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, 2008...is 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?