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Taxi & Uber : An ideological debate

Over the last few days, there’s been a storm of a debate on the back of a statement I made over the regulatory double standards faced between UBER drivers and traditional taxi drivers.

Though those who commented in opposition of my position were aplenty, there was also a sizable representation of those who supported what I had to say. Apart from some irrational and unreasonable personal attacks directed at me personally, the multitudinous arguments that came from both sides of the debating aisle signalled a healthy public policy debate; which I am in full support of.

It is also undeniable that the timing, political implications, and the negative vibes (towards me and therefore the party) on the back of my statement, could be seen as an untimely controversy not conducive to the party’s interest; some even accused me of sabotaging. I must also be frank in saying that I was fully aware of the risk of brickbats before sending out the statement, though never thought it would be of this quantum.

I have been working closely with the taxi association in question for no less than four years. I am also fully aware that the challenges faced by the drivers are not solvable in a day or two, much less over one statement. The flagrantly vagrant taxi drivers who have brought notoriety to their entire profession, have been receiving critique in many forms and manners from across society.

On the other hand, those taxi drivers who are law abiding and continue to valiantly serve those marginalised by society who still need their services- however much they are in the minority- are victims themselves of discrimination and social sidelining. Perhaps due to the seemingly overwhelming public support towards UBER, and the culture of political expediency; not many choose to speak up for them. I felt like I had to do the job since no one wanted it.

Different demographies, different realities

City dwellers, Netizens, the young, the tech savvy and the vocal and the social-media-active generation of UBER users; I am not alien to their views towards UBER as I am one of them. The Malaysian public’s anger and hatred towards traditional taxi drivers are also well within my radar; its impossible to ignore or deny. However, is it fair for anyone to conclude and express hatred to any one profession across the board, even if nine out of ten practitioners of that trade are villains; how about the one who is law abiding?

There were even accusations of me being disconnected from the views and voices of the people for taking my position. I would ask those making those accusations in return; Is ‘society’ as he/she knows it monolithic across the whole of Malaysia? Is UBER really universally accepted, adored and desired across all geographical and demographic constituencies in Malaysia?

The fact of the matter is, in the constituency that I represent, there is a sizable population of senior citizens, who no longer have the company of their younger, UBER using children or grandchildren living with them. Many of these nanny and granddads have neither a car nor a smartphone; reasons could be financial or proficiency. REALITY CHECK: right or wrong, there are still Malaysians who can’t, therefore won’t use smartphones; let alone afford one.

In the absence of a good public transport system and better access to hospitals, these senior citizens are served by these taxi drivers for their monthly checkup at the general hospitals or their monthly trip to the city to get supplies or to meet what’s left of their social circle. Are we going to use words like ‘irrelevant’, ‘ignorant’, ‘ketinggalan zaman’ on these nannies and granddads the same way too?

Systemic failure or fault of an entire profession?

The failure –or delayed reaction- by traditional taxis in Malaysia in reacting and responding to the technological revolution and their inability to self improve and self correct in the face of their current existencial threats; this is crystal clear to all consumers. I’m in no position to defend that; neither have I chosen to do so.

The imaginary prices plucked out of thin air due to ‘broken meters’, and the 10 minute journeys taking 45 when the meters do work are incidents all too common. These rip-off tactics and frankly criminal activities carried out by taxi drivers are fundamentally why consumers have this pent up hatred towards taxis in general. Its hard to defend really.

Truth be told, Malaysians are not ignorant of the problems of traditional taxis. It wasn;t that long ago that we had couple of French tourists who were stung with an RM800 taxi fare for a 6km trip, propelling Malaysian Taxis to international notoriety for all the wrong reasons. Set that against the backdrop of what is offered to consumers by UBER, there seems to be a clear positive picture of what ‘private vehicle transportation industry’ could look like in a reformed future; and that picture does not have even the shadow of a traditional taxi in sight. That was aso when the polarisation and the polemic hit a new height.

However, I do have a duty as a policy maker, to seek answers to the following tough questions: what caused the degeneration in integrity of the majority of entire profession? Since it s a regulated profession, what has the government been doing (or not) that has allowed things to get this bad?

Tradition vs innovation: zero sum game?

Whatever profession –or anything as a matter of fact-, that becomes extinct or eliminated due to technological disruption rendering it irrelevant, is something that is common throughout history. However, it is society and government’s response to these disruptive innovations that we must objectively debate and discuss. Do we embrace them or accept them at arm’s length?

