Taxi availability woes and third party apps..

On 5th Aug 14, I got my brand new Hyundai i40 taxi. I’m now a hirer with Comfort Taxi company with 2 relief drivers. Compared to 6 months ago when I started driving taxi as a relief driver, I’m now more confident. There is still much to learn as  I am still new to the trade. Compared to other taxi operators, Comfort gave me an extremely good offer. I need not pay a single cent for the new taxi. I just need to hire it for at least a year. Failing which I need to pay a penalty of only $500. It is a fair deal.

I’m now driving the day shift from 6am to 6pm on Mon, Wed and Fri. Full shift on Sat and Sun meaning no relief driver. My permanent relief Johnny Cash drives the night shift from Mon to Fri (6pm to 6am). Another relief Alan Taxi (AT) who is my mentor drives the day shift on Tue and Thur only. He is also driving 2 other cabs over the weekend. Both relief drivers live on different floors in my block. As such, I’m off on Tue and Thur. This brand new taxi is driven by 3 of us 24/7 round the clock without idling. It’s not more than 9 days since the taxi came out of Komoco and the mileage is now more than 5,000km. With more than 500km clocked everyday, it far exceeds LTA’s requirement of at least 250km per day.

So far, there’s no complaint about the new taxi. However, there is one perennial problem I find disturbing. I’ll try to explain and highlight the problem confronting us ( the 3 drivers of this taxi) and most taxi drivers. It’s about the MDT – Main Display Terminal – the small monitor TV screen on all the cabs. MDT is the lifeline of all cabs. It shows the details of trips, jobs, driver’s ID, takings etc. If there is a current call booking, it will display the information. The driver then bids for it and proceed to complete the job if he is successful in taking the bid or current call. All calls within a radius of 5km are supposed to appear on the MDT. The customer pays $2.30 (off peak) or $3.30 (peak) for each current call booking. 30 cents go to the company and the driver keeps the rest.

The MDT is the lifeline of the taxi. If the taxi driver takes 20 call bookings on his 12-hour shift, he gets an extra of at least $40 based on non-peak hours period. If include the peak hours period (6am to 9.30am and 6pm to midnite), he could easily make more than $50 extra on top of the meter fare and whatever surcharges e.g. CBD, peak hour, midnite or location surcharges.

My taxi may be brand new but the MDT is re-cycled. MDTs are taken from condemned cabs and re-installed on all new cabs. On the first day, I sensed some problem with the MDT. It’s slow and lagging. When I stopped the meter, the MDT screen took ages to appear wasting everyone’s time. Customer kept asking how much the total fare. I had to wait for the total fare to appear slowly on the MDT screen before I could confirm the final charges. Sometimes, it simply hung. The problem persisted even after I had to do a soft re-set.

The next day when I started my shift at 6am, it totally blacked out. It gone dead on the second day. No choice, I just cruised around picking up customers on the streets. No current call bookings for me. I did not want to miss the morning peak golden hours from 6am to 9.30am cuz of the extra 25% surcharge on the meter fare. After I sent my taxi to the workshop at Sin Ming Drive to repair around 10am, I walked to the nearby coffeeshop to take my meal break. Whenever I sent in the taxi to repair the MDT, it is at my own time. I still pay for the rental when the taxi is not plying the road. I can’t claim “down-time”. Meter not running but I still continue to pay rental without any rebate.

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The "Red Cross" just won't go away!

On the next day, I sent my taxi again to the same workshop at Sin Ming Drive to repair. Again, they replaced it with another old re-cycled MDT. This current MDT is the 3rd set. When I was about to leave the workshop, I noticed the same big “Red Cross” on top of the MDT screen. The technician told me to move around cuz sometimes it’s due to blind spots with no signals. However, for the whole day when I was plying the roads, the same “Red Cross” still visible with no call bookings at all. Frustrated I took a long ride with an empty cab all the way from Meyer Road to Sin Ming Drive burning extra fuel and loss of income to complain about it. This time they changed the antenna. When I made so much noise to the counter staff at the workshop, they threw me a small piece of printed paper with a nameless and faceless feedback address to complain! The same feedback channel which took 3 days to reply to me when I complained that I could not log in to company Driver Portal after I migrated from a relief to a hirer status cuz I need to register my relief drivers before they could drive my taxi.

Just to side track. When I got enlisted for BMT training in 1983 at Pulau Tekong more than 30 years ago, we were told on the 1st day that there is a “Godfather” assigned to NS men in the whole camp acting in our interests. An experienced middle-aged about to retire veteran holding the rank Captain who would attend to all our complaints. He is available 24/7 even giving us his personal pager number (no mobile phones in those days) to page if there is any issue eg ill-treatment, unfair discrimination etc. He’s only answerable to MINDEF – the direct link between those gods and us undergoing National Service training as soldiers to serve our country. The Captain assured us that if there’s a genuine complaint against any abuse of power or ill-treatment, he would take up our case. Any unhappiness or grievances shall be investigated with full confidentiality! With this sort of feedback channel that comes with a name and a face, wonder no more there is no mutiny in all our 49 year history of NS. It is unheard of.

Yup, if only Comfort could emulate such a feedback channel all of us will be much happier working as business partners. Sadly, it is not the case here. It seems that they are only interested in collecting rental. They only act fast if you owe them taxi rental. I notice so many cabs park there whenever I go to the workshop having the same problem. I was not alone facing faulty MDTs. Most of them just resign to the helpless situation. What to do when they keep re-cycling primitive dinosuars?

Replacing two faulty MDT sets within seven days in a brand new taxi is clearly unacceptable by any yardstick or standard of measurement!

Back to my MDT problem, it is still giving the same problem till today. Like yesterday morning, I had to endure the big “Red Cross” from 6am to 8.30am until it suddenly appeared out of nowhere. From then on calls started coming in. When I parked at the Eunos multi-storey carpark for my meal break, the same problem came back again. No signals. After nearly an hour, then the signals came back with the Red Cross disappearing. This morning, AT also experienced the same problem.

