Tales of a taxi ‘Uncle’

ST manpower correspondent Toh Yong Chuan steps into the shoes of a Singapore taxi driver
From the surly to the genial, it is passengers who make or break your day. But the pressure sure piles up

PUBLISHED ON DEC 1, 2014
BY TOH YONG CHUAN MANPOWER CORRESPONDENT

On my fourth day as a taxi driver, I drove for six hours at night with just one five-minute toilet break.

It was past midnight when I headed home and absent-mindedly got into the wrong lane at the junction of Bishan Road and Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1. The traffic lights turned green and I took off, almost hitting another taxi.

When I got home, my wife greeted me with a hug and said: “You have the taxi driver smell.”

“It is the smell of hard work,” I said. It was the odour of being cooped up for hours in stale air. I didn’t mention my near accident.

I have always been fascinated by cabbies. As a manpower reporter, I have interviewed numerous drivers, yet there remained so much I did not know about them. Topmost on my mind as I embarked on a two-week stint as a cabby were these questions: How hard is it to be a cabby? And how much can a cabby earn?

So my SMRT cab, a Toyota Prius with the registration number SHC4123S, became my second home for 10 to 12 hours a day. I split a typical day into two, plying the roads from 6.30am to 11am, and from 5pm until I was too tired to go on.

Every morning I would head first to Serangoon North or Ang Mo Kio housing estate, near my home. There are always passengers going to work from Housing Board estates.

After that, there was no telling where I would end up.

I thought I knew Singapore well, but my stint as a cabby took me to places I never knew existed. I picked up passengers from obscure spots like a sprawling offshore marine base in Loyang, and Punggol Seventeenth Avenue in an area that somehow doesn’t have Avenues One to Sixteen.

I discovered that Tampines housing estate is so huge it is sandwiched between Tampines Expressway and the Pan Island Expressway, and is accessible via no fewer than seven expressway entrances and exits. I found myself in Tampines almost every other day during my cab driving stint.

Lessons from passengers

On Day 1, my first passenger was a man in his 30s, dressed in a blue long-sleeved shirt and black trousers.

He got into my cab at 6.50am along Ang Mo Kio Avenue 9 and said: “Pandan Crescent, go by Upper Thomson, Lornie, Farrer, AYE.”

Those were the only words he uttered and he kept his eyes locked on his smartphone for the rest of the journey. He did not notice that in my excitement at picking up my first fare, I had forgotten to start the meter until about seven minutes into the trip. His fare was $23.73 and I must have saved him about $2.

He gave me a hint of what was to come – that most passengers prefer to be left alone.

The rest of that day took me to Changi Airport, Bedok, Pickering Street, Alexandra Road, Amoy Street and Upper Bukit Timah Road in the morning. That evening, I went to Serangoon Road, Mount Vernon Road, Yishun, Woodlands, Sembawang Road, Tampines, Bedok, Bishan and Paya Lebar.

All my passengers were people who flagged me on the street. I was not confident enough to respond to radio bookings, which would have needed me to reach the pick-up point within five, seven or nine minutes of a call. So I ended up cruising empty most of that day, with the longest stretch of over an hour in Woodlands.

My best passenger was a woman in her early 40s who got into my cab along Alexandra Road. I chatted with her and eventually revealed that I was driving the cab for charity. She handed me $12 for her fare of $11.18 when she reached her Amoy Street office and said: “Keep the change.”

The worst experience was after I picked up a woman at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in the evening. She wanted to go to a condominium in Jalan Mata Ayer, off Sembawang Road, which I was unfamiliar with. She was from Myanmar, and I misunderstood her directions, given in halting English. When I took a wrong turn, she let fly with a rebuke in Myanmarese. The taxi meter showed $9.44 but I said she could pay just $8. That pacified her a little.

My first day ended at midnight when I pulled into my regular Caltex petrol station in Lorong Chuan to refuel and wash the cab. My usual car washer Zainal did not recognise me until I waved at him – twice. “Times are bad huh? You started driving taxi part-time?” he asked.

I was too tired to explain. I had driven 246km and taken 14 people on 13 trips. My takings, after deducting petrol cost, taxi rental and $4 for washing the cab, came to just $29.66 for 12 hours’ work.

Thankfully, things got better over the following days. I kept to the same work routine except on weekends, when I drove from noon to midnight.

By the end of Day 2, I had fine-tuned my greetings to these:

“Good morning, Sir!”

“Good evening, Madam!”

“Heading to work, Sir?”

“Going shopping, Madam?”

“You’re going to work early, Sir!”

“Long day at work, Madam?”

If the passenger did not reply or uttered only a monosyllabic answer, I took it as my cue to be quiet and to just drive.

Passengers travelling in groups tend to ignore the cabby, talking among themselves as if you are not there. So I couldn’t help overhearing people complaining about the Government, and workers complaining about their bosses. A young couple having a tiff complained about each other all the way from Sembawang Shopping Centre to Toa Payoh Lorong 1. “I am breaking off with you,” yelled the woman as she stormed off.

There were some passengers who, literally, made me feel sick.

Like the young woman I picked up in Jurong East who coughed and sneezed all the way to Choa Chu Kang. When it came time for her to pay, I hesitated when she handed me the money. After she left, I sprayed the cab generously with the Lysol disinfectant I kept in the cab’s glove compartment.

Then there was the man who sounded like he was from China. Getting into my cab near Bugis Junction, he burped. And burped. And burped. It was obvious that he had just eaten “ma la huo guo”, or spicy steamboat, for dinner.

