It’s now almost 4 complete months since I left my previous job end of Sep last year. I am still not sure what is my next job. Whether to drive a taxi or enter the security industry? I have just got my taxi vocational license on 16 Jan whilst I work ad hoc as a security supervisor for my friend Douglas’ security agency.
When Douglas’ boss who is a retired police DSP heard that I was unemployed, he came personally not once but TWICE to Elias Mall (EM) to speak to me. Over coffee in the evening at EM, he charted a future for me with the ultimate career path of security manager in his security agency. His agency currently has got more than 30 assignments all over the island with more than 150 staff. He was keen to take me in directly as security operations executive first with an offer of $3K. If I could perform well on the job, he will increase the offer to $3.5K. After some time, I may even take over as security manager depending on my competence.
My boss (I’ve started working on part time basis) kept reminding Douglas to arrange for a meeting when I was then quite reluctant to meet up with him cuz I was still enjoying my long break and undergoing a tough 2-week taxi crash course at Singapore Taxi Academy commencing from 16 Dec to 28 Dec (10 am to 5pm) with Sundays off. He met me once before my taxi course to discuss about my future employment plan. Next, he came again to EM bringing an application form for me to fill up. He kept saying “help me!” Needless to say, I was so touched by his kind gesture. There was no air in him. He was so humble and approachable when talking to me. I still remember that evening when Douglass arranged for me to meet him at EM. It was raining so heavily. He came personally well before the appointed time and Douglas kept asking me where was I. Actually I met my boss on and off over the years since I came to know Douglas 6 yrs ago. He did not approach me until he heard from Douglas about my precarious situation.
I told the boss that I still wanted to try driving taxi since I already made an effort to go through the course. I paid $345 for the course. Let me try out first if I could make the grade. He agreed but still insisted that I remain in their employment on an ad hoc basis. I’ve been to numerous interviews and none accorded me so much respect. You could understand the indignation when I was grilled left and right about my previous job in interviews until I simply gave up. That’s when I decided to go through the taxi course and the unsolicited job offer from the boss suddenly came about simultaneously.
Let me just briefly describe the 2-week taxi crash course. I attended the course from 16 Dec to 28 Dec 2013. Some time beginning of Nov last year, I applied to LTA for the taxi course. After 10 days, I finally received a letter from LTA allowing me to go for the course. I had to go for a medical check-up. I paid $39 at SATA for a chest X-ray and medical checkup. Only with the LTA approval letter and the medical report, I was allowed to register for the taxi course at Comfort in Sin Ming. The course was very popular. I had to wait for an available slot which falls on 16th Dec – nearly a month away from the time of application.
Later, I found out that there were 2 classes of 40 students in each class on the full time 2-week course. In the evening, there were another 2 classes of part time students at Singapore Taxi Academy. Only Singaporeans are allowed to attend the taxi course with some eventually becoming taxi drivers. Not all attended the course end up as taxi drivers. There are more than 100,000 taxi vocational license holders (all Singaporeans) with only about 43,000 active taxi drivers on the roads within a population of about 29,000 cabs on the roads. I think this is the only profession that is exclusively for natives, unlike other jobs. It is also the only profession with a retirement age of 75 yrs subject to annual medical checkup of course.
I’m now passed 50 yrs. If I were to enter this industry, I could actually drive a taxi until 75 yrs surpassing the number of years spent in my previous 2 occupations. It is the only profession that allows me freedom to work at my own pace earning a decent living. No other professions offer the same kind of freedom. James Lim and Patriot are some of my friends encouraging me to try it out. Those taxi drivers in EM would also like me to join their rank.
I apologize for the side tracking. Let’s come back to the 2-week taxi crash course. There are 5 modules, namely Traffic Rules and Regulations, Taxi Rules and Regulations, Locations & Landmarks, Route Planning and Practical lessons. We learnt how to handle wheelchair passengers, interactions with passengers and checking & preparation of the vehicle before the start of shift driving etc during the practical tests in module 5.