Let’s examine the repercussions of the MDT problem. Common sense will tell you that once the MDT is down, no call bookings will come in. Meaning, those who urgently need a taxi can’t reach me. The morning period where everyone is rushing to work is crucial – that’s why there is a surcharge of $3.30, an extra $1 and 25% for the morning peak period from 6am to 9.30pm. Imagine, if it is multiplied by 100 or 1,000 faulty MDTs, what would it be like? No wonder my fren Lohcifer could not get a taxi! This morning, he msg me to pick him up but I told him I’m not driving today. He complaint bitterly that he could not get a taxi after tried calling for half an hour until he gave up.

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Lohcifer's msg to me.

Recently, there are calls to improve taxi service standards and it’s availability. The chief editor of Today wrote a piece on taxi service putting the blame on taxi drivers when he compares us with London cab drivers. CNA also did a TV program comparing us with Hong Kong cabs highlighting the fact that the number of taxi is almost half of us but it takes only less than 10 mins to get a taxi. MOT recently made a statement in Parliament giving statistics of how much increase in number of cabs on the roads and the increase in number of operating hours citing the LTA minimum 250km per day for each taxi. Everybody is talking about taxi problems with the blame game mostly on errant taxi drivers, sub-service standards etc. In other words, the focus is mainly on taxi drivers. But do they understand the real issue of the problem? Did they experience the frustration and exasperation I just highlighted above?

This morning I was talking to cabby Crazy Kang about my MDT problem. He also had his share of MDT frustration. According to him, he claimed that last night around 10pm, he was somewhere near to Loyang Industrial Estate near to the Tua Pek Kong temple. He stopped at the traffic lights waiting for the lights to turn green. Next to him, another Comfort taxi happened to show a call booking but the driver did not take the call. Crazy Kang was just beside him and he wondered why his MDT – in full signals as reflected in the number of bars – did not receive the call booking. He wonders why the next Comfort taxi could get the call (which the driver did not take) and he was not able to take the same call booking. He was desperately looking forward to call bookings and customers! He felt that maybe, his MDT is an old version compared to the next driver’s taxi which uses a more powerful machine! That is the only explanation he could think of.

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Fortunately, there's a choice now for Cabby Kang.

From his experience, he told me that as far as his MDT is concerned, he must go to certain spots to receive call bookings. He would drive his taxi to higher ground or even right up to Lor Halus in order to receive call bookings. Taxi drivers like Crazy Kang even had to go to the full extent of looking for favorite spots like those fishermen fishing in the open seas looking out for the best fishing spots! Crazy Kang is still alive and kicking. He doesn’t mind being quoted. In fact, he is willing to stand by what he said. He’s calling on all the gods as his witness to vouch for him that he’s not lying about the incident.

If the MDT is perfect, would taxi drivers like Crazy Kang be so frustrated? Which taxi driver doesn’t want to make extra money and get more business? Why are they using re-cycled faulty MDT sets wasting everybody’s time without proper QC checks? Is it due to bottomline and cost cutting measures to maximise profits? Actually, we do not mind re-cycled MDT sets if they are working properly. Perhaps, the MDT – which is the life line of all taxi is not on the KPI of LTA. That is why no priority is accorded to the MDTs. Should LTA make it a point to evaluate taxi operators based on this issue? I know what I’m talking about cuz I have driven not less than 10 taxi as a super relief driver. My MDT is the worst of the lot.

The other day, I was having a discussion with a customer from Bishan Junction8 enroute to Ocean Financial Centre. He’s a Msian working here. He was also complaining of having a hard time getting a taxi. When I reached his place, he was so delighted saying that getting a taxi in the morning peak is just like striking lottery. Lohcifer had no luck this morning cuz he didn’t get a cab.

On the question of not able to get a taxi between 4pm to 6pm, I told him that actually it’s the changing shift timing of taxi. I told him that the taxi rental is so high and that LTA imposes a daily 250km resulting in most taxi having 2 drivers. Usually, the changing shift timing is between 4pm to 6pm. It’s either 4pm to 4am, 5pm to 5am or 6pm to 6am per shift. Of course there are other arrangements of timing between the hirer and the relief. In order to be assured of getting a taxi during this period, it is best that you state your destination. If the taxi driver is changing shift near to your destination, I’m sure he will take your call. Let’s say that it’s about 5pm and I need to hand over the taxi by 6pm at Pasir Ris to my relief driver and I’m somewhere in town. If I see your call booking stating destination at Pasir Ris, Bedok, Tampines or even Changi Airport, I will definitely take your call since I’m proceeding back to Pasir Ris to hand over the taxi. If there is no destination stated, I would not dare take your call. What if you want to go to Jurong or Tuas, then I would not be able to make it back by 6pm at Pasir Ris when it’s time to hand over the taxi. Why take the risk? I can’t refuse to send you to your destination at Jurong if I happen to take your call. I’ll get a complaint. It’s quite obvious right? Do you see the logic?

Suddenly, the said customer is able to understand the whole issue. I told him that that is part of the problem. There are many issues or problems relating to lack of taxi availability. Just last week, my Indian FT fren Manish msg me to complt that he had to wait for nearly 40 mins somewhere at Shenton Way to East Coast for dinner. He was late for the dinner. That badly reflects our transport efficiency. I told him that LTA is only interested in catching us for traffic offences committed such as illegal stopping for pax to alight or picking up pax not at designated places in town area etc. If we clock more than 250km, no incentive but below that, we will be penalized. If we take lots of calls also no rewards for us etc. Taxi is never part of their overall master transportation plan. We are just insignificant players lurking in the periphery of main stream transportation. Taxi companies on the hand are only interested in taxi rental collection to boost up their profitability.

I’ve ferried many customers from NCS in AMK. In fact, those staff working in NCS are our largest taxi users. If you want an international community, go to NCS where you could find all kinds of ppl there. It’s United Nations there. Those talented IT professionals have created first class phone apps for Govt and Statutory Boards. I really like most of those apps such as CPF, My SingTel, NParks or even HDB etc are so user friendly and convenient. Why is LTA not having an integrated taxi app like those? Perhaps, taxi is never their top priority?