Do we give them extra room to make an even larger impact or do we regulate them more to manage the disruption? How do we treat those who are victims of these disruptive innovations? Should government help them or not? If so how? If Not, why? If not government, Whom?

These are all questions we must address, specific to the taxi-UBER quandry as well as jobs in general going into the age of robotics, automisation and the fourth industrial revolution…. But, I digress.

When we talk about disruptive innovations, indiscriminately and solely embracing the neoliberalistic notion and model of “survival of the fittest”, will not only marginalise the ‘suppliers’ of the disrupted services, but also- certainly in this case- the ‘consumers’ of the eliminated services. As a social democrat, I accept the open-competitive market, yet I also vow to check, balance and quell the treacherous and darker face of it.

For those who cites majority rules and the minority must accept their fate in the spirit of democracy on the back of the taxi/UBER spat; my understanding of democracy is very different. Democracy is about the majority ensuring the interest and welfare of the minority, in order for the entire society to move forward without anyone being left behind.

The facebook comments surrounding my statement and others’, by and large are based on the the notion of “ if you fail to keep up with times and compete, your demise is your failure; it is no one else’s problem but yours alone”. Let’s not be dragged into the debate of the right or wrong of this frame of mind; for me the conversation should centre around whether or not it is socially just, and economically just. As a DAP member, we should also pose the question of whether or not this thinking holds up to Social Democratic values.

Snippets of the injustices

UBER pays private vehicle insurance premium; Taxi drivers are legally required to be insured as commercial vehicles; this double standard itself is sufficient for anyone to scream injustice. The government may have announced that UBER now needs to acquire commercial insurance, but is that new policy practically enforceable? Can taxis operate whilst insured as a private vehicle? These are questions that are yet to be answered.

UBER vehicles are not subjected to regular PUSPAKOM checks whilst traditional taxis are. This is without delving into the long waits and inefficiency of those checks. If the interest and welfare of the consumer is at the heart of the discussion, shouldn’t this be explored in a more indepth manner?

The rationale behind PUSPAKOM inspections are so that commercial vehicles will be inspected regularly to ensure high mileage related mechanical issues are identified before they cause avoidable traffic mishaps and accidents. For all intents and purposes, UBER vehicles are also susceptible to high mileage and engage in commercial activity; does that mean taxis should be spared of those long agonising waits every 6 months at PUSPAKOM?

If these questions, among many others are answered with real concrete actions by the government, and UBER the company, and there is a consensus achieved between UBER and Taxi drivers with the consumers, then I wouldn’t have anything to talk about. But the reality is, the situation is as blurry and grey as ever before.

With regards to the working welfare of UBER and Taxi drivers, I am of the view that both must be entitled to the same social welfare, protection and safety. Right now, the gaps between both on these matters are far and wide; and we are now starting to see the cracks between UBER drivers and UBER the company emerging with issues surrounding compensation. Can UBER drivers unionise and organise themselves to collectively bargain with UBER the company? This is an entirely separate topic that deserves its very own title which I intend to explore in the near future.

Transcencion from current discourse

The discourse right now, is unfortunately an overly simplistic and polarised one between which is good and which is bad between UBER and the traditional Taxis. And unfortunately the trajectory of

the current discourse is not going to contribute towards solving the systemic problems. There needs to be a holistic, in depth and no holds barred public debate, that is non-discriminatory towards anyone, towards a revolutionised system of governance, management and regulation of the passenger transportation industry.

This new vision of governance must be able to cut out the interests of rent seekers blood sucking for taxi drivers through permits, and large companies profiteering excessively at the expense of drivers welfare and consumers interests. What is demanded here must be a new system that allows healthy competition among operators that is fair, just and open.

And where we start, is to acknowledge that taxi and UBER drivers as the same profession and work, by starting with the realignment of regulatory impositions on both to be consolidated and unified.

A level playing field

Only under a fair competitive environment, will we see the blossoming of better, sustainable, organically more consumer centric manifestations of services to the consumer. Perhaps when taxis enjoy the same liberalised conditions that UBER, such as the non enforcement of licensing; or when UBER starts adhering to commercial requirements to fit their commercial activity, we will see improvements all around.

All in all, what is really important behind this entire debate, is a level playing field. We as Malaysians are only too familiar with competition from an uneven, lopsided playing field right from the starting block, sometimes on ethnic grounds, sometimes on grounds of class and social strata; we need to apply that call for level playing field on this matter too.

#PublicTransport #Taxi #Uber

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