With his $1,400 salary as a delivery driver barely sufficient to cover his mortgage, household expenses and school fees for his two teenage children, Mr Teng Khoon Hai decided to become a cabby six months ago.
The problem was that he did not have the necessary qualifications in English, which meant having to pass a computerised test before he could qualify for a taxi vocational licence, issued by the Singapore Taxi Academy (STA).
Mr Teng failed. But the STA sent him to take an English course conducted by private education institution Kaplan. "The lessons will be of help when I start driving," said the 48-year-old, who has since passed the test and is now waiting to take a competency test for his taxi licence.
He is one of nearly 300 aspiring cabbies who have taken Kaplan's English programme since 2010. Another 200 cabbies from Comfort have also taken the course, which is conducted across 15 three-hour sessions, with an average class size of 15 to 20.
Kaplan trainer Ronald Tan, 55, said most students hardly use English in their daily lives, so initial lessons are devoted to giving them a foundation in English.
Subsequent sessions focus on improving their speaking and listening skills. Role-playing is conducted on scenarios taxi drivers are likely to encounter, such as a passenger asking about additional charges. Students also learn to ask for and give directions, as well as recognise the names of key landmarks and places of interest.
Said Mr Tan: "We focus more on fluency, instead of being grammatical. What's more important is their ability to be understood by others."
The $480 course is largely funded by the Workforce Development Agency (WDA). Aspiring drivers pay $24, while Comfort foots that amount for its drivers. Kaplan said it has held discussions with other taxi operators to include their drivers in the course.
An STA spokesman said the course is vital for older drivers weak in English. "They must have the basic English to handle a broad range of customers, whom they cannot pick and choose."
A driver with Comfort for 29 years, 64-year-old Mohamed Nasir Che'Mat is more fluent in Malay, but having completed the Kaplan course in September, said: "In Singapore, English is important. This course has made me more confident in interacting with passengers."
To qualify for a taxi licence, the STA requires a minimum N-level pass in English, or a Level 3 under WDA's Workplace Literacy Programme to improve English among workers. Barring that, hopefuls will have to pass a test.