Recently, the vacuum over lack of first class taxi apps is taken over by GrabTaxi, Easy Taxi and even Uber. Those apps are created internationally not locally I suppose. They are fast gaining popularity. I have seen young sexy girls promoting those apps at popular hawker centers where taxi drivers patronize such as at Beo Crescent HC or even at Changi Airport with cabs queuing up for pax and those young girls flirting from one taxi to another explaining and giving out flyers. Many feel that the relevant authorities are merely paying lip service without actually looking at the crux of taxi problem. Soon, in a matter of time, those third party apps with customer and driver friendly features will replace the traditional call bookings rendering MDTs obsolete.

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Taxi, taxi everywhere but not a single available!

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Latest new threat to existing taxi drivers.

Since the MDT problem is quite common facing taxi drivers, I suggest that the entire MDT dept shut down. It’s not cost efficient and has become irrelevant. Fortunately, there is a choice and an option to MDT woes. As mentioned earlier, there are 3rd party apps to get more business and calls. So far, most of my taxi frens resist using those apps cuz they are not sanctioned by Comfort. But his may change cuz there is one taxi driver in EM from another taxi operator making tons of money thru one of those apps. If you look at their FB, they even regularly reward and incentivize taxi drivers with lucky draws and “golden calls” offering electronic gadgets such as popular mobile phones as prizes. Indeed, they are so aggressive that taxi drivers like me are tempted to switch over to using their apps. I need not have to waste my time and fuel to make trips to MDT workshop at Sin Ming Drive at my own expense. I could forget about all the frustrations indeed. Others are reaping benefits out of those apps. Why shld I deprive myself from those benefits?

On a side note, taxi drivers are not worried about Grab taxi or Easy taxi apps. We are more concerned about Über app. Now, anyone could make use of Uber to ferry customers without the need to go thru LTA approval, grueling structured taxi course and medical check-up to get the taxi vocational license. As legitimate taxi drivers, we are governed by LTA rules and regulations. It’s a way to control and monitor taxi drivers who are 100% citizens to safeguard and protect our country’s image. Any nonsense will have your taxi vocational license revoked thus breaking your own rice bowl. But with Uber and LTA not doing anything about, it seems that soon any body whether citizens or not could enter the taxi trade easily. Is it fair for ppl like us having to go thru the entire process of obtaining a taxi vocational license? They even advertised boldly on their FB and web site from point A to point B taxi meter fare costs $12. But with Uber it’s only $10! Are we going back to our early dark days where uncontrolled & unregulated pirate taxi is rampant? That reflects on LTA’s policy towards taxi operation. We are always at the bottom of the food chain in its transportation blue print.

Comfort or LTA should follow all other govt agencies in tapping into existing technology developing a first rate taxi app where all taxi drivers (in the case of Comfort for its own cabby) could easily use to match customers’ demand – similar to apps like Grab Taxi or Easy Taxi. It allows real time tracking showing details of customer’s pickup point and intended destination. If those third party apps could do it so well, why can’t LTA or Comfort do that? Is it their lackadaisical attitude that is hindering progress or improvements to the taxi problem? That brings us back to the fact that why Hong Kong with much fewer cabs than us do not have taxi availability issue? One reason could be taxi there is individually owned and operated.
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What about LTA? Like I say, taxi are not part of their transportation master plan. They are not in the mood to really solve the dearth of taxi despite so many complts from customers and taxi drivers. Hopefully, the taxi issue will not mar their excellent record in building up our world class road and rail infrastructure. I say this cuz every foreign visitor I picked up so far – either tourists or expatriates working here are full of praises for LTA’s remarkable achievements in managing our motor ways and traffic congestion. However, when it comes to taxi availability especially those expatriates (eg my Indian FT fren Manish cited earlier) working here it’s always thumbs down!

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Complts against taxi availability is getting louder and louder.

“Seoul plans to ban Uber and introduce its own GPS-based app for taxis

Uber may win some and lose some, but the battles rage on in cities where it operates. Seoul, Korea has now indicated that it would outright ban Uber, calling it illegal and harmful to taxi drivers. Uber operates its UberBLACK service there to connect professional chauffeurs to passengers via its app. That differs from UberX, UberPOP or Lyft — the services that have faced the most bans and protests — since those mostly use non-professional drivers. Seoul’s city council called Uber an illegal threat to traditional cabs, since its drivers didn’t have the usual insurance and safety controls. However, Uber told the WSJ that the city council’s comments “show Seoul is in danger of remaining trapped in the past and getting left behind by the global ‘sharing economy’ movement.” Despite that, the city must feel Uber is doing something right — it said that it would soon launch its own, Uber-like geo-location app to connect regular taxis to passengers.”

Click here to read related article.

Click here to read Cabby James’ suggestions.

Easy Taxi is gaining ground with public support.

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Well written suggestion from fellow cabby.

Why GrabTaxi is giving Singapore’s largest taxi operator a run for its money

April 21, 2014 by Hawyee Auyong

Hawyee is a research associate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Opinions expressed here are his own.

Friday was the first time I used the taxi booking appGrabTaxi to book a cab. I had a lunch appointment to go to and it had just started raining. None of the official apps from the taxi companies – Comfort, Trans-Cab, and SMRT – were successful in getting me a cab. The third try with GrabTaxi was successful. The cab arrived in a minute. On the way to lunch, I asked the driver about his experience with GrabTaxi and here’s what I found out.

GrabTaxi has a rapidly growing number of cab drivers using its app

Comfort, Singapore’s largest taxi company, has around 16,600 cabs plying the road. GrabTaxi has 10,000 registered drivers now in the country, making it the second largest ‘taxi operator’; and it’s rapidly signing up more drivers.

The way GrabTaxi broke into the Singapore market was by solving a demand and supply problem. When it launched, it absorbed the booking fee for commuters — the best it could do since it didn’t have a mechanism to pay commuters. On top of the normal booking charges, the company paid drivers a bonus of about $6 for each booking accepted. This in effect quadrupled the drivers’ cut from a normal booking. These two strategies allowed it to build up a large supply of both commuters and drivers from early on.

The driver I spoke to now takes more than 10 jobs a day from GrabTaxi, but only two from Comfort. The number of bookings now available through GrabTaxi is now so good that some taxi drivers are buying new phones just to be able to take GrabTaxi bookings (since the driver app is only available for Android phones currently).

