Mdm Cheng’s story brought a trip down the memory lane to a lesser-known fact of life in Singapore – the night-soil bucket system.
Mdm Cheng related to me that during her childhood days, toilet was a small attap and wooden structure a short walking distance at the back of the house. Going to the toilet in the night to do the "big business" was a problem as it was dark at night and the walk to the toilet rather eerie and quiet. If one had to go to the toilet to find relief, a small kerosene lamp or lighted candle would help. Using a torchlight would not be practical and useful as it would not give a bright enough shine to cover a big area. So for those who feared going in the dark and quiet in the night to get to the toilet, they would do their big business at home using a spittoon.
Mdm Cheng claimed that that would be a better option as the next morning the contents in the spittoon could be brought to the toilet to be emptied. It is interesting to note that if you were half way through your business, and the night-soil carrier arrived to replace the bucket with an empty one, you would have to be fast enough to get out of the toilet before he replaced the bucket. Otherwise you would have to shout aloud to him to wait till your job was done. Occasionally one would be faced with an awful sight of flies buzzing around the human waste, and a few days later, the thousands of crawling maggots. This would happen if the night-soil carrier, for whatever reason, did not turn up for work for a few days.
In the early days of Singapore, the night-soil bucket system was manual and relied on close human contact with the waste. The collectors usually arrived at individual households with empty buckets, carried on his shoulders using a pole, to exchange for the filled ones. The collectors then took these buckets to the collection centres. Since the collection was done mainly at night and the filled buckets were covered with soil to lessen the smell, hence the name “night-soil”.
Singapore was an early implementer of the concept of ‘Sanitation for All’. This made a major difference for our public health and hygiene. To meet the growing demands of the rapid housing and industrialisation programmes, it was in the late 1980s that the century-old night-soil bucket system was phased out and replaced with the alternative on-site sanitation system islandwide.
(Interviewed and written by Jennifer Teo Kai Ling for the Singapore Memory Project's 'KopiTimes' Campaign)