SINGAPORE: SMRT bus captain Shandran Shederen Raman, 53, was taking the train to work last Tuesday afternoon (Apr 7) when a boy wearing a green-and-blue Pathlight School uniform hopped over to sit next to him.
The student, 12-year-old Theodore Tan, didn’t bother that the Downtown Line train was mostly empty. He had a question for Mr Shandran, who was wearing an SMRT uniform: Did he drive trains?
When Mr Shandran said he was a bus driver, the queries came flooding in: Which bus service? Is it an old or new bus? What does he feel about it?
Mr Shandran didn’t think Theodore was being a nuisance. The Malaysian has grown fond of buses after driving them for more than 10 years on either side of the Causeway, so he didn’t mind chatting about his job.
“It’s my duty to handle the bus every day, so I was very interested to answer his questions,” he told CNA at the Ang Mo Kio bus depot on a sticky Monday afternoon. “I didn’t feel that he was being irritating. It was so nice of him.”
The conversation soon turned technical. What about the different bus models, engines and emission standards, Theodore asked. Mr Shandran wondered about his inquisitive mind and how he could possibly know so much.
“I doubt that many people will ask about bus engines and all that, so this guy is really good,” he said. “Normally people would ask: ‘Are you a bus captain?’ That’s it.”
Theodore’s passion for buses started when he was four years old, his father Ernest Tan, 44, told CNA in an email interview.
The project manager at an engineering firm said his son enjoys surfing bus information websites, watching bus videos on YouTube and playing bus simulator games. He can even memorise bus licence plates.
So it was only natural that Mr Shandran answered all of Theodore’s questions. He showed Theodore photos of the newer buses on his phone when asked. He said the newer buses could go faster, but the older buses were more solid.
The man gestured to make a point, and the boy turned his hip to listen closely. The 15-minute conversation went so well that it didn’t really occur to Mr Shandran that Theodore has special needs.
Mr Tan said Theodore was diagnosed to be on the autism spectrum when he was two-and-a-half years old.
Teachers at the Rainbow Centre in Yishun, which conducts practical education for people with disabilities, helped develop his speech and other skills before he started attending primary school at Pathlight.
Pathlight caters to students with autism by giving them mainstream education with trained teachers and smaller classes.
Theodore is taking the Primary School Leaving Examination this year, Mr Tan said. “My son is just like any other growing boy,” he added. “He struggles socially and academically, and is starting to have teenage challenges.”
But Theodore has a bright future, if Mr Shandran’s comments are anything to go by. “I was thinking that this guy has a high IQ,” he said of his conversation with the boy.
The two parted ways after what seemed like a normal chat between bus enthusiasts. However, what happened next was far from normal.
When Mr Shandran arrived at Tampines interchange to take the wheel of his usual 969 bus heading to Woodlands, his colleagues started teasing him.
“What did you do with the boy on the train?” they questioned. “Somebody wrote (on social media) that you were trying to kidnap the boy.”
Mr Shandran insisted he was only having a chat. It was then that he saw pictures of their exchange and a long accompanying post uploaded on Facebook.
“Clearly there is a place in our society for people with special needs. These individuals are talented! They can learn quickly, and they can even grasp technical concepts,” Kelvin Ang wrote in his Facebook post.
“This SMRT staff is an amazing human being. He treated the boy kindly, and he made the boy feel comfortable. He did not belittle the boy, and instead, spoke to the boy with patience and respect.”
Mr Shandran said he didn’t realise that someone was taking photos of them and listening to their conversation. “It shows that I am more interested in talking to the boy,” he said with a smile.
The post had received more than 27,000 reactions and 12,000 shares as of Monday, with numerous comments expressing appreciation for Mr Shandran. “Nice post in such challenging times,” wrote one commentator.
The heartwarming account of Mr Shandran’s encounter with Theodore came as Singapore faces unprecedented challenges.