GrabTaxi in Singapore easily completes more than 200,000 bookings a week now with its present fleet of drivers. It is arranging regular meetings with LTA to show the authorities that it has a higher rate of success in matching drivers to commuters than the current fleet operators.

GrabTaxi is more commuter- and driver-friendly

GrabTaxi’s app is fast. Because it is constantly updated on the locations of its drivers, it knows exactly which drivers to tender a booking to. All drivers within a certain radius of a booking is given a chance to bid. A notification pops up on each driver’s phone, and if many drivers bid for a job, the conflict is immediately resolved by Grab Taxi’s servers and the successful driver is notified immediately, and so is the commuter.

When a booking is made by a commuter, the phone shows in real-time a list of cabs being offered the job. Once a match is made, the commuter’s and the driver’s phone numbers are immediately made available to each other so that they can communicate about any unexpected issues. Dialing can be done from within the app.

Because drivers and commuters are likely to be using 3G devices, the response times are much faster than those from the operator’s terminals, which are on the much slower GPRS. This eliminates annoyances such as many drivers turning up for the same job or commuters getting on another cab because they think their booking was not successful.

For the commuter, using GrabTaxi eliminates the hassle of trying to book cabs using three or four different apps when he’s in a hurry for a taxi. Moreover, the real time feedback that a booking is unsuccessful means that the commuter can immediately try the booking again. Unlike Comfort’s app, Grab Taxi does not ask the commuter to “try again in ten minutes” (probably because Comfort’s servers are overloaded, or they do not want unsuccessful bookings to mar a KPI which LTA monitors).

By forcing the commuter to key in his destination, GrabTaxi also allows drivers to take bookings that are along their way if they are headed for a shift change. This is one of the major reasons why it is usually difficult to book a cab from all fleet operators during the popular shift change times.

GrabTaxi has changed the power dynamics between drivers and the cab companies

Comfort has leveraged its size to consolidate its market position. Having the largest fleet of taxis in Singapore means that commuters are more likely to book its taxis, and having more bookings makes it more attractive to drivers, who are charged a higher monthly rental rate of about S$10 (US$8) more than smaller operators.

Apps like GrabTaxi and Easy Taxi are eroding this market power. According to my driver, the number of taxi drivers waiting to get a Comfort cab has dropped drastically, to the extent that Comfort is now offering its existing drivers a referral fee to introduce new drivers.

By monitoring the number of bookings a driver takes through the operator’s terminal, Comfort can identify but not prove which of its drivers are now relying on GrabTaxi for bookings. My driver was called up by Comfort, which wanted to know why he was taking GrabTaxi bookings. He replied that it was because GrabTaxi was where the customers were.

(See more: Reinventing four wheels: 14 apps that are changing the way we get around)

Some drivers have already switched from Comfort to the smaller operators in order to take advantage of lower rentals. My driver is attached to his cab, but he says that Comfort has started to nitpick with drivers who refuse to stop using GrabTaxi. However, now that these drivers don’t need to rely on Comfort’s market power, they are more than happy to switch to an operator with cheaper rentals, so it’s Comfort’s loss either way.

Only recently has Comfort started to listen to its drivers in improving its app by requiring the commuter to enter a destination. Previously, it had ignored calls by drivers to do so.

GrabTaxi operates a high-margin business

GrabTaxi’s monetization scheme works as follows: drivers have to pre-pay GrabTaxi to be part of its ‘fleet’. When a new driver signs up, he is given a $10 credit from which commissions are deducted. The driver has to top up his account when it’s exhausted in order to receive more bookings. Receiving pre-payments allows Grab Taxi to invest the funds before it is spent.

Compare GrabTaxi’s business model with Comfort’s. GrabTaxi has almost no fixed costs beyond a nominal office and some IT infrastructure, whereas Comfort has to buy, service, and support a huge fleet of taxis and cohort of drivers.

Let’s say GrabTaxi eventually levels off at 15,000 drivers taking five bookings a day, from which it takes a S$0.30 cut each. This works out to a revenue of S$8 million (US$6.4 million) a year, just for being a middleman (and not counting advanced bookings). Moreover, GrabTaxi’s IT operating costs will fall every year because of Moore’s Law.

Comfort has to compete or die

I think at this point, it is a foregone conclusion that taxi bookings will eventually be dominated by operator-independent services, whether it is GrabTaxi or another company.

For too long, Comfort has relied on its market dominance and has stagnated in improving its services. The usefulness of its electronic terminals (developed in the early 2000s by ST Electronics and running Windows CE) for bookings is probably at an end.

The arrival of GrabTaxi has quickly shown how outdated parts of Comfort’s business model are. Seldom have I seen a market so quickly disrupted. To survive and thrive, Comfort needs to refocus on its core business, that of leasing cabs to drivers.

It needs to compete on offering better rental rates to drivers, and on providing cabs that are more reliable than other operators’. This means, among other things, a reversal of its policy of hollowing out its maintenance crew, which has seen an inexorable replacement of experienced local mechanics with cheaper foreign labour, and which many drivers have complained about.

This will be fun.

Editor’s note:

GrabTaxi is unable to confirm whether they indeed have 10,000 registered drivers in Singapore completing 200,000 bookings a week. Nonetheless, a GrabTaxi spokesperson has said that they have the second largest network of taxi drivers in Singapore, and are receiving one booking every two seconds regionally. Extrapolated, that’s about 302,400 bookings a week, which could make the estimated figure a bit of an exaggeration since GrabTaxi operates in six cities.

Comfort has yet to respond to Tech in Asia.

Posted in Langgar | 4 Comments

My neighborhood …

The other day I was walking towards Elias Mall for my usual coffee break with those taxi drivers gathering there. It’s about 10 mins walk to EM cuz I stay quite far away near to Pasir Ris Dr 1 opposite the ESSO petrol kiosk. Since I shifted here about 20 yrs ago, there is still one EM – where we get all our provisions and cooked food. This is despite the fact that the neighborhood is getting more and more crowded with more and more condominiums springing up like mushrooms along Pasir Ris Dr 1 and also Dr 3. The International School at Dr 3 is also taking shape. No wonder the Sunday morning crowd at the coffee shops in EM is getting worse with longer queues. We could even beat the crowd talking the peak hour trains. I’ll talk about that other time. Anyway, I was stopped by a young handsome couple. I thought they were asking for road direction. But they told me to spare them 5 mins cuz they wanted my opinion about the neighborhood.

