National Taxi Association adviser Ang Hin Kee explains whose playing field he's trying to level

And he's not talking about penalising Uber or Grabcar drivers.

Tan Xing Qi| November 25, 12:23 PM

So earlier this month, National Taxi Association (NTA) adviser Ang Hin Kee said something about a "level playing field" for cab drivers.

Which got people riled up because why regulate something that brings unbridled joy to consumers?

Except he didn't.

His comments are instead targeted at, believe it or not, the current rules governing the taxi industry. Describing the rules as "a narrow and straight path" and "a stark contrast" to what the private car hire drivers have to follow, the Ang Mo Kio Member of Parliament explained to why cabbies feel a little angsty with the whole situation.

The bane of "the narrow and straight path"

Taxi drivers are told to maintain a professional image, understand English, pass a tough Taxi Driver Vocational Licence course (ok, tough for this 61-year-old) and go for a refresher course every six years, said Ang.

"In the regime of all the rules and regulations, it was conveyed to them that this has been designed so that commuters can feel assured," he added.

And with the current "stick" approach of demerit points and revocation of licence, the cabbies follow "the narrow and straight path", said Ang.

Thus the fact that their competition doesn't need to follow these rules has got the cabbies scratching their heads.

Voicing cabbies' displeasure, Ang said: "You mean consumer's peace of mind is not important any more? Safety and security not important any more? No, no, now there's user reviews and can get rid of undesirable drivers. In that case, why did that rule not apply to me? Why do I have to follow all these other things that apply to me? If the users don't want to stick to this set of rules and are happy with the other set but taxi drivers still have to follow the old rules, you can see where the sentiment is coming from."

The current rules are "costly, not quite reflective and a bit onerous"

While Uber, Grabcar drivers cannot do street pickups, they also do not have to meet the Land Transport Authority's taxi availability (TA) standards implemented in 2013.

Taxi companies have to meet two standards: Ensuring that 85 per cent and 75 per cent of their fleet clock a daily mileage of 250km on weekdays and weekends respectively and ensuring that the bulk of their fleet ply the roads during peak hours.

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 11.35.05 am Source: LTA

According to The Straits Times, only Comfort consistently met all the taxi availability standards so far in 2015.

Ang continued, citing feedback from taxi drivers: "So they are thinking: 'I still need to comply with TA, drive 250km a day. Why do I need to meet 250km a day? Since you want me to hit 250km, I drive lor, empty cruising.' But the most efficient way is not to drive around but rather on a demand basis."

A taxi driver's analogy

Being a story on taxis, there has got to be one story from a taxi driver.

Ang recounted this hawker centre story told to him by a cabby, which parallels the predicament faced by most taxi drivers.

"There's a very rigorous way of checking hygiene level for hawkers. But if a push cart appears at the hawker centre with no licence. It can be cheaper because there's no compliance cost and no rental. Say the push cart's food is cheaper and better and it only comes during peak hour. Then why would the hawkers want to follow these rules? There's a reason for the rules and they were told that rules are important. So if the rules are not relevant anymore or if there's a new set of rules, then make them applicable to all."

So I ask them: 'In that case, do you mean that all these rules you'd like to see removed so that there's a fairer competition?' No, it's not the rules, they say. It's the fact that over the years, yes there are some black sheep, but the image and professionalism have gone up. The safety and assurance from the comfortable point of view have gone up. Please don't reduce us from dressing and operating properly to a free for all operation. Because you are literally throwing away years of investment into making consumers a bit more familiar with what is the right way and professionally good way of driving a taxi. Don't throw away the baby out with the bathwater you know?

There's a minimum standard called "every morning must change underwear". Don't throw away that good hygiene."

That said, private car hire drivers deserve more protection

Competition aside, Ang also acknowledged that more must be done to protect private car hire drivers, citing the rental rates of private cars as example.

Drivers are more likely to sign on a longer car lease, as compared to a daily or weekly term, for better value. However, if you score enough bad reviews, drivers will be out of the game with a car lease in tow, Ang added.

"That way of penalising or disciplining their business partners is a very cruel approach. You don't give the person a chance to make restitution and you immediately get rid of them."

Taxi companies, on the other hand, offer a clear and calibrated system to penalise errant drivers and even if licences are revoked, drivers just need to return the car, he explained.

"The driver must be given a chance to correct themselves and amend their ways. It's rare in the commercial setting where the burden is passed to the lowest denominator called the single driver and the biggest player with the financial strength and profit margin doesn't co-own the problem. That vulnerability of the driver is not an ideal one when you don't have a co-ownership of the responsibility."


Top photo from Ang Hin Kee's Facebook page.

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