For the first time since ride-hailing apps appeared six years ago, commuters can look forward to a formal licensing regime that allows the authorities to mandate safety standards and act against breaches.
Senior Minister of State for Transport Janil Puthucheary announced in Parliament yesterday that there will be two licences: One for street-hail operators (currently, taxi companies) and the other for ride-hail operators (such as Grab and Gojek).
Operators with at least 800 vehicles on their platform must apply for a licence.
Those with smaller fleets will have to apply for an exemption, said Dr Janil, when he put the Point-to-Point Passenger Transport Industry Bill up for debate.
Those caught providing a service without a licence or exemption will face a fine of up to $10,000, jail time of up to six months, or both. A further fine of up to $500 for each day the offence continues after conviction will be imposed.
It will also be an offence to drive for such operators.
Despite repeated calls from various quarters for the minimum age of private-hire drivers to be raised, for private-hire fleet sizes to be capped and for the statutory lifespan of for-hire vehicles to be fixed, the Bill did not seek to change the status quo.
Instead, Dr Janil stressed that with the licensing regime, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) will have tighter control on safety. It will track the number of accidents and driver offences.
POWER TO PENALISE
Operators whose drivers have committed too many accidents or offences can be penalised through regulatory sanctions.
SENIOR MINISTER OF STATE FOR TRANSPORT JANIL PUTHUCHEARY, on the licensing regime allowing the Land Transport Authority to have tighter control on safety.
"Operators whose drivers have committed too many accidents or offences can be penalised through regulatory sanctions," he said.
These companies will also have to ensure their vehicles are "well maintained and serviceable, for the safety of commuters, drivers and other road users", he added.
Dr Janil disclosed that Singapore now has about 20,000 taxis and 45,000 private-hire cars.
More than two-thirds of all point-to-point commutes are made via ride-hailing apps, with the rest being street-hails.
Dr Janil said operators will not be allowed to offer drivers exclusive arrangements that prevent them from driving for other operators.
For fare-related matters, the Public Transport Council will oversee things to ensure that rates are posted upfront. The council will also have powers to deal with cases of overcharging and fare evasion.
MPs explored several issues in a lively debate yesterday, with Workers' Party Non-Constituency members Leon Perera and Dennis Tan touching on the future employability of young people currently drawn to driving for a living, Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) making an impassioned case for taxis to have child seats, and Nominated MP Walter Theseira speaking on the emergence of ride-hailing apps on social media and messaging groups that do not fall within the ambit of the Bill.
Notwithstanding these concerns, MPs supported the Bill. The new licensing regime tabled will kick in from June next year, and application opens in February.
Commenting on the Bill, Mr Ang Hin Kee, adviser to both the National Taxi Association and the National Private Hire Vehicles Association, and an advocate for a more level playing field in the industry, said: "We have arrived at such a Bill without massive protests or strikes by cabbies - unlike elsewhere.
"We will continue to ask that the other recommendations be taken in. They need not be under the new Bill, but could be regulations decided by the LTA."
Ms Tammy Tan, spokesman for transport giant ComfortDelGro, said the new regulatory framework "is definitely a step in the right direction as it levels the playing field a bit more and creates a more sustainable competing environment".
A Grab spokesman welcomed the Bill, saying the new regulations can help to ensure greater protection for commuters.
He added: "Ride-hail and carpool platform operators should be required to build in-app safety features. Grab continues to advocate for child-seat requirements in all vehicles.
"We are also heartened that all operators will be prohibited from offering platform-exclusive arrangements. However, we call on the LTA to address the current inconsistency whereby taxi operators can restrict their drivers from taking fixed-fare jobs on other platforms as soon as possible, to ensure drivers have real freedom of choice."
Added a Gojek spokesman: "We believe that a policy environment that protects commuters and drivers as well as an open and contestable market are integral to maintaining Singapore's position as a key market for urban mobility in South-east Asia."