Obviously, the Chinese couple were not locals when they started speaking to me in impeccable American English. I asked them if they were from that country. I then told them that I could also speak Mandarin. To their delight, they started rattling away in their native language like a GPMG – General Purpose Machine Gun. Alamak, I got a hard time following them with my limited Mandarin!

After paying attention to their incessant rambling, I managed to establish that actually they came to view a nearby mansionate which happens to be Douglas’ unit when they pointed at the block and mentioned that it’s on the 10th floor. Yup, I heard from Douglas his intention to sell his mansionate flat bought about 20 yrs ago at only $199K. He is approaching 70 yrs and it’s time to downgrade to a 4-room flat to cash-out for his retirement even though he is still working as a security supervisor. He’s now thinking of retirement and spending more time to look after his grandchildren. He’s in no hurrry to sell off his mansionate. He will only sell it at $850K. Few yrs back, his mansionate could easily fetch $900K but not anymore cuz the property market is quite bad now.

In fact, someone made an offer of $800K but he still refuses to let go. Even though his mansionate is now worth 4 times its original value, he’ll still need to pay for a 4-room BTO in Yishun at about $240K. Minus the levy and other miscellaneous costs, he could make a tidy profit of almost $500K. Split that with his wife, he could only get about $250K. Furthermore, I told him he better check with CPF just in case the latter will “hijack” part of his windfall for his minimum sum and also medisave account! When Douglas heard that, he KNN non-stop. “Brother, next March, I’ll be 70 yrs old already. I’m about to die and they still want what fxxxxking minimum sum or medisave account? Moreover, I’m a pensioner with free life-time medical benefit drawing a monthly pension until I die!” As such, Douglas is different from us. He belongs to that special group of pensioners when natives like them spent all their lives building up this country! We owe them a debt of gratitude – the early pioneer generation who are now enjoying their pension in their twilight years.

Back to that young FT couple procrastinating whether to buy Douglas’ flat. They told me that it’s very expensive at $850K. They could easily buy a relatively new and an exclusive condominium with a little top-up. They sought my opinion about the neighborhood here. That is why they stopped me for a chat to enquire about the nearby facilities such as schools, eatery or any other facilities. Immediately, I launched into a salesman pitch telling them why they should seriously consider Douglas’ mansionate instead.

I told them that HDB does not build such flats anymore. The size of the flat is definitely much bigger than any other other apartment unless they get a penthouse. No doubt condominiums come with security guards, swimming pool and other facilities. But they need to pay for these facilities even though they may not use them. I told them to take a good look at the neighbourhood. They should also go to other neighbourhoods to take a good look and compare with this particular neighbourhood. I told them I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for about 20 yrs. As a taxi driver, I have been to almost all the HDB estates all over the island. I feel that my neighbourhood with Sungei Api Api running across the heart of the estate to be the best well run housing estate.

The fact that Douglas’ mansionate is a corner unit with extra space on the 10th floor facing the river is priceless. Even a condominium unit does not offer a natural view with its natural untouched mangrove swamp at the banks of the river. Where else could you find careful coconut trees swaying to the motion of the breezes with so many pine trees and even royal palms with some reaching to the height of over ten storeys? No condominiums or HDB estates except here in this neighborhood as far as I know. Even the other river known as Sungei Tampines near to Dr 6 has man-made concrete banks.

If you are a nature lover and like the beach it’s only a mere 15 mins away if you walk via the under pass at Dr 3 towards car park C. There is Gallop Stable with some horses to tempt your kids and few pubs along the beach. Relax in the evening after the horse ride over few drinks in a pub whilst you enjoy the beach sunset and ooze under the twinkling night stars. The beautiful park is open 24/7 with free parking and admission.

Not convinced of the well-run neighbourhood? From where we are standing, you could see the new covered link-way to EM and the old folks’ corner at the void decks of two blocks of flats taking shape. Every two or three blocks of flats, there is a playground for children beautifully themed. The Residents’ Corner is at the other side and the Students’ Study corner is right in front of them. Look at the basketball court that is nicely paved with high fencing. No need to register. Just walk thru the unlock gate and you could play basketball there with the fitness corner next to it. All these facilities just mentioned are on this side of the river. What about the other side of the river? More playgrounds and more pavilion spots along the river still under construction. As it is, I could name you at least ten projects under construction and progressing at a break-neck pace. By end of next year, most of these projects will be completed – not forgetting the upgrading and cleansing of Sungei Api Api undertaken by PUB.

Even with my broken Mandarin pronunciation mixed with some English phrases, the young Chinese couple were impressed! In their words, it is as if I have lifted the imagery veil to expose a clear sunny view of our neighborhood. Oh pls just don’t take my words on face value. Go and explore the neighborhood yourself. Experience for yourself the idyllic natural settings of our neighborhood. Do you have wheel chair bound aged parents living with you? The whole area is wheel chair friendly right from your flat to EM. Just across the road next to the ESSO, there is a special school for children on wheel chairs. They are able to move about in the entire neighborhood.

I explained to the couple that they are not only paying for the flat but the entire infrastructure in the neighborhood I briefly sketched above. If you buy a house or an apartment just across the causeway at dirt cheap price – some say less than $300K for a freehold landed property but do you get the package I just described to you? One simple experiment is to sit on a wheelchair and try to maneuver around in the overseas property you intend to acquire. I know what I’m talking about cuz I’ve been there often. They sell you a piece of property but without the package of solid infrastructure, facilities and security. In other words, you not only pay $850K for such a big apartment but with all benefits and pluses thrown in a package.

