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Driving me crazy: A day in the life of a driver

Salim Hashim
Taxi driver Mr Salim Hashim recounts his experiences with fare-dodgers. PHOTO: BRYANT CHAN

The "Better Journeys" series explores how our daily commutes can be made better, with a focus on ride-hailing. In this second instalment, a cabby and two private-hire drivers tell us about some of the worst days they have had at work.

The next time you get in a cab or a private-hire car, bear in mind that while your journey may take just 20 minutes, your driver spends his entire day in the car. Your only job as a passenger is to sit comfortably, while your driver negotiates Singapore traffic as best as he can, day in and day out.

A quick glance at various Facebook groups would give you a feel of the challenges faced by private-hire drivers. These include rude passengers, last-minute cancellations and long waiting times before the passengers show up at their designated pick-up point. 

We spoke with drivers to learn more about their jobs. Here are some of their eyebrow-raising experiences.

Going with the flow

He started driving for Uber in January last year, hoping to earn a modest income. He never expected showers of gold.

But just two weeks into the job, the driver, who is in his 40s, found himself in a challenging situation. He was trapped in heavy traffic with a mother and child in the back seat, when he heard the words that drivers dread: “Mummy, I need to shee-shee.”

Before he could react, he heard a reply that was even more horrifying than the child’s plea: “Okay, just shee-shee here.”

He couldn’t believe his ears. It was a relatively short ride – from Toa Payoh to Kallang – surely a toilet break could wait?

Nonetheless, Mr Chua, who asked that we not use his real name, dutifully drove the duo to their destination. The mother gave him a cursory thanks and walked away with her child, who appeared to be about six years’ old.

car stain
POSED PHOTO: ISTOCK

When they were out of sight, Mr Chua got out of his car to assess the damage. There was a suspicious wet patch on the rear passenger seat. He had to drive to a nearby petrol kiosk and fork out $20 for the seat to be cleaned.

The soft-spoken driver admits he was too flustered to do anything at the time. “What could I do? I was still very new.”

In retrospect, he thinks the mother had a piece of cloth with her to absorb the pee.

Nonetheless, he is less irked by the fact that the child urinated in his car – he understands that some children can’t hold it in – than the fact that she didn’t even ask for his permission.

“Is this how you raise the next generation, that you can just pee in someone else’s car?” He shakes his head in disappointment. “The most basic courtesy would be to at least ask for permission.”

Mr Chua now rents a car with leather seats and keeps a secret weapon in it: a plastic bag for “emergencies”.

They’ve got the power

Some drivers leave bottled water in the back seat for their passengers, while others leave candy for a sweeter ride.

In the same vein, Grab driver Westin Chong, 39, used to leave his powerbank in the cupholder of his car for passengers to charge their devices. Most were grateful for the extra juice. Some would even commend him for his consideration.

But one particular middle-aged rider seemed to take offence at Mr Chong’s charity.

“Don’t you know someone could steal this?” the passenger had asked, brandishing the powerbank.

As it turns out, the passenger used to be a private-hire driver himself, who also used to offer passengers a cable to charge their devices – until it was stolen.

Powerbank
POSED PHOTO: BRYANT CHAN

Mr Chong told his passenger that it was a risk he was willing to take, as long as it made his passengers happy.

“How much do you earn from driving?” the passenger demanded.

When Mr Chong explained that he was also a part-time tuition teacher, the passenger berated him – in a mix of Hokkien and English – for stealing jobs from people who “rightfully deserve” them by holding two jobs at the same time.

 

“It’s your fault that society is turning out like this,” he spat, jabbing Mr Chong with an admonishing finger.

His heart pounding, Mr Chong quickly drove the aggravated passenger to his destination. But that was not enough for the passenger. “I’m taking this powerbank,” he shouted, and took off with it.

Mr Chong was so shocked that he didn’t fully process that he had been robbed until five minutes later. Still in a daze, he drove to the nearest police station and filed a report.

Although reluctant to provide another powerbank, Mr Chong is considering getting a USB car charger for his passengers’ use in the future.

Drive and dash

Mr Salim Hashim has learnt to pick his battles after driving for 31 years.

He admits he used to be famously confrontational. But he adds that he was a younger man back then, one who was in better shape and who had one less heart attack under his belt.

Still, there is one group of passengers he has never been able to tolerate.

He and all of his colleagues have had their fair share of drive-and-ditch passengers – those who immediately dash off without paying once they’ve reached their destination.

The main culprits tend to be schoolchildren, he says. “Sometimes you can tell that they’re going to be trouble just by their body language.”

While some run off at full pelt, others are more devious. One passenger, claiming to have no money in his wallet, said he would go up to his flat to get cash.

Mr Salim waited and waited. The passenger didn’t return. Ten minutes turned into 20 minutes, which became half an hour. Mr Salim decided he couldn’t wait any longer and left.

While most are children, Mr Salim’s most memorable fare-dodger was in 2009: a man in suit and tie, and clutching an expensive-looking leather briefcase, heading to Balmoral Gardens.

When Mr Salim pulled up outside the condo, the man passed him a company card. “Uncle, I have no money now, so tomorrow you can come look for me at my office,” he said, before leaving.

 

Mr Salim didn’t even bother trying to chase after him. At 66 years old, he’s decided it’s just easier to let them go.

Of course he incurs a loss – a passenger who doesn’t pay doesn’t just waste his time, he explains. It’s litres of fuel he will never get back, as well as the opportunity cost of not having picked up a paying passenger.

“They know diesel isn’t free,” he says. “They know rental isn’t free. But for some reason, they will still try to cheat you.”

But there is little recourse for fare-dodgers who flag down cabs on the street rather than booking through an app. There’s nothing Mr Salim can do about it, and the sooner he reminds himself of that fact, the easier it is to deal with it.

“I just take it that it’s not my lucky day,” he says with a shrug.