Awaiting the Knight in shining armour

An endangered species.

I MUST confess that I have a soft spot for the taxi service.

At the time when my job demanded frequent travelling outside town, it was good to know that there would be ready transport upon arrival, without fear of missing an important meeting or boat or plane flight.

The day before departure, fix the time when the cab driver should pick you up and then they would take you to the airport, without bothering the wife or friend.

And upon arriving at your destination, there is transport waiting for you. Cool, eh!

All this has been possible because of the taxi service.

I have a soft spot for most drivers, though some can be rude. So it broke my heart when I read recently about the woes of taxi drivers in Kuching.

Their main problem comes from competition from other drivers such as those working for Uber and Grab. These e-hailing services are mostly invisible; they do not hang around the hotels or do not park at a station at the airport. No one knows the colour of their cars. Yet they are stiff competitors indeed.

In the circumstances, the normal taxi drivers should realise that it is the prerogative of the users to choose the best form of transport – the cheaper, the better.

There seems little that the government can do short of banning Uber and Grab. They are here to stay and establish their own clientele.

Suggestions have been made by government officials that the taxi owners or drivers must face the challenge from these e-hailing services head on by employing modern communication technology, the same technology which their competitors use.

That’s easier said than done. It begins with the driver and the taxi owners saying to themselves, “What they can do we can do better.”

That is if they want to continue to be part of the industry under threat by newcomers. Many of them rely on this job, especially those who have no other skill or are too old to acquire new skills. Others may give up altogether or switch to other jobs. But the rest will carry on despite the difficulties.

On Wednesday, I talked to a couple of them at the airport, while waiting for the arrival of a very important person back from Tucson, USA.

This is their story. I have no reason to doubt what they told me. And I share their concerns for their own future in the industry. The future lies in keeping up with developments and in being innovative.

But this is easier said than done. What many people do not realise is that the taxi drivers have been operating under stringent requirements normally imposed on other professional carriers.

They bear the burden of having to have their vehicles checked for roadworthiness every six months by a competent authority (Puspakom), in addition to the burden of paying for normal insurance, driving licences, repairs, fuel, taxes. These are standard requirements that a taxi owner/driver must comply with. But there are extra expenses to take into account too, don’t forget.

Some of those extras are:

RM4 per pick up – taxi drivers taking passengers to and from the Kuching International Airport must pay to the airport authorities RM4 per pick up.

RM85 per month – those making use of the space in the compound of the Kuching Sentral Bus Terminal have to pay a sum of RM85 per month per cab to the management of the terminal.

Cab colours

A new coat of paint for new vehicles must comply with the standard colours; painting costs RM3,000. This colour scheme is compulsory.

These are charges that have forced the drivers to charge higher fares, which the e-hailing services do not have to worry about. So they allege. I’ll have to double check this with an Uber driver soon. If true, it would be mean to discriminate against the cabbies.

Charges passed on to customers

It’s obvious that most, if not all, of these charges will be passed on to the taxi users – you and me. And can you blame us for looking for another transport service which is cheaper?

I don’t know about convenience provided by the other services, or about personal insurance coverage of paying passengers using the e-hailing services. It’s not very transparent.

As a result of the competition from newcomers to the industry, our venerable cabbies are getting a lot of sympathy from those who use their service regularly. But even the regulars would prefer to hop inside a vehicle whose fare they can afford.

Knight in shining armour

The Kuching taxi drivers and owners/operators now losing customers are waiting for someone to come to their rescue – some knight in shining armour. In their case, there is no such knight.

Chivalry is gone. Their knight is the government itself; its transport ministry and related agencies can help the taxi drivers to alleviate some of their woes. I’m assuming that these authorities would like the taxicabs to continue to play their customary role, but would, I think, like to see that the service be competitive, not allowing it to die out.

Petition to CM

The state authorities, I’m sure, are looking into the complaints of the drivers; they have submitted a petition to the Chief Minister for help with their plight. I hope the cabbies will follow this up before long.

Help means there is light at the end of the tunnel. Failure to get help from the relevant authorities means that we are seeing the end of the road for our taxicabs in Kuching.

This is not necessarily the end of those drivers – only the service that is a dying species.

They can become Uber or Grab drivers provided that they can afford to buy the vehicles comparable in standard to those operated by their competitors.

KL drivers

Earlier, I said that I was fond of taxis for the reliability of service. One other advantage of using a taxi from one point to another, say from KL city to the international airport, is the chance to update yourself with the latest gossip.

Many taxi drivers in KL are a good source of information, especially of scandals. Some of these are juicy, others are stale or even fake. Few are downright slanderous; even the seemingly genuine ones are to be taken with a generous pinch of salt.

During my past trip to KL the driver spoke good English and we started a conversation in no time. He turned out to be a Filipino. He was not interested in local gossip at all despite my leading questions.

Kuching taxi drivers

Generally, many Kuching taxi drivers are fond of betting during election campaigns. One day in 2011, I was returning from Sibu when my friend Chin was waiting for me. Chin, an old friend, a former PWD driver, wanted to know which candidate was likely to win the election.

I told him who it was and this forecast turned out to be true.

Apparently, Chin must have spread the fake news that his friend (me) could predict the outcome of an election. Several of his driver friends would ask me for tips whenever there were elections. Little did they know, however, that my forecasts were wrong most of the time.

No wonder they no longer consult me these days – ah, that’s the fate of fake prophets. As far as they are concerned, I have lost my ‘licence’ to forecast election results. That would not be as bad as losing customers to e-hailing services, mates.

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