph, F. W. York Collection, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. 20090000079-0019)

The Buses,” Straits Times, 18 January 1934, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 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.

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