Sunday, 2 November 2014

Singapore Booming Taxi Booking Apps..

Flagging Billboards at Bukit Merah View Hawker Center,

"Uncle, STOP!!.a deafening scream suddenly pierced into my ears.

"You almost bang into the car in front. You can go and die but I don't want to die young, ok!", my lady passenger furiously scolded me.

Yes, I had committed the most unforgivable sin for working on a third-party taxi booking Apps with my cellphone while driving. I could have landed with a hefty fine, jail, revoked license and worst of all, destroyed or killed an innocent life if a fatal accident had happened. I had absolutely no excuse for my "horrendous crime" and begged for her forgiveness.

The dangers of using handphone while driving is well understood and yet it is an incorrigible habit of many drivers worldwide.

Lately, taxi drivers in Singapore are incentivized and bombarded with an explosion of third-party taxi booking Apps like GrabTaxi (Malaysia, Oct 2013), EasyTaxi (Brazil, Dec 2013), Uber (USA, Sept, 2014) and Hailo (Nov, 2014). A lot had been written about these Apps in the press and blogsphere. You may want to read them at these links..(Boom In Taxi Booking Apps) (Vulcanpost - GrabTaxi) ( Say-Hello-to-Hailo-Apps ) (Mr. Tan Kim Lian Apps)         

As anticipated, our transport authority is now mulling to control and regulate these Apps as their impact on public transportation system grows. Currently, technological companies that operate these Apps are not regulated. Now, tell me, which business or part of our daily life is not regulated by PAP?.

Nevertheless, as a taxi driver, I think the need to use a handphone to work on these Apps while driving has the most dangerous impact on me and my passengers. If an increase in regulation is indeed required for the use of these Apps, scholars at LTA should focus more on the safety impact of these Apps rather than the economic impact on Government coffers. I hope Mr. Ang Hin Kee (PAP MP and advisor for National Taxi Association) will also focus more on the welfare of taxi drivers instead of finding faults with these Apps companies, echoing LTA views or protecting GLC taxi operators interests. 

Although a proposed amendment to Road Traffic Act next year will make using or holding a mobile device while driving a more serious traffic offense with stiffer penalties, all laws will never eliminate diehards. There will always be law-breakers. Which taxi driver never make an illegal U-turn to catch a passenger faster?. In their natural anxiety to improve their income, surely more taxi drivers will lose their vocational license and livelihood when caught using these Apps while driving.

While it is an offence when a driver holds a phone and uses it to communicate with someone else through voice or texting, it is not against the law to use the phone or other mobile devices if it is mounted on a holder under the existing and new law.  

In this respect and for the safety of drivers and passengers, the technologies companies that operates the taxi booking Apps should be legislated to compulsorily provide a strong, adjustable and detachable holder to their drivers. Apart from providing the free device holder, they should also provide a "handphone or communicating device" solely delegated for use on their Apps only. Uber had done this!. I hope the other three techno companies would follow soon if they want more taxi drivers to join them. The investment in providing these additional "safe working devices" would be recovered in the long run with more drivers in their fold.  

As you probably know, when I was a COMFORT driver, I was not interested in these Apps because COMFORT provides me with more call bookings than I could handle. Then, I could pick and choose which call booking I want to oblige or entertain. I've no competitor fighting for my call booking. I would avoid Mrs.India and grab Mrs. Europe as I've the luxury of choices. My poorer cousins then in SMRT, Transcab, Premier and Prime do not enjoy such luxury as they have few call booking.    

Sad to say, to this day many gullible taxi commuters still assumed that they could get a taxi faster through COMFORT call booking just because COMFORT has the biggest fleet of taxi here. Unfortunately, when making a call booking to COMFORT, especially during peak hours, they would often get a recorded message saying that "no taxis are available in their area. please call back ten minutes later". It was usually a big hassle to book a taxi with COMFORT. In reality, there were tens of taxis in their area waiting for call booking, except that they were not COMFORT taxis but SMRT, Transcab, Premier or Prime taxis. The latter were ignored and therefore had few call booking jobs.

However, when a person uses EasyTaxi, GrabTaxi, Uber or Hailo, instead of calling COMFORT, he/she could get a taxi faster, for the simple reason that the call booking goes to all brands of participating taxis in the vicinity instead of just COMFORT taxis.

