Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Can the Soul of a City be Found in Its Taxi Drivers?

December 19th, 2008

You know, I actually like taking cabs in Singapore, even though the price is higher than ever. The cars are clean, they're large enough for three people in the back seat (Toyota Crowns and other similarly-sized autos), they generally smell okay, and the drivers---compared to the ones in KL **especially**--are a delight. Just this Friday morning I had taken one from Toh Tuck Road to my office in the CELC building at NUS, and all along the way the driver and I had a pleasant chat about the state of the Singapore economy. I felt inspired as I exited the guy's car. Later in the day, I took another couple cabs (since I was rushing home, and then to the bus.) Both rides were very pleasant, and the one to the Nice Bus, with all our bags, courteous as the driver gave the usual assistance.

I've been ready for a holiday for weeks now, but was I ready for the KL taxi? After a lethargic five-hour Nice bus ride from Singapore's Copthorne Orchid Hotel, I arrived at the edge of KL last Friday evening. It was just after 8pm and the traffic, once we had passed the interchange by the Palace of the Golden Horses, was rather heavy but never bumper to bumper. Twenty minutes later our bus hugged the roundabout by the National Mosque, and we pulled curbside of the majestic Old Railway Station.

Billie and I got our stuff, bid farewell to the smiley bus driver (wearing a funny pink knit hat) and, after securing our suitcase from the belly of the bus, we moved up the sidewalk toward the street. Before I had a chance to try and flag any taxi though, an Indian gentleman with silver hair called from behind me, skirting the idling bus with the question: "Taxi, sir?"

"How much to Robson Heights?" I asked, knowing he wouldn't use his meter.

"Twenty," he said, bright earnings from the potentially ignorant mat salleh already twinkling in his eye.

"No way. Ten," I shot back.

"No, sir. Very busy now," he said.

I waved him off with shrug and drug my bag off the curb streetside. I was already impatient, thinking it would have been nicer to have someone pick us up. But what to do? Billie and I then stood by the fuming roadside for five minutes before the requisite rickety red & white Proton "Comfort Cab" pulled over in front of us. A middle-aged Chinese fellow exited, walked to our side and sat confidently back against his car's hood, where he made the same offer, wanting the same amount.

"Look," I told him, "I know that if you used your meter, it would only cost five dollars. So ten...can?"

"Cannot! Tonight very jam. Twenty dolla," he insisted.

"What jam? Look man, I'll give you ten."

"Cannot," he repeated, obstinate with folded arms. That inspired me to lecture him that KL was renowned for having the worst taxi service in the world. In the world, I repeated. He didn't hear what I said, repeating his own mantra of "Twenty dollars."

No frigging way. I pulled my bag up the street, not looking back. Within five minutes another Proton had pulled up beside us and a young Malay fella leaned over to manually roll down the passenger-side window, looking at us thru mirrored shades.

"Robson Heights," I said. "I'll give ya fifteen." Without a word he motioned for us to get in. "Can you give me a hand with my bag?" I continued, then pulled it to the trunk area. He popped the trunk, but stayed in the car. Welcome to KL, I thought.

Billie and I made it to Robson Heights that night, though as the taxi had turned off Jalan Robson onto the 30 degree grade that's Persiaran Endah, I thought the dude's dog of an auto was gonna die. In any case, the guy was pleasant enough, with no complaints and a "thanks" at the end, then we arrived unscathed. Would our luck hold out on a busy run-around town Saturday?


Saturday, December 20th, long gone. Over. Kaput. Habis. Since that time last year, I've attended the 10th Anniversary of the E.G.G. Club in KL, flown in clouds high above the earth, and cruised the mighty Mekong in the Land of the Lao. Taxis? How about tuk-tuks and bicycles? Oh, there were vans to and from the low cost Air Asia terminal in Sepang and the van rides in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. But for ten glorious days, I was simply walking... between yet another temple and one more Beer Lao at such and such cafe, from the clutches of another traditional Lao massage to the next best bargain in the Hmong street market. For that reason, the Laos trip was peaceful, meditative, reflective and relatively cheap. It all helped me forget this silly topic. Rip offs in KL taxis.

And I say that with good reason, for that next Saturday past, the day after Billie and I had arrived in KL, it happened: The worst taxi ride ever (since another similar incident in KL years ago).

I won't go into great detail. Suffice it to say that following a little Christmas shopping at the Mid Valley Megamall, Billie and I were forced to ask a taxi driver who insisted on driving us in the wrong direction to stop at the entrance to the Federal Highway so that we could exit his cab. When I then assumed that the big round he had given us of the entire mall before heading to PJ when we'd wanted to go toward KL was complimentary -- and therefore free -- he freaked, jumping out of his car brandishing a club. The communications specialist part of me, the guy who wants to insure win-win solutions, the idealist, thought we could work things out amicably...until said club was waved in my daughter's face.