An elderly man who got into my cab in Coleman Lane, at the Grand Park City Hall hotel, wanted me to reverse about two car lengths back into Coleman Street to avoid going round the block so he would save 30 cents.

In Chinatown, a man heading for South Bridge Road told me to take a “short cut” through Temple Street from New Bridge Road. I did, only to find traffic at a standstill along Temple Street – and that was when he paid up and jumped out, leaving me stuck for 15 minutes.

I have to say something about people who eat in taxis. While drivers cannot stop people from eating in their cabs, most dislike it because of the smell and the mess left behind. Thankfully I met only one passenger who ate on the go. The young mother insisted on feeding her toddler biscuits despite my asking her not to eat in the cab.

“The boy is hungry,” she insisted.

They left such a mess that I had to spend 30 minutes and more than half their $8.30 fare to have the cab cleaned at a petrol station.

My most unpleasant ride of all was with a woman in her 50s who complained non-stop about my driving from Tagore Industrial Park to Yishun Avenue 3. Her beef was that I drove too slowly and braked too hard.

“You are a new driver and it is my bad luck getting into your cab,” she ranted. “I was planning to buy 4D but I will not, because it is bad luck meeting you.”

I just bit my tongue.

But my worst passengers were the ones I never met. They were the people who made taxi bookings, then failed to show up.

On a rainy Wednesday morning I was in Telok Blangah Way when I accepted a call booking for Delta Avenue, and headed there rightaway. It took five minutes and I passed more than five passengers trying to hail cabs in the rain. When I got to the pick-up point, the passenger was nowhere to be found.

It was one of three “no shows” I encountered during my stint. Taxi drivers are helpless when this happens.

Each day, however, I would meet at least one or two passengers who stood out by being pleasant, saying “please” or “thank you”, or making conversation that helped to make a lonely job less monotonous.

I took three British Airways pilots from Mandarin Hotel in Orchard Road to the Esplanade, where they were going to have supper at Makansutra Gluttons Bay. When we got there, they invited me to join them. “C’mon, take a break,” one of them said, and he meant it. I declined because I was just too tired.

A teacher and an architect who spoke with me long enough to learn I was a reporter on assignment and that all my earnings would go to charity paid me in $50 notes and told me to keep the change – which added up to $43.

A passenger I took from the Botanic Gardens to Battery Road sent SMRT an e-mail complimenting me, saying: “I feel that he really went the extra mile to provide a comfortable journey for all his customers and I am really impressed. Thank you, Uncle!”

It made my day.

As my days of being a cabby progressed, I found that my earnings were decent, if not very high.

The most I earned in a single day – after driving 12 hours and deducting what a cabby usually pays for taxi rental and fuel – was $141. It would mean a monthly income of more than $4,000 if every day was like that and I worked a full month. My typical daily takings were between $90 and $100, or about $3,000 a month, and even that would call for driving 10 to 12 hours a day, with no day off.

The median gross monthly income of Singaporeans and permanent residents in June this year, excluding employers’ CPF contributions, was $3,276.

My stint was too short for me to befriend other cabbies at coffeeshops, but I managed to pick up some secrets of the trade.

It’s easy to get passengers in the morning when people are heading to work from HDB estates.
To earn $3 more in the evening, go into the CBD and pick up passengers while the CBD surcharge applies from 5pm to midnight. Sorry, but people waiting just outside the CBD will have to just keep waiting. Even inside the CBD, cabs will be scarce just before the surcharge hours begin.
Heartland towns like Woodlands and Sembawang offer slim pickings in the evenings, because residents hardly go out then. But hospitals everywhere are good places to find passengers, especially after evening visiting hours.
Overall, demand for taxis far exceeds supply during the morning and evening peak hours, so a cabby who is disciplined about driving during these periods can earn a decent living.
There are downsides as well.

The long hours on the road affected my sleep, and most nights I slept barely six hours. By Day 3, I was resorting to taking two Panadols before hitting the road.

Backaches were a frequent bother, from sitting so long.

Cabbies need toilet breaks, and the most convenient stops are at petrol stations. I found that many do not have soap, and at a Geylang petrol station, the toilet has no door.

There are simply no convenient public toilets in the Orchard Road area for taxi drivers, but I discovered that the Ba’alwie Mosque off Dunearn Road lets cabbies use its toilet. I blessed the good people of the mosque when I needed to go desperately one night.

My cab-driving days ended on Day 11 of my stint. It wasn’t a good day for me.

Early that morning the 16-year-old schoolboy in my cab was late for school and begged me to drive faster. I relented, stepped on the gas and ran a red light at 6.47am. Instantly, there were two camera flashes and I knew I had been caught by the traffic light camera. That meant $200 gone in less than a second – my earnings from about 18 hours of work!

But that wasn’t why I stopped driving. The trouble had begun two days earlier, when I discovered I’d developed a haemorrhoid from nine days of sitting for hours. I learnt that haemorrhoids are a common ailment among cabbies, along with backaches and high blood pressure.

The pain had become unbearable, so I decided to end my cab-driving experiment three days earlier than planned.

A month later, the traffic summons arrived. I hoped the Traffic Police would be sympathetic, but my appeal drew a swift rejection and a chiding: “Make a conscious effort to comply with traffic rules and regulations which are made for your own safety and that of other road users.”

Looking back, I still wonder why even passengers much older than me called me “Uncle”. It seems that if you drive a taxi in Singapore, you’re everyone’s Uncle or Auntie.

I returned the cab to SMRT after clocking 2,739km, having earned $2,294.60 for charity and gaining a newfound respect for taxi drivers.

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