A total of six taxi companies operate nearly 28,000 taxis here. If all the 28,000 taxis use the various Apps, it means more taxis are available for booking than the 16,000 COMFORT taxis! Unfortunately, if more taxis are occupied with booking jobs, less taxis will be available for street pick-up jobs. But from a national perspective, if more taxi rides are made through call booking, less taxis will need to cruise empty on the road hunting for passengers. Taxi drivers can stay stationary off the roads to answer call booking, thereby resulting in less traffic congestion, accidents, pollution and fuel wastage, among other benefits.

Unlike selfish COMFORT who warned their drivers against using the Apps, the enlightened SMRT collaborated with HAILO and encourages their drivers to use the Apps to earn more.        

For too long, COMFORT's taxi drivers and commuters alike had to endure and live with monopolistic, inefficient and arrogant COMFORT. In the not too distant future, when these technology companies accelerate their marketing push to get more taxi drivers and commuters onto their bandwagons, COMFORT will feel the heat of competition especially when there is an exodus of drivers joining the poorer cousins who now has equally abundant call bookings. It is a fact that many taxi drivers join COMFORT only because of their copious call booking and nothing else.

Taxi Drivers Crowding to Join Apps.

At this juncture, I would like to share with you my observations, thoughts and experiences in using these Apps for the last two weeks as a taxi driver.

Two weeks ago, I went to the popular Bukit Merah View hawker center for my lunch break. As soon as I got out from my cab in the car park, a young lady approached me with a EasyTaxi leaflet and started her sweet sales talk to persuade me to sign up as a EasyTaxi driver. I happily joined EasyTaxi without hesitation and in seconds, she downloaded and activate the system application of EasyTaxi available in the Google Store of my cheap Samsung ACE android smartphone. Instantly, I could accept call booking.

The other three Apps companies ( GrabTaxi, Hailo and Uber) were also present inside the hawker center, with hundreds of eager taxi drivers queuing to sign up. With four huge billboards flagging on that windy day, the "makan" place was turned into a busy exhibition hall of Apps companies.

Many GrabTaxi drivers came to top-up their credit to use for paying the 30 cents tax for every job done through GrabTaxi Apps. In less than hour, I observed at least twenty drivers came to top up their credit in cash of between $20 to $50 through Mr.JingWei's mobile device. I understand that in future, GrabTaxi will allow their drivers to do this top up at any AXS machine. On that day, it seems that GrabTaxi was the most popular Apps company in the hawker center because of these top up visitors. 

But most drivers were crowding around the Uber table and joining them because Uber was providing a free delegated Iphone to solely use their application and a holder for the Iphone to mount onto the taxi windscreen. This Iphone cannot be used as an ordinary smartphone. 

Uber is also unique because they accept non-taxi driver to join their rank. As long as you own an acceptable car and is their approved driver, they will provide you with taxi booking jobs and you can use your private car to ferry your assigned passengers like a chauffeur. But you certainly cannot ply the street with your private car to ferry passengers like normal taxi drivers. 

The enterprising Prime Taxi company is collaborating with Uber to lease out their fleet of private car at $55.50 per day to anyone who is interested in the taxi business but do not hold a taxi vocational license. When your rented car is not used for ferrying Uber passengers, you may use it to drive up to Malaysia for holiday.
During their promotional period, each Techno company offers different monetary incentives to both the drivers and commuters to attract them to use their Apps. Like most business, when the promotional period is over or their business becomes established, the initial rewards will give way to normal charges as these companies are not charitable organisations. They need to make a profit to stay alive and they also tried hard to find a niche in this competitive business.

For example, EasyTaxi and Hailo give confirmed jobs to drivers while Grabtaxi offers more jobs but through competitive bidding. When using Hailo Apps, it is not like a Western shootout where the fastest trigger gets the job because sometimes the fastest finger could be a lot further away - which means the customer had to wait longer for the cab.

I prefer Hailo or EasyTaxis as my reflexes are slower than younger drivers. I avoid Uber as payment is too slow to my liking. Uber also competes with normal taxi drivers for jobs through their use of private cars. In any case, working with more than two Apps creates confusion and distraction while I am driving.

