A day with a tipper truck driver

Report and pictures by: 
Gavin Foo

Every time tipper truck driver Tan Boon Guan climbs into his vehicle at the start of the day, he makes sure a bottle of medicated oil is by his side. It is a small but essential item to get him through the day, more so than the 1.5 litres of water he has with him as well.

During the next 12 hours, whenever he feels a little sleepy at the wheel, he will hold the bottle to his nose to take a whiff. Said the 66-year-old in Mandarin: “This bottle of ‘miracle’ oil keeps me awake.”

Mr Tan, who is married with five children and nine grandchildren, has been a tipper truck driver for almost 30 years. His day starts early. He leaves his Hougang flat at about 4am and walks for 15 minutes to a heavy vehicle park in Hougang Avenue 7, where his vehicle is parked. On certain days, he leaves his home later and takes a bus there.

He prefers to start work before sunrise as the roads are less crowded and he can do more trips. Like many truck drivers, he is paid per trip. A long-distance drive from Jurong to Changi will earn him a little over $30, whereas a short trip will earn him under $20. Mr Tan usually makes five to six trips a day, bringing home about $100 at the end of his shift.

His job is to bring sand from construction sites to dump sites. Unloading the sand at the government-designated unloading ground in Tanah Merah takes patience. At any one time, around 150 trucks wait in line to unload their soil onto floating barges. He usually spends 1 1/2 hours in the queue, though he has, on occasion, waited up to three hours.

He dislikes the wait as he is not paid for his time there. But with no other choice, Mr Tan has to find ways to idle his time away. He often watches videos downloaded by his daughter on his mobile phone. He also chats with his friend, also a truck driver, on a walkie-talkie they share.

They share tips on which unloading points across the island have the shortest queues. This helps them save time so that they can cover more trips each day. Other drivers, who are waiting in line, have newspapers and the radio to keep them company. Having lunch with friends is a bonus, said Mr Tan, who packs his lunch with him on most days.

Reclining on his chair in the air-conditioned truck, Mr Tan munched on fresh pineapple slices and said: “Singaporeans don’t want to work under the hot sun. Only the foreign workers are willing to work in such hot and humid weather.”

He sometimes needs to weave his 12-tonne truck through the suburban estates. He brakes slowly when he approaches a traffic junction, even if the traffic light is in his favour. At the end of each day, his only wish is to get home safely to his family.

“Singapore drivers are very horrendous,” he said. As he says this, a black car in front of him brakes harshly and makes a left turn without signalling. “See, they don’t signal. It seems like signalling costs them money.”

This article was first published in The New Paper on February 4, 2013.