Each paper (except practical paper) is given 60 mins. All questions are on the Ipad. We are not allowed to bring anything into the examination room – not even a pen, paper or any writing material. We are given an Ipad and a worn out dog-eared Street Directory for the Tests. 4 test papers with 60 mins each all add up to a solid 4 hours commencing from 9am to 1pm. I passed the first 2 papers easily but failed the last 2 papers. I managed to complete the first 2 papers within 20 mins instead of 60 mins. The reason why I failed the last 2 papers is due to lack of time. No time to complete. For example paper 3 on Landmarks & Locations has 50 questions. Only slightly more than one minute is allowed. If you take 2 mins to answer each question, there is definitely not enough time to complete all the questions. 30 questions on Route Planning to popular destinations like places of interest, hospitals, hotels. Every detail on roads of the route taken must be accurate and in sequence. If it is Penang Road then it can’t be Penang Lane cuz they are totally different.
In my opinion, it is even harder than any other public examination. For papers 3 and 4, it is not a test of language competency but on your fast and sharp response to all the questions within a given time frame. We are trained for “on the spot” Street Directory referencing in the event that the pax does not know the place and we are also not sure of the final destination.
Some of you may suggest using GPS. But then the gadget may also lead you to “Holland!” unless you have basic road sense and a clear sense of direction. I was a victim of the GPS when I relied too much on it initially. It should be used as a guide only.
On the same day, I immediately booked for a re-test for papers 3 and 4 which I had failed. I scored 39/50 for paper 3. I need 41 marks to pass. For paper 4, I scored only 16/30. I need at least 24 marks to pass. After a quick lunch I did a quick revision and managed to clear the 2 papers in the afternoon having paid another $10 admin charge plus $5 for each paper!
Since I signed up with Comfort as a relief driver, I had to go for more “Comfort” courses. I had to attend a one day “Basic Service Training for New Drivers”, half a day of MDT (Meter Display) course and another 2 hours of “auto gear transmission” orientation since all cabs are in auto gear now.
Many of you might think that we are now ready to drive a taxi having completed so many training courses. We could now happily ply the roads earning a decent living. I’m afraid it is not as easy as you might think. Didn’t our wise old man used to say that those who have graduated with PhDs wearing the mortarboards thought that they have reached the summit when in fact they are only at the foothills! Yup, having gone thru all the training is just only the beginning. There is so much challenges awaiting us. There is no assurance that we could make the grade.
First let me talk about the operating environment a taxi driver is subject to. The moment he logs in to the MDT in his cab, he loses his own self ego. He is no longer the Army Colonel or Factory Manager or even A*star PhD holder he used to be. He is now part of the company he’s working for. My brilliant instructor Mr Foo says that “you must put yourself down, put it down totally, leave behind your past glory, don’t bring it along with you driving the taxi etc ..” if you want to last on the job. Not only the company monitors you when you ply the roads, but also LTA and Traffic Police are always on the look out for you if you do not tow the line. There are cameras all over the island targeting motorists for illegal parking, illegal U-turn, speed traps, bus lane etc. Since cab drivers spend the longest time making a living on public roads, the risks or chances of getting caught are so much higher if you are not alert. Imagine when you make a nett profit of $100 after deducting $120 rental and $50 diesel, you are caught entering the bus lane just becuz your pax insisted that you drop him there. That guy standing there with a camera snaps a picture of your cab and there goes your $100 profit. (The fine is $130 for entering bus lane during peak hours) Welcome to the real cruel world. You have spent more than 8 hours driving without pay and still need to top up another $30 for the fine. That is what I meant when I say that it is never easy to drive a cab.
The skills of a cab driver cannot be underestimated. All newbies will have to go through this initial “blur sotong” stage. Someone used to say “baptism of fire!?” From my interactions with some of the experienced taxi drivers in EM over the past few months, I have gained much insight and the unique survival skills required for this trade. There are easily about 20 taxi drivers in my neighborhood. As such, I have lots of tips and ideas from them.