I wholeheartedly welcome these third-party taxi booking Apps to Singapore because they improve my income with more jobs, incentives and lower my fuel cost as a result of less cruising around hunting for passengers. In the last two weeks, I did about 10 call booking jobs a day with an additional income of about $25 per day from booking fee alone.

The only grouse I have with these Apps is the frequent inaccurate and brief address of pick up point displayed on my handphone. I had to call the passenger to confirm the address. When I do that I inevitably commit a serious traffic offence for using my handphone. I hope my Apps partners will resolve these teething problems soon and also provide me with the aforesaid "safety devices".  

Honestly. the main benefit I get from using these Apps is driving less hours and still earn the same income. I usually stop driving when I hit a monetary target and not on an hour mark - it means that when I hit $150 collection before cost deductions, I stop driving irrespective of the time. It could be 2pm, 3pm or 4pm. But unfortunately, I think soon I had to surrender my vocational license to LTA because I'll surely be caught for working the Apps with my handphone while driving. Anyway, at my age it is a good excuse for early retirement from driving to become a security guard instead! Cheers and Good Luck to each and everyone in our driving business!

Tombstone Guard.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Good People - Thank You So Much!

First of all, I wish to express my sincerest thanks to all my readers and friends who offered their support, sympathy, and encouragement at my recent predicament of losing my taxi driving job at COMFORT. 

Like my passengers, not everyone were empathetic of my plight, as shown in the comments written in TR Emeritus, a prominent news media in our local blogsphere that featured my post ( Link ). Of the over 70 comments, one or two questioned my integrity and conduct. I never like to swear but here I'll make an exception that every word about the incident with the four office girls is the truth, nothing but the truth....

To keep you updated, after I lost my driving job at COMFORT, I went for job interviews to become a Limo Driver and discovered that the job entails irregular working hours. A Limo driver earns about $8 per trip fetching guests from airport to hotel or vice versa between 7am to mid-night and $13 from mid-night to 7am. He is also paid a basic monthly salary of $200. At most, he does 8/9 trips per day, as much time is spent waiting for guests arrival or in between each job. At about $2,000 per month, he earns much less than a taxi driver who drives a10 hours shift. The company pays for everything else and the driver is allowed to take the limousine home. It's suitable for a driver without a Taxi Vocational License.

Meanwhile, I'm happy to announce that I'll be driving a new taxi operator's cab next week and reckon everything should be back to normal in my life, although the last 3 weeks was a well deserved and unplanned rest.

In future, I shall treat all my customers with extra caution and never take them for granted. Actually, I should have known better with my age and experience. Nonetheless, I might have failed in some respect and shall strive to improve on my customer service henceforth.

Frankly, like many customer service jobs, driving a taxi is not easy particularly in dealing with difficult customers. That apart, driving a cab is often a lonesome and dull job on a night shift when no customer is on board. You are alone at long intervals with the radio or music from the CD as your only companion. When a passenger do come on board, they would probably tell you their destination and shut up after that. When you tried to ignite a conversation by tossing a couple of comments but receive a scant reply, you instantly know that he is not a conversationalist. Even if you do get someone to talk, the conversation usually dies off no sooner than it started.

People in my country are generally conservative, stressed with the pressure of life in a meritocratic society and tired after a day of hard work. Talking to a complete stranger, like a cabby is the last thing in their mind. They like to be left alone in the comfort of a cool rid and to engage in their sweet thoughts. I've no quarrel with that.

Usually, only tourists and foreigners would engage you with a conversation. While this is not surprising considering that they are new to this country and are interested in very thing they see and hear, only a few would talk to you interestingly for the entire trip. Like the locals, the conversation is often short. I suppose this is an universal trait of human behavior, i.e. talking to strangers is something that our parents discourage us from young, so much so that it had entrenched to become our second nature, like never eat something that smell disgusting.

Sad to say, some of my passengers consider themselves "socially superior" as soon as they boarded my taxi. Since they are paying for my service, they behave like a master and treat me as their servant. (a comment below is a classic example a person with this sort of mentally). Instantly, he comes my boss and every one of his command must be obediently obeyed or be verbally crucified. Fortunately, this group of people with this sort of arrogant attitude is in the minority. People in my country are mostly civic, understanding and kind. We have mutual respect for each other irrespective of our race, color, social status or job.

