Impending Uber and Grab regulations: revisiting a 1957 discussion on pirate taxis

“Pirate taxis” existed almost as soon taxicabs were introduced in Singapore. A pirate taxi was any private car that ferried passengers at negotiated rates and were unregulated, and unchecked and uninsured.


Photocredit: SPH Asiaone

A 10th August 1946 article on the Singapore Free Press claimed that no fewer than 700 pirate taxis were operating in Singapore at that time versus licensed Yellow Top Taxis that numbered no more than 48. In the mid-60s as many as 4,000 pirate taxis were plying the road. Some older Singaporeans remember pirate taxis fondly. They were much more convenient than buses, and they picked and dropped passengers along the way when asked to. Passengers were jam-packed into the vehicles.

Some rogue operators controlled fleets of pirate taxis and openly flouted regulations. Only the introduction of a diesel tax finally eradicated pirate taxis by July 1971.

Are there parallels between pirate taxis vs Uber and Grab? No other than Christopher Tan, the Senior Transport Correspondent for the Straits Times recently wrote an article on Grab and Uber titled: “Back to the days of “pirate” taxis”

As we await the impending announcements about the Uber and Grab regulations in Singapore, it is instructive to revisit a discussion on pirate taxis almost 60 years ago. Thanks to Hansard, we have very clear details. Here are some excerpts from the Singapore legislative debate on pirate taxis in May 1957.

The then Attorney-General, C. H. Butterfield referred to the Commission of Inquiry into the Public Passenger Transport System of Singapore (1956) that:

“The operation of these ‘pirate’ taxis is in our view a practice which should be stamped out, it permits fares to be charged which would not be possible if the ‘pirate’ taxis paid their proper licence fees. It can undermine the finances of the public services, and in the end result in poorer services for those who rely upon them. It takes business away from the taxis proper, which are regularly inspected and properly licensed. It involves the carriage of passengers without insurance cover, for the insurance policy is invalid in the case of accidents which occur when the vehicles are improperly used. It adds to congestion on the streets, because of the small carrying capacity of the vehicles compared with buses. And in any event it is illegal.”

He went on to say that the two primary objections were a) the lack of insurance and b) that it was difficult to trace a private taxi.

Comment: Proper commercial insurance for Uber and Grab vehicles is available today. Also, it is very easy to track the drivers of each vehicle today.

It is also interesting to note the comments of Mr. Lim Choon Mong who is MP Sylvia Lim’s father

 “The existence of pirate taxis is an evil, not because it comes about of its own free will. It is created by our bad transport system. If our transport system had been good and if it had been convenient for everybody to travel by this means to their places of employment and homes, pirate taxis cannot exist: I should say that people would not even want to own private cars if the public transport system is good. I have been to London and I noticed that they have a good system of public transport. Even owners of cars do not make use of their cars but prefer to use public transport which is cheap and efficient. This evil is not because of anything else, but is due to Government being slow in making this public transport system efficient. Another cause for the existence of pirate taxis, I will say, stems from another fault of the Government – unemployment. Nobody in this world would want to go against the law if he can help it. Nobody would want to operate a pirate taxi knowing that operating it is against the law but when faced with the problem of starvation for himself and for his family because there is no job available, there is a Chinese saying that it is better to postpone death than to have immediate death. In this case, it is unemployment that has caused these pirate taxis to flourish.”

Comment: Today, Singapore has a world-class transportation system of buses and MRTs. Yet Uber and Grab do make the transport system even more efficient.

Mr Lim Cher Kheng noted that:

“I still remember, Sir, during the Hock Lee riots and the strike by the Singapore Traction Company, that I suggested the relaxation of certain measures against the pirate taxis because, during that time, it could be said that our entire transport facilities had come to a stop and that the pirate taxis then rendered a valuable service. They were running in the most reasonable way. For example, I took three trips- : One from Robinson Road to Alexandra Road, for which I paid 50 cents; from Bras Basah Road to Serangoon Road, I paid 70 cents, and from Changi Market to Changi Point, I paid 50 cents. I think it was a wonderful service to the public during that period. Therefore there is a reason for their existence and they could render a valuable service, of course, at a time when we need such services but, of course, we do not hope to have a general transport strike every time.

Sir, I would also remind the House that the rural population always rely on the pirate taxis for their transport which hon. Members who stay in town or who have their own cars may not realise. Sir, as an Assemblyman for the rural areas, I know quite well that the rural people find it hard to get a taxi especially when somebody is sick. They rely mostly on the five or ten pirate taxis run by the kampong folk. The operators of the pirate taxis are also kampong folk and they know one another very well. Therefore, when a member of the family is sick, they simply say, “Come on, I need you. Send us to the hospital or somewhere else.” Therefore I would like to put forward this point for consideration – that in the rural areas, the existence of pirate taxis in many ways has become a necessity.”

Comment: One major advantage of Uber and Grab is the ability to get a vehicle due to the surge pricing formula which matches supply and demand. Commuters are more easily assured that they are able to obtain a ride albeit at a higher price

Let us wait to see the regulatory response!

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