I highlighted to the couple that when I first shifted to this neighborhood about 20 years ago, there was nothing at all. EM was still under construction. Over the years, more and more improvements were added. The bridge across the river was first added about 15 years ago. Slowly, more and more facilities rolled out. Especially over the past few years, I notice that everyday, yup everyday over the past few years, there is endless construction activity. Either they changed the centralized rubbish bin, construct covered drains to prevent floods, changed the damaged flooring to concrete near to the blocks, put up chrome railings along the river and pavements and all over the place etc. The list is never ending yet I pay only $55 per month for conservancy charges. Many take it for granted but there are residents here who really appreciate the endless upgrading going on.

Like I used to say. I report accordingly what I see. I’m a fair person. Not every HDB neighborhood or condominium estates are run in such efficient manner. It mirrors the whole island where everywhere and every corner of the island is having construction activity. One tourist even commented when I fetched him in my taxi that this place is a construction country! My fren Station Manager Chia ever mentioned to me that by looking at the construction activity in a country, one could tell if it’s economy is vibrant. Every building construction project creates a huge demand in a multiplier effect right down to a pencil! In other words, much demand in goods and services are generated due to the construction boom. If you multiply one construction project to hundreds and thousands, you could imagine the tons of extras generated in the economy. I need not elaborate on the benefits. It’s quite obvious to people with common sense. No need an economics professor to explain and give statistics on the positive multiplier effects on the economy.

The young couple looking for their dream home wanted 5 mins of my time. I gave them half an hour of my lifespan convincing them of the obvious choice. They thanked me profoundly for the enlightenment. I did it partly for my fren Douglas hoping that they would purchase the flat. It looks promising cuz they came from that place lacking the obsession shown by our town council in their relentless drive to perfection.

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Rambling thoughts on my job and foreign workers …

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It’s coming to 6 months since I started driving taxi as a relief driver. I would take over any of the taxi in the neighborhood whenever those taxi drivers go on holiday trips or just want to take a break. On and off, I have driven no fewer than 10 taxi so far. I notice that every taxi has different characteristics in terms of the taxi set-up (decorations) or the idiosyncrasies of the hirer. I’ll blog about it another time. I just wish to say that my orientation under-study or rather my induction into this taxi trade not forgetting my mentor A.T. and others in EM is more or less complete – of course there is still much to learn as the learning process will not stop. I’ll be getting my own taxi soon upgrading from a relief to a hirer.

There is one particular taxi which I drive on every Sat from 4.30pm to 12.30am opposite my place across Sungei Api Api. I do not need to wash the vehicle or top-up diesel with rental at only $35. Pay $12 for every 100 km.. Usually I clock around 250km per shift. As such, my driving skills improve tremendously with that kind of mileage zipping around the whole island. Here to KL is about 300km.

One pax ever told me that driving a taxi is akin to operating a food stall. You rent a stall and sell your food. It depends on you how hard working operating the stall. However, I think operating a taxi is so much better than running a food stall in a coffee shop. The whole island is my playground. I could bring my mobile “stall” all over the island. Whereas, food stall is stuck at one location. If there is no crowd then it’s dead duck for the stall owner.

In my case, there are kelongs everywhere to hunt for fishes. Different places and different timings give rise to different types of kelongs with different variety of fishes. Just avoid those kelongs operated by LTA with cameras to avoid getting into trouble and you will be safe! I’ll talk about this another time.

As in all professions, integrity is of utmost importance. Never touch anything in the taxi that does not belong to you. Always follow the hirer’s instructions when taking over the taxi. Maintaining the taxi in clean condition, topping up diesel to the rim at the end of the day or pay for the diesel correctly are pre-requisites. Lastly, always be punctual when handing over the vehicle. I am very particular of all these minor points. That is why my reputation is well known in the neighborhood. Frens will recommend me to others and others will cont’d to bring in more driving assignments for me. That’s how I survive over the past 6 months.

Back to the every Saturday driving assignment. I usually arrive well before 12.30am at the hirer’s block to hand over the taxi. I have to wait for the hirer cuz he doesn’t buy car park at all. I can’t just park in the car park but have to wait for him. It’s during the waiting time that I usually meet Ah Lai who also lives in the same block. Ah Lai, aged 62 yrs is working as a counter assistant from 3pm to 11pm in a coffee shop at EM. Around midnight after his work, Ah Lai usually sits at the void deck of his block to read his usual “mosquito” paper. Whilst waiting for my hirer, I would chit chat with him to kill the time.

I recall at one time at EM, Douglas ever pointed to Ah Lai why he was employed by the said coffee shop. You see Ah Lai aged 62 yrs works from 3pm to 11pm with one day off drawing a basic salary of $1,400. It’s an air-conditioned food court. He just need to take orders from customers and serve them drinks. As simple as that. No need to wash or collect empty cups or glasses. There are cleaners doing that. The boss also doesn’t bother as long as he reports for work everyday except his off day. He rides his bicycle to the coffee shop from his place which is just across the river. (Sungei Api Api).

When Douglas heard that, he said, “Brother,” in English followed by Hokkien, “if you don’t hold the fxxxking pink IC, you think your boss would want to employ you at $1,400? They could get a much younger and highly educated foreign worker than you lah! Just becuz of the quota, that is why you are employed!”

Senior citizens like Ah Lai who are still fit to work don’t mind doing easy job. Ah Lai told me that his children are all grown up and they got their families to look after. He is still fit and able to work at an easy pace. No stress and working within his ability. He is also paid CPF with quarterly workfare from the government. He is very satisfied with his current status quo. He used to comment that people wish to work but no work. That is why they come all the way here to seek employment. We should be grateful that we could still work with our hands says Ah Lai.

If you look at the air conditioned food court he is working, there are all young Filipino and PRC workers. When I sit down at the table, the Filipino lady promptly calls you “Sir, what would you like to drink?” Very efficient and courteous customer service. I’m also quite surprised that they employ Filipinos in a coffee shop. Usually, they are all PRCs.

My 72 yrs old mother is also working in a kitchen factory. It supplies food such as salad, chilli paste, french fries, deep fried onions, chicken wings etc readily prepared to all the food stalls all over the island. Her job is just to cut potatoes to be deep fried. She insisted to work even though there is no need for her cuz we give her monthly allowances. She is one of the few senior citizens working in the company amidst a group of young energetic Malaysians. The latter do most of the hard labour job whilst older workers like her doing the easy jobs.