What do they say about never getting between a mother bear and her cub? What followed was a bit traumatic for everyone involved, not physically, but emotionally. I don't like that sort of situation, I don't like being forced to make a stand. Most of all, I don't like to bark and growl and spew lava. But I can if I have to.

What makes for these situations? Why are KL taxis so renowned? As is often true, it is most likely a case of sound government policies not being enforced. Obviously, taxis have meters for a reason. The fact that in KL the meter is so often ignored shows that A) the fare structure is probably inappropriate, and B) there is no government oversight. The very idea that a cab driver can tell a customer that the best way to go west (KL) is via the east (PJ) and then become so offended when the customer declines the service that he makes physical threats is cause for some serious alarm. I guess it is time for me to practice some of my letter writing skills and alert the relevant authorities. The question is, could anything that I write matter to the government clerk who has heard it all before?

What do you think?


xin yi said...

hello Brad!

Crazy taxi rides in the KL huh? I can't agree with you more man. Taking taxi in countries other than Singapore really scares me. Taking the trains is a much safer bet.

I think this is something that Singaporeans often take for granted. It's so hard to find good taxi drivers nowadays!

Danny Wong said...

Hey Brad,

Sorry to hear about your Traumatic experiences with KL cab. Being a Malaysian, I am really ashamed to let you experience this kind of unjust treatment.

But that's Malaysia for you. A country pale in comparison with Singapore in security, service and stability.

From my experience with cabs in KL, I would generally say that Malays taxi driver are less prone to wielding their sharp axes on your wallet compared to Indians and Chinese. Sad to say, Chinese cab drivers are alike loan-shark in a yellow-red Proton.

I guess you just have to bear with it for the moment. This matter seriously won be solve so soon. Or will it be solve anyway? In my honest opinion, the starting fare is just too low for the cab drivers to earn a living.

Anyway, thanks for everything from ES2007S.


One World One Life---JCH said...

hey, you gotta get tough,start spewing in Malay, then write down his number, and say you will have a talk with your father-in-law,when he tries to call you on and say tolong dude, ta ada taxi for youlah...when he asks who is your father in law...Just say Datok Mohammed Shah, Custom, tapi dia akan tahu siapa ke cekap dengan. Nanti--aah, then under your breath, to your companion...just enough so he can hear..bodolah make sure he sees you write the number...I've ridden from K.L. to Port Klang for thirty ringgit,and that included tip...prices are up, but,I never take shit,especially if other drivers are around,make him start to lose face..they laugh, you win..just have a quick sharp tongue, but, be forgiven,tell in in the cab,you moved there in 1985? and am really sick of this orang puteh crap...then macam manuhh aku boleh cari nasi, semua nak tipuhlah...Aku sakit poowotlah.saangat suusahlah..ahh (word is perut,but a heavy Kualapilah slang..heheheh (ask your better half)or she can tell you Malacca slang. hahah

One World One Life---JCH said...

Eh mon, you & you got to Rasta the troogh...people really do smell do eet mon ! I got sick of taxis trying to ef me. (I think I will try to write it how it sounds...remember the ahh eee uuu... .Comes from the Arabic...but seems most Malay influenced..not all but a lot...not the peng,meng ang ung,etc. sounds. Use the lah when needed, and the ahh is stretched and tonal...can be meant to sound (ehh dumdass if used correctly) When in Rome...Singapore,...just as many,but, they are if you have to ...mess with his get respect, and people remember you. I usually tip enough to reach what he wanted in the first place anyway...but if he doesn't cool it, small tip...see most people don't...and cabbies gotta live's a tough job, I know...I drove three years... never did that scat...I would let them do it to themselves...

Brad Blackstone said...

Xin Yi,

I wouldn't be afraid of riding in taxis in ALL other countries just because of my negative experiences in KL. Even in KL I have had a good, honest drivers. Sadly though, they seem to be the minority.


Don't be ashamed. The worst of the drivers are not a reflection of the goodness of many Malaysians. Still, the corruption in the taxi system does seem to reflect a larger social problem, and certainly it is something that any responsible government should address.

By the way, the driver who wanted to assault us was neither Indian nor Chinese.


Maybe "spewing Malay" would help, though Malaysian friends tell me otherwise. Many of them have been ripped off as well.

I think the government needs to take action. With the situation so dire, I'm at a loss as to why a taxi clean up hasn't already occurred.

Shi Wei said...

Hello mr brad,
I cnt remember if i told you but last holiday a couple of us actually went in msia (genting, KL and my friend's hometown Batu Pahat) and it was simply exhilerating. You post abt the taxi in KL was so coherent with our experience, where the 5 of us managed to "bargain" our way into the cab from the mall to the apartment. I guess one of the most fantastic part about travelling overseas is to experiment with their public transport. There was once we decided to be thrifty and waited for the bus that never came (ok i was exergating haha it came like 45 mins later). Still, we had fun, travel is not always abt shopping and eating; its their culture i yearn to feel for.

January Carson said...

Do Singaporean cabs still tinkle like bells when the driver exceeds the speed limit? Or am I hopelessly out of date?