In my personal encounters as a taxi driver and at the risk of sounding racist or prejudiced, the fairer-skin, northern Indian FT professionals, especially ladies, are the worst culprits in term of their attitudes towards taxi drivers. In their country, they are probably high up on the social ladders with lots of servants at their command. They can get away with bullying and intimidating anybody socially lower than them, especially if they paying for their wages or services.

My observation is based on a number of encounters with such people in my seven years of driving and recently, my view was verified by my course instructor of my new taxi operator. They all the same. They would speak to you rudely with an arrogant look and expect a submissive reply. If your reply is not pleasing to their ears, they would attack you with their barrack of "craps". In their country. I suspect they would probably spit into your face in disgust and kick you like a dog and get away with it. They have no respect for taxi drivers here and their undisguised opprobrium and distaste of us is common knowledge in the taxi fraternity.

To such ladies, the exhilaration they experience from bulling a taxi driver is just too sweet to resist. And to similar minded customers, I want to say this:  

"Please don't look down on us because we are cabbies. I'm not a beggar and don't cheat the system to get welfare. I've a job. It may not be glamorous or something you would do. Please give me the smallest modicum of respect for having a job and is able to use that word in proper context".

But thankfully, there are many more customers who provide wonderful examples of qualities I admire—tolerance, kindness, and above all, understanding under pressure of the most trying kind. They are ordinary men and women who gives you a pleasant smile and speak to you respectfully, though they might have untold problem of their own. To them I want to say ‘Thank you. Sir and Madam’ through this piece of posting.

And also a big THANK YOU:-

-To that local Indian lady, who gave me a chance to learn when I started off as a rookie.

-To a Malay lady who gave me a $2 "ang pow" for good luck, when she realized that it was my first day at work.

-To an elderly couple, who bear no complaints against me when I took a wrong and long way to get to their home, instead rewarded me with a tip for engaging them in a nice chit chat.

-To a Korean man in business suit, who paid me $50 for short trip from Esplanade Mall to Fullerton Hotel, knowing that it would made me very happy for doing a short trip.

-To all my passengers who empathize and share my joy and frustration during our short time together.

Most important of all, to all my customers who bestowed me with kindness and appreciation of my service and gave me a tip as a token of appreciation, I want to say "Thank You" again. Your tip, no matter what amount, made me a happier old taxi driver and I'm eternally grateful.

My ‘thank you’ is a kind of gratitude-in-advance, for should I become incapacitated to drive for whatever reasons, I will have you as an examples to follow and show to my grandchildren.

Finally, before I forget, I want to express my appreciation again to all my supportive readers. You're my motivation and inspiration for driving and blogging. Thank You So Much! 

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Reflection On My Termination as a Comfort Cabby

Lately, I can't spend much time at my computer because I would quickly develop a splitting headache while looking at the monitor. As I wrote these words, I tried to avoid focusing at the screen to mitigate the pain. Reducing the brightness and contrasts of the monitor didn't help much. "Panadol" is my quick pain reliever. My font size is now at it's maximum.

I guess my headache is due of an eye condition I was recently diagnosed with called "Glaucoma"..which has been called the "silent thief of sight" because the loss of vision often occurs gradually over a long period of time. Once lost, vision is irreversible, so treatment is aimed at preventing further loss. If untreated, it would lead to complete blindness in a few years.

Fortunately, only my right eyed is 70% blinded. My left eye is perfect. With daily eye drops to reduce the eye pressure that damage the optic nerves, my vision is maintained. But straining my eyes to focus would tend to initiate a headache. Now, I spent less time with the love of my life...reading and cyber space. 

Sometime I felt a tinge of sadness and misgivings. I wonder and so do many elderly people, how did time sped away so quickly? Wasn't it just yesterday that my eye sights and legs were stronger? My hair is still reasonably black but my skin is crumpled with age spots. Yesterday, my memories were like daylight. And climbing, running, jumping and squatting were taken for granted? Today, aches, pains and comatose are my un-welcomed friends. I learn to be philosophical and accept these changes that are beyond my control.

Growing old is like a journey on a train. You want to stay on to watch life pass by but your ticket has expired and the ticket inspector expelled you. Though I cannot resist growing old or avoid been eventually expelled, I hope to be as active as possible in my remaining years. 