When she complained to her boss that she could not stand for too long doing the job due to her weak knees, they straightaway arranged for her to be seated. Next, she says that it’s very hot and stuffy. The management immediately bought a huge fan specially for her! Who need the union when the management listen to her every valid complaint? If it is not due to her pink IC, then what? The pink IC carries weight here. It’s very powerful in that sense. They need it for the foreign worker quota. It is as simple as that.

Like I used to say, I report what I see. What I say are the things happening around us. I feel that if the government tightens foreign labour too much, many F&B and small businesses will close shop.

To quote an example; well known local food establishment Soon Heng Fish Head Curry was in business for more than 30 yrs. It was forced to close shop due to lack of workers. If many such businesses are shut down, I’m afraid locals especially senior citizens like Ah Lai will not have a job. To let in too many foreign workers without any cap or quota will prize out locals. As such, the government need to calibrate the needs and requirements based on the industry every now and then. It’s a delicate balance that requires much skill and sensitivity. Not easy task indeed!

Click here to read about Soon Heng Fish Head Curry closure.

I ever blogged about Soon Heng Fish Head Curry.

Soon Heng Restaurant closes, no S’porean wanted job One of S’pore’s oldest curry fish head places closed last week as it can’t get enough Singaporean workers to fill MOM quota.
Singapore, November 5, 2012

The last curry fish head had been served and the last customer had paid and left.

At 1.45pm on Wednesday, Soon Heng Restaurant at Kinta Road – one of the oldest curry fish head restaurants in Singapore – pulled down its shutters for good, after 36 years.

Its owners, Mr Hoong Khai Chew, 49, and his wife, Madam Ong, said they can no longer find the manpower to serve their trademark curry fish head.

Madam Ong told The New Paper that the restaurant had a problem finding enough Singaporeans to fill the required Singaporean-to-foreigner quota: “Singaporeans tend to stay away from the F&B industry.

They don’t like to work on Sundays and public holidays, and do not like to be put on probation.

“We have placed advertisements as well as contacted job fairs, and the Yellow Ribbon Project, but few would approach us directly.”

When SMU professor Augustine Tan expressed concern that wages were too high in Singapore and it’s eroding Singapore’s economic edge, he was attacked by netizens. It’s quite disturbing that many do not see the points raised by an expert.

Without strong economic growth, the government will not be able to pump in so much money in our infra structure and other areas. For example digging tunnels all over the island for motor vehicles and trains is not cheap! It’s hell of expensive. If we clamor for more government spending on social welfare, then all the more we need even more economic growth to spend and throw money. We can’t simply print more money but need to earn it the hard way.

Link

Click the link here for related story.

Click here to read another related article.

20140726-012941-5381401.jpg Profile of Ah Lai sitting at void deck of his block reading his paper with my taxi nearby.

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My buddy James Lim – the cabby blogger

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Yesterday I met up with my taxi buddy James Lim for some drinks and a chat.

Click here to read James Lim’s blog.

Somewhere in Bugis area, from about 5.30pm to 9pm, we catch-up over four bottles of beer and had a simple dinner together. Since he lives in the wild wild West and I’m from the carefree laid-back East, we decided to meet half-way in town. I had to buy him drinks cuz I lost to him in the recent World Cup soccer bet. James followed Andy’s father by betting on Germany whilst I on Argentina. Even though I’ve known him for about 3 years, we only met on few occasions. Yesterday was the 4th time we met over the 3-year period. We got to know each other in the blogosphere thru blogging and keep in touch over the internet via Facebook or email. Sometimes we exchange comments on our own respective blogs. We follow each other’s blog.

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Each time we met, we got to know each other better. Maybe with more drinks, he became more open and loosen up. He started to relate some of his personal past stories. He’s about 67 yrs and he’s been driving taxi for more than 7 yrs. He took up full time taxi driving when he was nearly 60 yrs. He related how he had to struggle in the beginning when he started driving due to his lack of familiarity of local roads. James lives in Singapore all his life, yet he’s still not so familiar with all our roads when he started driving taxi. I just can’t imagine those new citizens driving taxi on our public roads not facing any problem at all?

Anyway, he also related how he ever worked in Saudi Arabia’s 2nd largest city in the 1990s after his retrenchment before taking up taxi driving as a career. He left his family with young children to work there. Even though the pay was about 4 to 5 times of an average worker here, he really missed his family and the lifestyle here. Everything was paid for by the huge international oil company where he was attached as a procurement manager. He was given free lodging, company car and even a local cook was deployed there for them. James was part of a group of locals working for the MNC in Saudi Arabia.

After our story was published in The New Paper, one of the group of Singaporeans working then with him in Saudi Arabia contacted him on his blog. Soon, they will have a gathering of all his ex-colleagues to reminisce those good old days spent working in a foreign land. James is so much older than me – more than 15 yrs my senior. Naturally, I got a lot to learn from him as he related his life experiences to me. He was in jovial mood cuz he just came back from a short holiday trip in Bangkok.

All of a sudden, James insisted that one of us should blog about our recent story in the paper. I told him no thanks. He could blog about it if he wanted to. He then told me that he’s in fact waiting for me to blog about it. I replied that there is nothing to blog about. “Come on, we need to capture that memorable moment on our blogs just to keep a record lah!” No, I’m still not keen I told him. He then flipped out a 50 cents coin and suggested that we toss the coin to decide who is doing the blogging. Again, I lost in the flip of the coin. I thought to myself I’m always a hopeless born loser with no luck and he’s a compulsive lucky gambler. Indeed it’s a fact that he gambled on shares, soccer, 4-D, casino etc losing to the tune of hundreds of thousands of hard cash at one time in his younger days! He’s gone to all the casinos from Oz to Macau and Genting!

Next question is how to go about blogging on that story where we appeared together in The New Paper story published on 13th July 14 – about 10 days ago? James told me to blog whatever angle or style I fancy so long as I blog about it.