The Government has urged people to stay home unless absolutely necessary in the battle against COVID-19, and its circuit breaker measures mean most places are closed anyway.
People who don’t live in the same house, including family members, are encouraged not to meet. For Mr Shandran, whose wife and two children live in Malaysia, it is a double whammy.
READ: Stuck in Singapore: 24 hours with a Malaysian technician
Mr Shandran had left them behind after Malaysia announced on Mar 16 that it would stop citizens from leaving the country from Mar 18 to Mar 31 to curb the pandemic. As an essential worker in Singapore, Mr Shandran knew he could not go home.
“When they first decided to lock the country down, I was worried about what would happen and how I was going to see my kids,” he said. “Then I realised it’s for the best, and we just follow whatever they say.”
Mr Shandran was thankful when SMRT said it would put its drivers up in hotels for the duration of the lockdown. It was a welcome respite after he’d been commuting between his home in Johor Bahru and Singapore on his motorcycle every day.
Before the lockdown, a typical day on the morning shift starts when he leaves home at 3am to beat the Causeway jam. He picks up the bus from the depot at 5am, finishes his duty at 2pm, then braves another jam before getting back at 6pm.
For the afternoon shift, he leaves home at 11am. After he’s done with his rounds, he sends the bus back to the depot, refuels it and returns the logbook. By then, it would already be about 2am.
READ: Malaysian Health Ministry urges workers in Singapore to stay on for 2 weeks amid circuit breaker measures
During the first week of his hotel stay, Mr Shandran said he didn’t really miss his children. But on Mar 25, Malaysia said it would extend the lockdown until Apr 14. Then on Friday, it was further extended to Apr 28.
Mr Shandran grew worried. “After three weeks (of lockdown), I thought, what’s going on?” he said. “That’s when I realised I miss the kids. That’s also when I met the boy (on the train).”
Mr Shandran admitted that speaking to Theodore helped ease the pain of not seeing his 17-year-old son for about a month now.
After all, he had started working as a bus driver in Singapore four years ago to earn a better salary, so his daughter could study medicine. She’s now 27 and training as a junior doctor in a hospital.
But the job was more than a means to an end. Mr Shandran said it allows him to speak with people from different backgrounds, something that the self-confessed chatterbox loves doing, especially when it comes to his hobbies.
He appreciates it when passengers come up to ask how he’s doing. He also takes it on the chin when the comments are not so pleasant.
“Sometimes I get angry,” he said with a laugh. “But we shouldn’t talk back to passengers. You just say: ‘Yes, sorry.’ What to do? This is my job, it’s not easy.”
Still, Mr Shandran feels sad after COVID-19 reduced the normally bustling 969 service, popular with office workers and students, to a lonely bus carrying barely 10 passengers.
“I was thinking what is this,” he lamented, highlighting that he thrives on driving noisy and crowded buses. “I was driving from Tampines to Yishun on a highway, and it almost made me sleepy.”
Jokes aside, Mr Shandran said he hopes Malaysia’s lockdown ends soon so he can see his family again. The hotel stay has been comfortable, but he’s growing tired of doing the laundry by himself and only hearing their voices over the phone every day.
“We wait because it’s for the best,” he stated. “But if you ask me to go home tomorrow, I’ll go.”
Until then, Mr Shandran said he’ll continue driving buses feeling that much happier knowing he made Theodore’s day – and afterwards, the days of many others.
“Thank you Mr Shandran, for being so kind and patient with my son and to engage him on his interest,” Mr Tan said, adding that his other interests include fans and 3D modelling.
Mr Tan advised people to be patient if they meet others with special needs in public, even though they might “spontaneously talk about their favourite topics or behave in ways you might think are socially awkward”.
“There is always a reason for their behaviour,” he added.
Mr Shandran said he didn’t expect his act to go viral, noting that many commentators also praised Theodore and urged more people to engage those with special needs.
“All credit must go to Kelvin (Ang) for showing the world,” he said. “I was very happy going through the comments. They really touched my heart.”