Now, this brings me to share with you a recent part of my active working life as a Singaporean cabby, albeit depressing in certain aspect.

I've been a loyal taxi driver with Comfort for close to 7 years and like 25,000 of my fellow Comfort drivers, I had invariably contributed in a small way to their recent revenue of S$239 millions. During this period of driving, I ferried at least 50,000 passengers. Inevitably, some of my customers are pleased with my service while some may not. 

Honestly, I received more compliments than brickbats. While compliments are seldom relied to Comfort, complaints gets their immediate action. Two or three complaints from my 50,000 passengers will get me the sack from the company, irrespective of the nature, triviality or truthfulness of the complaint. That is the daunting reality of being a cabby with Comfort.  

You might think that Comfort is strict with drivers so that passengers will get better customer service. No, I wish to differ. Please allow me to explain:

Firstly, if a hirer of Sonata taxi who is paying a rental of $105 is sacked, Comfort can immediately re-lease out the same taxi to a new hirer at $ additional rental income of $10 per day. In a year, Comfort gets an additional income of $3,600 per taxi. If 3,000 Sonata taxis are recycled to new hirers, an additional income of $10.8million is generated annually. Comfort has about 12,000 Sonata taxis to recycle and a large pool of anxious taxi drivers waiting to join them. Recycling only 3,000 Sonata taxi is an easy target to achieve. Therefore, in reality, they egregiously sack many of their Sonata drivers for the lucrative millions and certainly not to improve better customer service for passengers.

Secondly, Comfort has a department delegated to handle passengers complaints. It is staffed with 3 or 4 executive officers, each with a private office and assistants. Most of these officers are long service old-timers. Day in and day out, they handle routine complaints of almost similar nature, like driver is rude, taking longer route, refusing to pick passengers, rejecting cashless payment, overcharging, late pick-up, silent-treatment, reckless driving and the list of complaints goes on and on.

My point is "Routine work breeds complacency and mediocrity". These Comfort officers hardly conduct thorough investigation into a passenger's complaint. They never leave their comfortable chair and desk to seek evidences, witness or visit the site of complaint for collaboration. Usually, after receiving a telephone or written customer's complaint, they will just call up the driver for their explanation and at most, they invite the taxi driver to their office to hear the driver's side of the story. Thereafter and inveterately without further ado, they will issue the driver with a STANDARD warning letter stressing that the driver had committed a "service lapse" and failed to uphold the company's good image. They never give a second thought as to what would be the traumatic emotional and finance impact of their warning/termination letter on their drivers. Needless to say, these affected Comfort drivers either swallow the indignation in silence or leave the company to join another taxi operator.  

In the taxi market, every taxi driver knows that Comfort would only accept the passenger's side of the story and penalize their drivers unreasonably. They unconditionally side with the passengers in all complaints. In addition, any passenger who made a successful complaint gets rewarded with free taxi vouchers.

If Comfort treat their drivers so badly, why do taxi drivers still want to join Comfort?. Well, Comfort has plenty of call bookings and taxi drivers love it, as it improves their income. But this preference for joining Comfort will change with third party taxi booking applications like GrabTaxi, EasyCab and Uber coming into the market!

Now, I know that Comfort is basically a taxi rental company. I lease their taxi and is obligated to adhere to their rules and regulations. They have the prerogative to terminate our lease contract and I enjoy the same rights too because I can join another taxi operator as and when I like. But is it fair to terminate a contract arbitrary and solely based on a frivolous complaint or worst, due a mediocre officer job performance?. That's is my main point of contention.

Now, I let me be honest and tell you the reason for my grouses. I felt my contract was unfairly terminated recently.

Please allow me to share with you my case file.

At lunch time about three weeks ago, I picked up 4 Chinese office girls from Star Shopping Mall at North Buona Vista. It was drizzling lightly. They wanted to drop off at their office at Ulu Pandan Community Club at Ghim Moh Estate. They were probably in their mid-twenties and were People's Association office staff.
After they boarded my cab, I offered my towel for them to wipe off whatever rain water that might be at the back doors. One lady at the back said that she had already used her hand to dry the few wet spots and returned my towel. I expressed my gratitude for her initiative. The girls were pleased with my politeness and began happily chatting among themselves until we approached the lobby of the building.