I was very fortunate to have friends like Alan Taxi (AT) who lives in my block. He is a permanent relief driving a brand new Hyundai i40. The hirer of the same taxi is also from my block. AT advised me to start as a relief driver first when I was studying for the taxi license. No need to rush into things by getting a cab from a company. Don’t “kang cheong!” Paying about $120 for the rental plus another $50 to $70 for diesel a day – 7/24 throughout the year – meaning every day even though you don’t drive or fall sick is a huge financial burden especially if you are a new driver lacking the necessary basic survival skills to earn more. Newbies are definitely not as productive. AT shares the cab as a permanent relief driver at half of the costs i.e. $64 ($128) from 6pm to 6am. After the hirer brought me to Comfort to register as a relief driver forking out a $1,000 security deposit, I’m allowed to drive any Comfort taxi. Out of the blue, AT messaged me offering to let me drive from 6pm to midnite at only $32 rental – half of his 12-hour shift. I jumped at the offer.
AT is an experienced taxi driver, having driven for more than 10 yrs. He used to drive a tour coach. He is 2 yrs older than me. On 28//1/2014 (Tues), I started my virgin drive. AT seemed to be more excited than me. He kept reminding me to have enough rest in the day, ensure that I had enough floats i.e. coins, $2 dollar notes, $10 notes etc. Bring a big water bottle, Cash card of at least $20 (for CBD and ERP charges), wear appropriate attire etc – all these are taught in the many courses I attended. Most importantly I must ensure safety for myself and my pax. If I do not make any money it’s OK. I’m just learning a new trade so no hurry to make money yet. Making money is secondary. Learning and getting used to the powerful vehicle and always think safety first for myself, my pax and other road users! Wow! All these tips given free to me before I even started my virgin trip.
AT then waited for me at EM before 6pm. The hirer on the day shift also came back much early so that AT could brief me on the basic features of the vehicle and also the MDT. Satisfied with all the briefing, AT and the hirer wished me luck and I set off with their blessings.
When I turned left into Pasir Ris Dr 1 from Elias Road, my first customers – 2 guys going to the airport flagged me. They were flight crew reporting for work. One guy wanted to go to Terminal 3 and the other wanted to go Terminal 2. I told them I could get them to any of the Terminals but not sure how to move from one to another. They were my first customers and this was my first drive. They spoke in Mandarin with Malaysian accent. They laughed and said never mind just drop them at Terminal 2 where one of them could take the sky train over to Terminal 3. Phew!
I then called AT and told him about the first trip I made to airport Terminal 2. He suggested that I move down to Changi Business park where those IT professionals are going back in the evening. Usually they would go back to one of the condominiums in Simei or Tampines. True enough I managed to pick up an Indian lady carrying laptop to Tropical Condominium in Simei. Another guy was waiting for my pax to alight. The local Chinese pax told me to make an U turn to pick his aged parents and wife on the opposite side of the road. They wanted to go to Bedok Corner HC for dinner. No problem at all. I know that area well. Dropped them at the cold storage opposite the HC, another lady pax boarded asking me to proceed to St George Street off Upp Serangoon Rd. Told her that I shall take the PIE exit Kallang Basin, Bendemeer Rd and turn into St George Street.
I moved over to pay Patriot a visit who was on duty at Kallang Way since it was nearby. I took a short toilet break and chatted a while before I moved off. One lady couple along Aljunied Rd flagged me wanting to go to Golden Mile at Beach Road. No problem also. Told her I’ll take the Geylang Road towards Lavender St, turn into Crawford St and then Beach Road. I was supposed to stop at driveway of Golden Mile but there were many coaches there and was jammed. They just alighted near to the place. Hopefully there was no camera to snap a picture or I’ll be summoned for that. Whilst cruising around the vicinity, managed to pick up a matured lady heading to Elias Green. I told her that I live around there but never heard of Elias Green. She smiled and said that she would direct me once I get into Elias Rd. When I reached there, it is actually the condominium near to the TPE; the first condominium in the vicinity. I never bother about the name of the condominium even though I passed by there countless times.
After sending her off to Elias Green, I decided to call it a day. Drove to my place nearby and called AT that I would be handing over the vehicle to him. Around 9pm, having driven for about 3 hours from 6pm. AT then decided to charge me hourly rate of $5. I paid him $15 plus another $6 for diesel calculated at 100km for $10. I clocked about 62km only. I think I’m the only taxi relief driver in the market paying hourly rate of $5! There is no such practice anywhere in the industry. I collected $47.05 for that virgin trip.
