Dealing with the disgruntled ‘dinosaurs’
John Teo 

Hop into any taxi these days and chances are one will hear an increasingly familiar sop: that ride-hailing apps such as GrabCar and Uber on tap over any smartphone are slowly but surely killing business. Not only are taxi drivers in the country bemoaning this new-technology blight on their livelihood, their counterparts all across the globe seem to be similarly afflicted.

Sabah KKIA (Kota Kinabalu International Airport) Taxi Driver Club chairman Irwan Abdul Khanis’ outcry against the new competition most likely resonated far and wide. Of the competitors, he was quoted telling the local Daily Express on Oct 25: “Since they started operating in KKIA last year, our income has dropped by almost 70-80%. Not that there is no action or monitoring by the authorities but it is increasingly widespread.


Rules not for all

“They park and operate there for free while we are forced to pay a licence permit, an airport tax of 8% after converting a cab ticket … Every six months, we have to do a car inspection at Puspakom so that the car is always in good condition and we must obey the taxi driver’s dress code but Uber and GrabCar drivers do not have to follow the rules.

“We want the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board and (other) authorities to solve this problem. Until when should we wait for the promised Act (to regularise the ride-hailing services)? We do not want to wait until something out of control happens before action is taken,” demanded Irwan in understandable desperation.


For the common good

Losing 70-80% of one’s income and business is clearly unsustainable, especially if it is the main or sole source of one’s income. But are they not sounding very much like the modern-day Luddites protesting forlornly (ultimately) against how the latest technology is killing their jobs and business?

There can be little doubt and therefore even less room for debate that advances in technology eventually advance our lives collectively. Not just for the ride-hailing public but for the driver-owners, too. Even in a relatively small city like Kuching without the tourist numbers to match Kota Kinabalu’s, I was told a ride provider can earn a decent income of RM4,000-5,000 a month with relative ease.

Ride-hailing services are all the rage because they offer efficient, hassle-free rides at a mere fraction of the rates normal taxis charge. To be sure, there are instances of abuse or worse with such services but considering how many rides occur everywhere on a daily basis, these are few and far in between. Moreover, those who are technologically-savvy enough to use ride-hailing services are sophisticated enough to know that they use the services very much at their own risks, considering how lightly regulated the services are currently.

Also, we can be sure such services will increasingly find better ways and improved technology to weed out undesirable practices. Besides, the official taxi regulators are not exactly on top of things when clearly vehicles which are not comfortable and clean or even road-worthy still ply our streets.


Balancing act

Which brings us to what must be a rather acute conundrum government regulators everywhere face when confronted with new services and industries opened up by the new e-economy. Among the most difficult issues that will need to be addressed must be how light (or heavy) should be official regulations for all aspects of the new economy and what to do with the increasingly disgruntled among the rapidly outdated (but comparatively well organised) dinosaurs such as drivers and owners of taxis.

Uppermost in the thinking of any government must be achieving the proper balance to bring about the greatest good to the greatest number. By that simple criterion, the balance will quite obviously come down in favour of the ride-hailing and -using public for whom such services are truly a godsend.

Again taking the example of Kuching, the normal taxis do not roam the streets looking for customers as they are expected to in any city. They congregate in venues where they are most likely to get customers, usually at the airport, or outside major hotels and shopping centres. This is likely a function primarily of the fact that most city residents own their own cars or motorcycles. This again, in turn, is largely a result of the reality that the public transport system in Kuching is woeful and almost non-existent, giving commuters little choice but to have their transport.

It is therefore not difficult to see how cheap and convenient ride-hailing services in a city like Kuching is perhaps especially popular for local residents and is thus a potentially great answer to break the vicious cycle of poor public transport leading to the streets being jam-packed with privately owned vehicles.

Instead, a virtuous cycle may be created whereby the easy availability of cheap ride-hailing or even ride-sharing services will obviate the need for almost everyone to own his or her own means of transport.

It is not difficult to see how eventually our cities will be more or less devoid of privately-owned vehicles, freeing up all the space now taken up on our roads and in car parks. Consumer spending may even enjoy a boost as people no longer need to use up sizeable chunks of their salaries servicing monthly vehicle loans.

This is exactly the sort of services that Sarawak should go all out to encourage if Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg’s vision of an “e-Sarawak” is truly to become a reality. It may even negate the need for an expensive light rail transit system for Kuching that he is planning.


Bring them into the fold

The government should, of course, come into the picture to ensure some regulatory oversight, however minimal, and to see that legislation is quickly updated so that, like all other businesses and industries, ride-hailing services also come within the tax dragnet.

As for today’s rather hapless taxi owners and drivers, perhaps the government can find some way to give them some priority or break switching to the brave new world of ride-hailing.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 258.