I remembered when I was at Vivocity waiting for cabs, I saw many limo cabs (usually mercedes cabs) that are empty, are not on call and their hirers seem to be waiting for some customers. The queue at Vivocity wasn’t particularly long but it usually meant a 30 to 45 minutes wait at the taxi stand. After 5 minutes, my friend gave up waiting and decided to call a cab.

Of course, none of the limo cabs bidded for the call (that only happens at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal), but I quickly saw some action taking place – taxi drivers were touting for customers, particularly Indonesian visitors. I wanted to take a photo of it, but by then I have to move off. That impression was left in my head for quite a long time.

Today, I realised why.

TAXI touts might look like lone operators trying their luck every now and then but the business is a slick, well-organised racket, with teamwork the key.

The touts operate in groups, from the small-timers with fewer than 10 members to the more established ones with up to 170 or more in their ranks.

They could be from different taxi firms but they all carry a walkie-talkie tuned to the same frequency and used for sharing customers.

They pay a monthly fee, nominate their own leaders and have regular meetings, according to 10 taxi drivers The Sunday Times spoke to. There is even a special ‘walkie-talkie lingo’ that has evolved to keep any eavesdroppers guessing.

ComfortDelGro, Singapore’s largest taxi firm, said it was aware of such groups and is working with the authorities to ‘stop their prevalence’.

Cabbies told The Sunday Times that the groups were initially formed about 10 years ago for more social purposes.

Drivers would alert one another if business was brisk at certain spots or if traffic police were on patrol. But in recent years, they have found a new use for the network.

Assignments come crackling through their walkie-talkies, either from their operators or fellow group members specifying the fixed rate for the ride and the amount of commission they want.

Passengers can be charged a flat fare of between $25 and $50 during peak hours or $8 plus the metered fee for non-peak periods.

The bigger touting clubs station operators at a call centre. These operators take calls from passengers who do not mind the higher fares. Once a customer has been lined up, the job is assigned to member cabbies on the roads.

Clubs publicise hotlines by distributing fliers and cards in neighbourhoods like Bukit Timah where cabs are hard to come by.

‘Those tired of staying on hold for a cab on the official taxi hotlines will then turn to us,’ said a Comfort limousine cabby who has been driving for 11 years and who wanted to be known only as MrGoh. ‘But, of course, they have to pay a higher price.’

The more brazen operators loiter outside hotels and nightspots, approaching foreigners reluctant to join the snaking taxi queues.

Deal struck, they page for a member willing to take the passenger – but not before bargaining for a cut.

‘If he says: ‘Member, 25.5 Clarke Quay to Bishan’, that means he’s going to take a $5 cut out of the $25 fare,’ said Mr Goh, who has been in a club for 10 years.

These street operators could also be cabbies but some no longer drive.

While the bigger clubs have their own operators, cabbies in humbler groups just use their walkie-talkies to pass on jobs – for a cut.

Another Comfort limo driver said: ‘If my regular customer calls and I’m not in the area, I pass it on to my members. But, of course, I get between $1 and $5 in commission.’

Every month, some clubs hold meetings at hawker centres where members ‘settle each others’ commissions’, said Mr Goh.

While getting into a club through recommendation is relatively easy, staying in one means behaving well.

‘If you don’t pay up or are always late for jobs, you can be banned or suspended for three days and no jobs will be passed to you,’ he said.

Cabbies also pay monthly membership fees of between $28 and $40. Besides paying the street operators, the fund is used for weddings and funerals, and during festive occasions such as the Hungry Ghost Festival.

A walkie-talkie lingo has also developed with terms such as ‘there’s a monkey’, ‘can tell’ and ‘good bite’.

‘Monkey’ refers to a policeman while ‘can tell’ and ‘good bite’ signal the presence of ignorant tourists who are easy prey.

While group members fatten their wallets with high fares, cabbies out to make an honest living are fed up.

One Trans-Cab cabby said: ‘It’s unfair as we’re getting a bad name because of them, yet the taxi companies are not taking action.’

Another cabby, who drives a Comfort limo, said he did not report the touting drivers because ‘some of them are my friends’.

Meanwhile, Mr Goh carries on touting, unafraid of getting caught.

He said: ‘The taxi companies don’t care what we do, as long as we pay the rent!’

Article from straitstimes.com on 4th November 2007

What’s particularly interesting was what Mr Goh, a taxi driver said, “… the taxi companies don’t care what we do, as long as we pay the rent…”. So, does this mean that as long as the cab companies get their daily rents from all their cabbies, they probably won’t bother much about the peak hour rush and the apparent insufficient number of cabs on the roads? Is this why the solution to solving peak hour rush is always to increase peak hour surcharges for the customers before increasing rent for the cabbies (according to a few drivers that I have spoken to)?

Hmm… pondering.



Reader's Comments

  1. Miccheng | November 4th, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    With so many cabs on the road now, and the high rental fees for the limo cabs, its little wonder that such groups have developed. To be honest, even if the limo is booked in advanced, they charge a flat rate of $35 for transfers (point A to B – usually from airport to hotel or vice versa) or a metered rate. So its really not that unusual.

    Do you know how difficult it is to call a cab during peak hours? I have used this service before and its quite good – highly responsive. Its a mechanism to handle certain imperfections in the current cab booking systems.

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