Well, actually I was ever approached by few reporters for interview before The New Paper approached me. I did not bother to accede to their requests. I was ever invited by think tanks and other organizations via email to participate but I didn’t want to. If not for James, I would not have agreed to that New Paper interview. James was approached by the lady reporter from The New Paper. He was excited over it and suggested that I should also be interviewed together with him. I reluctantly agreed to James’ idea as I didn’t want to disappoint him.

Finally, we met somewhere in Bugis area and Arab street near to the Sultan Gate for the interview and photo shoot. We spent about two and half hours over the session. The reporter was a nice little lady pursuing a degree in a local university. The Malay photographer was also very professional and friendly taking so many shots of us in different locations with many poses. The interview was conducted in the middle of June but only got published on 13th July 14.

Of course, James was most delighted when the story got published. He was glad that we appeared together – that’s the main reason. As taxi drivers and bloggers, we have got lots of things in common to share. We admire each other’s strengths and limitations as fellow bloggers. In a way, we synergise each other in our different life perspectives as we observe and comment on things happening around us.

In a way, I was compelled by James to blog about The New Paper write-up on us. Maybe, he felt that the photograph of us appearing together in The New Paper cemented our friendship blossomed in the cyber world. It had to be archived here for eternity.

Thank you James Lim for being a friend. It’s my honor and privilege to have you as a friend. May The Force Be With You!

Source

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Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) – Tit for Tac

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Our closest neighbor West Malaysia has decided to impose a Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) fee for foreign registered vehicles entering their country. The amount and date of implementation have yet to be decided. They are still not undecided but public announcement to that effect has already been made. This follows Singapore Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) decision to increase VEP fee for foreign registered vehicles from S$20 to S$35 a day WEF Aug 1. The Goods Vehicle Permit fee for foreign registered goods vehicles will also be raised from S$10 to S$40 a month.

VEP fees for all foreign registered vehicles have been in existence here for a long time. LTA has decided to increase those fees for foreign registered vehicles – mainly referring to West M/sian vehicles entering via the 2 landed causeways. All the while Singapore registered vehicles – mainly refer to cars, do not have to pay for the VEP. Why then KL decided to act swiftly in response to LTA’s latest move? Are they acting on impulse?

It reminds me of the toll imposed on vehicles using the 2nd link causeway at Tuas when it first started operation. The amount of toll imposed by them reflected the amount set by us. They followed swiftly what we did then. Are they copy cat or what? You can do that, I also can. Adek boleh, Abang also boleh lah! Knee jerk reaction or tit for tat? Welcome to Boleh Land!

Is this tit for tat response healthy for them? Does it bring benefits to them? I believe it will bring more woes than benefits to them. Let’s look at LTA’s decision to increase the VEP which has been in place all along. This is to discourage vehicles especially private cars coming into our country from across the causeway – mainly from JB to choke up our roads. After all, local car owners are paying sky high COE premiums for the right to own a car that occupies space (and jam) on public roads. How could they be exempted from the high costs of driving in our jammed public roads? The costs of owning a car over there are so much lower than us. They don’t have COE or ERP at all. So it’s a totally different sets of comparison really. What’s the rationale for them to implement VEP?

Fact is that most Malaysians, especially from JB drive to Singapore to work. Fresh graduates earn about RM2,000 there. Convert that to Sing dollar, it’s about S$800 which is less than our cleaners’ pay. They are here to earn our strong Sing dollar. Sing dollar is 2.5 times of RM. If you look at the tons of m/cycles in the morning queuing at the causeways to enter Sg to work and in the evening returning back to JB you will see my point. Whereas, locals enter JB via the causeways are not there to work but to shop and throw money randomly. In other words, they come here to work whereas we go there to spend. It is as simple as that.

Imposing VEP fee on Sg cars entering JB will have a drastic impact on their economy. Spending power in their local economy will be reduced. Those entertainment nightspots and eatery areas will definitely be affected if fewer locals cross over for the cheap food and shopping. We boost up their economy with our strong currency. The amount collected which won’t amount to much goes to the state but the local businesses in JB will surely be impacted. JB may turn into a ghost town if fewer Singaporeans cross over.

I suspect our Singapore government is too pleased and laughing at their decision to impose VEP fee on SG cars entering their country. Our government can’t stop locals going there to spend lavishly. Our government would rather that Singaporeans spend in our own country instead. Why else did the Singapore government legislate into law all Singapore cars entering Malaysia must have three quarters of petrol or face prosecution? This is to deter local cars going there to spend on cheap petrol, food and entertainment. No government would want their money flowing out of the country. It would rather prefer the money to remain in the country to benefit local businesses. The Malaysian government is doing precisely that helping the Singapore government to discourage locals crossing over to JB.

Before a major policy is implemented, much study and analysis need to be conducted. The pros and cons of a certain policy. The imagined scenarios resulting from such a policy implementation etc need careful calibration. Those policy makers in KL – the capital & seat of power, claim that the state government made the request to charge a VEP fee on Sg cars. Is that so? Fact is that those political elites in KL don’t live in JB and they are simply too far away to realize the magnitude of the repercussions affecting local businesses in JB. After all, they are too remote to feel the pain of the locals. Clearly, they have not done a proper policy implementation impact before announcing to the world that they have decided to implement VEP. They announce it first. Decide on the amount & timing later! Let’s hope that they will not retract and U-turn. Doing so will be the butt of joke. Welcome again to Boleh Land.

Obviously, they fail to learn from the water lesson where they decided to charge many times over when the first water agreement expired. Once we found NeWater, we decided not to renew the first water agreement anymore. Millions of hard cash is lost as a result with all the excess water flowing into the sea. In the fresh water market where there is only one buyer and one seller. If the buyer is not willing to pay for the exorbitant price, the excess water will just have to flow to the sea instead! They get nothing in return. There goes the golden goose when greed overrides reason and logic. After all, we never owe them a single cent nor defaulted on payments for their water. Aren’t we a good customer with so much hard cash?

We shall just wait and see when the details of their VEP fee are announced. Right now, maybe they are still busy countering adverse feedback and objections from those JB businesses. After all, the current government depends immensely on Johor’s (JB) support which is considered a safe state. Do they want to risk their political support? In Boleh Land, everything also boleh including making a big U-turn on policy changes.

Source

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