On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Time cabbies play by the rules

From refusing to go to certain destinations or use the meter to taking circuitous routes to get from one point to another, these are horror stories of taxi drivers shared by many regular commuters.

Admittedly, there are good and decent cabbies doing their work honestly but, unfortunately, there are many others who take every opportunity to rip off their passengers. And when their targets are tourists, you can be sure that their notoriety will gain worldwide attention.

Which is why, in a recent ranking of the worst taxi drivers worldwide by LondonCabs.co.uk, the cabbies of Kuala Lumpur made it right at the top of the list.

Often, taxi drivers are the first to meet up with tourists, but some have badly tarnished the tourism image of Malaysia because of their attitude and cheating ways. One only has to surf the many travel websites to have an idea of what foreigners who have visited KL think of them.

Last week, an official from a taxi drivers’ association called the news desk of this newspaper to voice his unhappiness over how the issue of the free Go-KL bus service in the Bukit Bintang area has been reported.

My colleague who took the call politely told the official that he should perhaps try getting a ride on a taxi himself and see if he can find anyone who is prepared to use the meter for travel within the busiest part of Kuala Lumpur.

To prove our point, the news desk decided to ask our reporter, Natalie Heng, who is of English-Malaysian Chinese parentage, to pose as a tourist from London.

Heng speaks and writes Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and English but is also able to speak like a BBC newscaster if she wants to.

She was asked to try out the taxis around Bukit Bintang – where hundreds of taxi drivers staged a protest last week, bringing the city to a standstill for hours, over the free Go-KL City Bus service.

When Heng came back from the assignment, she had nothing positive to report as she related her experience to us. She was practically a victim of “daylight robbery” as almost all the drivers believed she was a foreigner with her Caucasian look and British accent.

In the Go-KL protest, some 200 cabbies gathered outside the Fahrenheit shopping complex during the evening rush hour. They parked their vehicles right in the middle of the road as they staged their noisy protest. They told reporters that their livelihood was being affected because the Go-KL bus service passed through the most popular destinations. They also complained about alleged harassment by the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD).

However, they did not say or, rather, acknowledge that the authority was finally enforcing the rules on those who break them as a matter of course. Certainly, they were surprised that in the court of public opinion, they had no supporters whatsoever.

Badge of dishonour

The KL taxi drivers may even want to dispute their ranking as the worst taxi drivers in the world, but those of us who travel far and wide know that this is a badge of dishonour which they must discard for their own good, and also for the good of our country’s image.

Visitors to our country, when they share their experiences, are generally pleased with our good food, nice people, and the fact that most Malaysians can speak English. They may complain now and again about how dirty KL has become, the uneven kerbs around Bukit Bintang, dirty eateries around Jalan Alor, and not enough policemen on the beat. But they always have lots to say about our horrible taxi drivers.

There are free bus serv­ices available in the city circuits of Manchester, Auckland, Melbourne and Sydney, for example. These services are used by city folk, which helps to reduce their financial burden, and also by tourists.

In the case of the Go-KL buses, all the 15 vehicles are disabled-friendly, WiFi-enabled, and are equipped with security cameras to ensure the safety of passengers. They also have GPS on board and enforcement officers often travel incognito with the passengers.

That’s not all. The bus service is also reportedly eco-friendly as, according to a report, a sapling will be planted for every cumulative 1,000km travelled to offset the estimated carbon emission of 0.11 metric tonnes. Thinking ahead, the worn-out tyres will be used to create artificial reefs to help restore damaged coral reefs.

Our KL taxi drivers simply have to accept the reality that competition is good. They also need to get their act together if they want to continue sharing the tourism pie. They will have passengers if they are honest and act as friendly ambassadors of the country.

Those of us who travel overseas always appreciate the fact that taxi drivers are practically like tourist guides. Our taxi drivers prefer to talk about politics, regular passengers tell me.

Our KL taxi drivers can learn from their Japanese counterparts. Although fares in Japan are reputed to be the most expensive in the world, taxi drivers there are well-groomed right down to their gloved hands, and they do not accept tips. They issue receipts without being asked, and even if communication problems arise, a passenger will never feel that he could have been ripped off.

The Prime Minister deserves our applause for pushing ahead with the inner city free bus shuttle service and also the hefty discount on KTM commuter rides for the distressed middle-class, senior citizens and students.

The taxi drivers must not see such measures as taking away their livelihood but as a challenge of the changing times.

Let’s not be cowed by the possibility of these disgruntled taxi drivers getting opportunistic politicians to take up their cause because of the impending general election.

Let them whine as much as they want: Go-KL deserves our support. The silent majority must speak up for what is good for them.