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Image credit: Channel News Asia

The taxi drivers are going to be fine.

This is the conclusion that keeps getting left out of thought pieces and op-eds on Singapore’s taxi vs uber-grab rivalry.

In an opinion piece published earlier today, Straits Times writer Adrian Lim ruminates on what’s being done to regulate private car-hire companies. He discusses levelling the playing field for taxi companies, before also casually mentioning that this will keep their drivers in business.

But like many commentators before him, he forgets that it’s the taxi service that has been disrupted, and not the drivers themselves. If Comfort Delgro shuts down, taxi drivers can always drive for Grab or Uber should they choose to do so. This is obviously different from soon-to-be-launched transport tech like driverless cars, where jobs could really be at stake.

Instead of dealing with this issue, Lim simply brushes it aside by saying that many taxi drivers “are less educated and might not be able to find other jobs, let alone work for app outfits like Uber.”

This is a dangerous and patronising assumption to make. First of all, it assumes that many taxi drivers are incapable of operating a mobile phone app, which is completely ridiculous. Secondly, by over-emphasising the supposedly defeatist attitudes of taxi drivers, such opinions give taxi companies a convenient excuse not to innovate.

So when talking about the taxis v Uber-Grab issue, we should actively distinguish between the real stakeholders (Comfort Delgo etc and whatever agenda they are trying to push) and the taxi drivers, whose jobs aren’t exactly in immediate peril (at least not in the way the media makes it out to be).

one can’t help but wonder if this is truly an opinion piece, or simply lobbying in disguise

To this end, much has been said so far about Singapore’s taxi companies needing to innovate or die. Yet few noticeable changes have been made. The mileage quota has been scrapped, and the duration of the taxi driver’s vocational license course has been reduced.

But by constantly mentioning these measures, writers like Lim also overlook how taxi companies have failed to realise the battle they’re really fighting: Public Relations.

If taxi drivers aren’t nasty, they’re always either changing shifts or unwilling to take you to an inconvenient destinations. These are complaints we’ve heard countless times. Yet most taxi users will agree that these guys are the exception rather than the norm—which is why they stand out.

If their service standards are indeed lacking, perhaps taxi companies need to start re-looking how drivers are being trained. If taxi drivers are stereotyped as being rude and uncouth, then it’s a branding problem they need to address.

The truth is, taxi drivers aren’t any more or less rude than the ones from Uber or Grab. The only difference is that the latter two companies are better at containing public feedback. If you encounter poor service in an Uber, you can complain within the app itself, and a rebate appeases you. It quickly gives a baby that’s about to cry its milk bottle, so to speak.

One could argue that if the taxi companies worked on its image and customer service the same way, public perception of their service standards would be terribly different. Accordingly, taxi companies might then find themselves in a better position to compete, instead of constantly whining about the need to even the playing field.

With The Straits Times framing this issue around the need to save jobs, one can’t help but wonder if this is truly an opinion piece, or simply lobbying in disguise.

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