Ng Tze Yong
Mon, Dec 17, 2007
The New Paper
Pay good cabbies $5,000 a month

TURN the taxi around. Listen (for a change!) to a rant from the back seat.

Here is Mr Andrew Koh, 53, senior retail manager. Diminutive, hawk eyes, and one chilli padi of a taxi customer.

Like you, he's sick of the taxi debate. Mr Koh takes five to eight cab rides a day. He'll tell you his horror stories, the ones you already know.

And you know what he'll do if it were up to him?

'I'll pay good cabbies $5,000 a month.'

You stare back at him. Cabbies earning as much as young lawyers?

'Why not?'

No, Mr Koh isn't nuts. Just a hard-nosed pragmatist. That, and a very, very frustrated customer.

'In the old days, when cabbies owned their own cabs, many of them earned up to $8,000 a month. My neighbour was like that. He sent all his kids overseas.'

An average cab driver today takes home about $3,000, he reckons.

'That's not a lot, only equivalent to about the $2,000 that an employee earns, once you factor in the CPF, and the annual leave that a cabbie misses out on.'

When The New Paper called the Taxi Operator's Associations afterwards to double-check, president Alex Chia said the average income is even lower, between $1,200 and $1,500.

'That's rubbish,' Mr Koh shot back when we called him back. They just don't want new cabbies to join, he charges.

'How can anyone feed a family with that? If cabbies are only earning that, how can they afford to pick and choose customers? You might as well go be a cleaner. It's easier work and you get the same pay.'

Mr Koh was just then sitting in a cab.

'Uncle,' he suddenly shouted, 'how much you earn, huh?'

'Aiyah, about $3,000, if I work hard' came the reply.

'Hear that?' came Mr Koh's voice again.


Mr Koh's simple point is this: 'You want good people, you got to pay for them.'

Let taxi companies, he says, give performance-based rewards to the best cabbies, upping their pay to $5,000 a month.

'Let the bad drivers subsidise the good drivers,' he says.

'If today we can have hawkers earning $20,000 a month, why begrudge a good cabbie earning what he deserves?'

Agree or disagree, Mr Koh is not someone who minces his words.

'The folks at LTA can recognise my voice when I call to complain.'

'You know,' he starts again, 'this problem isn't new.

'The difference now is that tourists are also complaining.'

(Mr Chia agreed with this assessment. Taxi driver Foo Chin Yong, 47, however, pointed out that tourists only made up about 20 per cent of a cabbie's customers.)

Mr Koh gives ComfortDelgro's fare hike the thumbs-up. But then, you find out later Mr Koh spends $50 a day ($1,500 a month) on taxis.

Is he happy because it saves the taxis for the rich folks?

'No, this is not about being elitist,' he says. 'The system is skewed.'

It doesn't make sense, Mr Koh explains, when it costs the same for four guys to get from Orchard to Jurong by sharing a cab or by taking the train.

'Taxis are not meant to be a form of mass transport. They are a premium, personalised, limited service.'

And then, unapologetically:

'If you can't afford cabs, then you'll just have to manage your time. It's like sometimes you eat at kopitiams and sometimes you eat at restaurants, isn't it?'

Hear his other remedies.

1. Get LTA to outsource enforcement of errant cabbies to Cisco.

'LTA has only so many enforcers. They can all be working 12-hour days, it won't help.'

2. Mystery-shopper audits

'That's the secret behind how Hong Kong turned its atrocious service standards around.'

3. Bulk medical discount for cabbies.

'Get the taxi companies to work something out with the hospitals.'

And lastly, Mr Koh wants to make Comfort DelGro's phone-booking system available to all taxi companies.

Comfort DelGro's biggest advantage in the taxi market, Mr Chia says, is its sophisticated phone-booking system.

'Okay, fine, they developed it. So let's form a company and buy it over,' says Mr Koh.

So is Comfort DelGro the bad guy?

'It's easy to blame them. But it's the entire system's fault. Remember, their job is not to be kind. If I were them, I'd do the same thing.'

At the end of the day, Mr Koh's gripe is this:

'The people who are responsible for this are getting too comfortable.

'Ask yourself: Which of the taxi companies is losing money?

'There's no incentive to try. It's not as if being kind will increase shareholder value.'

He doesn't understand why the problem is being tackled piecemeal: one surcharge here, another surcharge there.

'The Government wants to make a paradise on earth, right?

'But then, you see these touts, all these cabbies hiding at Newton at 11.55pm, waiting for the midnight charge to kick in, and you wonder: Why is there this problem?

'In Singapore, if you really want to get something done, it can be done.'

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