Here's something you may not previously have known about National Taxi Association (NTA) executive advisor Ang Hin Kee — he is not pro-taxi company or anti-competition.
He isn't even just a lobbyist for taxi drivers — in fact, the noise he made over the weekend over price cuts by Uber and Grab was, believe it or not, for their drivers.
"How can a reduction of fares be a bad thing, right?" he asks, in response to a cacophony of comments accusing him of saying fare cuts are dangerous for the sector.
"But this good thing, you track back the source... where does this good thing come from? Did I take this fare reduction from the earnings of the driver, or I take this fare reduction from my profit stowed away, or from my venture capitalists, or did I take it from my own pocket?"
So what he's saying here is — don't take fare cuts from the drivers' earnings. Because, says Ang, this means drivers have to do more in order to earn the same amount.
And he isn't pulling this out of his behind, either — Ang tells us he has personally heard feedback from Grab and Uber drivers that their earnings per trip have definitely taken a hit, even as their number of trips has increased.
But what about the argument that lower fares triggers a surge in trips taken? Doesn't that work to cancel the effect of the fare cuts out?
"Drivers cannot set their own fares, they cannot determine the rental costs, they are price takers, they are fare takers. so when you touch their fares, you touch a raw nerve. The fact of the matter is if you had given the same discount from your own pocket, I still can make four (trips an hour) and each trip, I will be able to earn more.(emphasis ours)"
Now, Ang admits he might sound alarmist by saying it is unsustainable to cut fares — but this with an important caveat: from drivers' earnings. He stresses that he is speaking up not about lower fares, but who is absorbing the cuts... in this case, the drivers.
"If that pattern continues (of cutting drivers' earnings to enable price cuts), I think it's not right if we don't come out to advocate on behalf of what benefits the workers, the drivers — regardless what vehicle they drive, and commuters," he says.
Ang adds that time is absolutely of the essence to drivers too — both taxi and private-hire car drivers, and that's why he's been speaking up for them.
"Policy and regulatory changes happen over time, but how long is 'over time'? What is 'over time'? Every day spent in 'over time' is earnings lost for the drivers," he says. "Take (the reduction in earnings) from another source. That is possible."
Just what was he saying about "compliance costs", anyway?
Now, moving on to that thing he referred to as "compliance costs" — once again, Ang stresses to us that he is not advocating that private hire car companies (i.e. Grab and Uber) should take on these requirements.
He explains taxi compliance costs and some of the things that add to them: having to ensure all vehicles used are Euro 5 grade and up in carbon emissions; driving 250km per day, and during both peak periods; timely response to phone calls; safety on the road, replacing cars every eight years — a few examples of things that contribute to a taxi rental of up to $133 per day, roughly double the amount many private-hire car drivers pay for their vehicles.
"If the criteria for safety suddenly becomes not relevant anymore, then remove the criteria for all parties concerned. So it's not about making the private hire guys "level up", sometimes you can also make the taxis "level down". But the question is why do you have that set criteria?"
He had said this before — the 250km rule is inefficient and a waste of diesel for many who are forced to engage in "empty cruising" to fulfill their daily distance quota, for instance, because rules like this require internal enforcement from each taxi operator, adding to costs and eventually their rental.
"There's nothing wrong with carrying rental costs from the get-go. Hawkers do that, a lot of people do that. But if there are things that can be reviewed and not quite the requirement that is needed, then make the effort to reduce operating costs. Hopefully that will filter down to the driver."
Despite all this talk about Uber and Grab, Ang's still lobbying with taxi companies
So you might be thinking, "Why so kaypoh? Just focus on making taxi companies innovate and treat their drivers better."
Truth is, Ang says that remains his priority — just that it isn't sexy enough to be part of a snappy weekend news story.
Over the years, the NTA has managed to get taxi companies to co-contribute to drivers' Medisave accounts despite not having an obligation to (bear in mind that they aren't exactly their drivers' employers).
They also convinced them to roll out profit-sharing schemes with commuters that did not touch driver earnings.
"That should be the approach we hope to see from businesses... we want to make sure from the get-go, appreciate what individuals on the ground are doing, driving for you, and what the commuters want. Be a responsible business partner — make money here, yes, but do it in a way that (does not eat into drivers' livelihoods)."
We asked him if he thinks there's room for taxi drivers themselves to be better at their jobs — in short, he says yes, but as with all industries, there are a good number of bad-eggs who drag the ones trying to make an honest living through the mud, and that's a constant struggle.
The authorities do have levers like demerit points and suspension or revocation of licences, but again, like Uber's and Grab's user rating system, its enforcement isn't always fair or perfect.
Does Ang think Grab and Uber drivers need a union, then?
All working people should have a voice on their behalf, states Ang, so yes.
"Just because there is no employer-employee relationship does not mean we do not have a role to advocate on their behalf. So do Uber and GrabCar drivers need a union? They need a voice, they need a movement that looks after their interests and to ensure that they are being fairly treated, that their needs are being looked after."
In fact, he would defend drivers' interests no matter what vehicle they drive — a Comfort Hyundai Sonata or a black sedan for UberExec.
"At the end of the day, I want the current group of taxi drivers and stakeholders in the business, in the industry, to up their game. We need the taxi operators to smarten up, regulations to make it easier for them to do that, to do more innovative roll-outs to reduce the cost of business. Taxi drivers must continue to be professionalising and doing better... and I want things to happen for all three (private hire car drivers, taxi drivers and passengers) — I want lower fares for customers too. That goes without saying."
Top photo by Lim Weixiang for Mothership.sg.