I continued driving from about 6pm to 10pm for the next few days. On the 3rd day of CNY i.e. 2/2/14(Sun), I drove from 8am to 5pm since the hirer took off. I clocked 235km, done 21 trips with a total collection of $178. Paid $50 (discount) plus $25 for diesel, I managed to earn slightly more than $100 for that day. Consider the fact that there was no surcharge on a Sunday and that I was new – my 3rd day driving, it’s not too bad.
I usually like to ask cab drivers if they remember their first trip years ago when they first started driving. Many could remember vividly their first day of driving. Another neighbor living in the same block who used to relief AT also had so much stress and phobia picking up pax that he didn’t know what to do. He parked his taxi at Pasir Ris park and started smoking there for 2 to 3 hours not knowing where to go or what to do. Another taxi driver with more than 6 yrs experience told me that he had to return to “home ground” each time he dropped his pax. Even if the pax dropped off at Jurong, he would return empty cab to home ground to start all over again. He only knew how to go from Pasir Ris to other places – that’s how he planned his routes.
Just 2 days ago, I was talking to him at EM. It was his off day. He’s also a relief driver. He was giving me useful invaluable lessons for more than 3 hours talking about his taxi experience and survival tips. Basically, he is saying there are few “gold mines” in Sg as taxi drivers we need to master. The entire Orchard Road with all the hotels and shopping centers/malls, Shenton Way, Robinson Road – our financial district building clusters around Raffles Place, including the new financial district at Marina Bay, Chinatown area and River Valley area especially the nightspots at Jiak Kim Rd, Havelock Rd, Mohd Sultan Rd, Clarke Quay, Boat Quay etc. These places usually generate lots of customers to the heartlands or Holland Rd and Bukit Timah areas. Important artery roads like Zion Rd, Hoot Kiam Rd, Irwell Bank Rd connecting Orchard Rd to Chinatown or the Financial Districts we must know.
Different shifts i.e. Day or Nite shifts cab drivers face different set of customers. The pattern is generally that people are going to work to the town in the morning from the residential areas. They travel back home from town in the evenings. They go for entertainment during the evenings especially from Friday to Sun. On Wednesday, it’s usually ladies’ nite where the clubbing crowd gets bigger.
I told myself that I’ve been driving more than 30 yrs ago. I own a motorcycle for more than 30 yrs. I am a local native. I was born here in the old KK Hospital and I grow up here over the last 50 yrs. My driving skill should be alrite since I own an OPC for about 10 yrs and used to drive to Penang, Genting Highlands, KL and JB. I am English educated and I got no problem reading road directional signs. I have got all the basic attributes with the correct attitude, there is no reason why I should not succeed as a taxi driver. Yet, I feel inadequate when I compare myself to those experienced taxi drivers. My frens told me that I was not in the taxi trade before and that I did not bother to remember or take note of landmarks and buildings even though I might have passed by those places for so many times. One classic example is that Elias Green condominium which happens to be nearby in my neighborhood cuz I never bother to find out! Henceforth, it is my business now to take note of every building, landmark location whenever I come across. I do not just travel around blindly without locking in the details nowadays! That’s a complete change in lifestyle and mindset.
Given a choice, I would prefer a full time job as a taxi driver instead of the security job. I’m still considering which trade to enter ultimately. I feel that as a taxi driver, it is similar to running your own business. It is just like renting a small shop or stall selling a service or a good. There is the daily rental and overheads to worry. There are good takings and bad takings on some days. Just like hawkers, they are also subject to all kinds of NEA rules and regulations. The only common denominator is that they are all self-employed working at their own pace. The longer hours they operate the more they make. The more au fait they become on the job, the better the income. It is like “一分耕耘，一分收穫” or you reap what you sow. It is just another way of earning a decent living within your own control; answerable only to yourself for your own actions.
“Sometimes life can hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I convince myself the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You got to find what you love.”~Steve Jobs
PS: This blog post is dedicated to our fellow brother taxi driver and blogger James Lim.
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