A big lorry had blocked the entrance into the lobby. I waited for the lorry to move over. But the lorry driver came out to wave me away as he had no intention of giving way. The light drizzling had stopped. There was no way I could get into the sheltered lobby with the big lorry blocking the entrance. A few minutes later, I dropped them a few steps away from the lobby shelter behind the lorry and asked them whether they were happy. That was all I said.

The plump girl beside me paid the taxi fare of $4.30 and unhappily asked for a receipt. Instinctively, I knew she intended to complain against me and I kept quiet. I think she was angry that I dropped them a few steps away from the lobby shelter and they were probably caught in the very light drizzle which I thought had stopped. Maybe I should not have said "are you happy now" or I should have spoken those words to her in a subservient tone and manner. She probably felt I was rude but the other 3 girls were nonchalant.

As expected, five hours later, a lady from Comfort called me for an explanation of the incident. I honestly explained to her as written here. She told me that she would file the report accordingly and let the management made the final decision. I forgot to ask her what were the subject matter of the complaint. Four days later, I received a registered letter informing me of my contract termination due to my frequent service lapse.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. A few months back, I predicted my days with Comfort were numbered after an earlier complaint (Link) . My termination came sooner than expected. It has been three weeks since I ceased driving a cab. But nothing will alter my desire to continue leading an active life as a taxi driver with another taxi operator as long as I'm fit and healthy in my remaining years.

What I'm most indignant with is the indifference work attitude of those "duffers" in Comfort in managing passengers complaints. Now I can only sanguinely hope that they will treat and protect my buddies, who are still with them like the exemplary management philosophy of our polyclinic shown in this picture.


"We are dedicated to provide you
with our best service and care.
We seek your cooperation in
helping us create an atmosphere
of mutual respect in the Polyclinic" 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Gathering of Ex-Colleaques After 20 Years.

"James, long time no see, I thought you.......", Kevin Lok remarked facetiously as I sat down beside him in Teochew Huat Kee Restaurant at 74 Amoy Street, around noon yesterday. His funny bones and warm smiles had not left him inspite of the passing years.

Yes, indeed it has been a long time. The last time I saw Kevin Lok was 20 longs years ago when we were colleagues working in MMG Dammam, Saudi Arabia. He’s a joker and a born organizer and in fact, he and Ronald Gan were the ones who gathered our 8 ex-colleagues together that afternoon to have a reunion lunch on Hari Raya Puasa holiday.

To my surprise, Kevin Lok, Ronald Gan, Kong Chee, Robin Lim, Andrew Chan (VP) and BT Kwek had arrived earlier than me and were already seated at a round table towards the end of the restaurant. Two faces were new to me. Andrew Chan (my ex-boss) quickly introduced them to me as Mr. Francis Lee (Owner of Teochew Huat Kee Restaurant) and Mr. Edmund. Both worked in Dammam before me.

I began to wonder. How did Ronald and Kevin managed to maintain a contact list of all my beloved ex-colleagues after all these years?. Cell phones were uncommon then. The most each has was a house line,
office number or pager. But Ronald and Kevin have them all!. I salute them and is grateful for their marvelous initiative in organizing the gathering.

Well, Kevin never have my cell phone number but he intelligently notified me of the reunion lunch in one of my post, after Desmond Gan saw me in a recent The New Paper article. That was how I got invited....through my blog.

Unfortunately, not every one of my ex-colleague were present. Mr. Robert Phua, at 60+ is wheelchair bounded with a medical condition. Mr. Charles Teo, my roommate had flown off the radar, (disappeared like MH370), Desmond Gan (Ronald Gan's brother) was busy and so were Peter Lim and Koh Kok Chwee.

I was 48 when I worked in Damamm. Back then, all my ex-colleagues were young bachelors in their late twenties. They nicknamed me SC (Senior Citizen) as I was the oldest and a married person. Even my boss, Mr. Andrew Chan was two years younger than me at 46.

Seeing the subtle facial changes in each of us after 20 years was overwhelming like looking at our childhood photographs. Undoubtedly, all of us have naturally grown much older and heavier.

Today, my ex-colleagues are in middle-age, while I'm an old man. Ronald dyed his white hair and Robin Lim has receding hairline. BT Kwek, Kevin Lok and Kong Chee have lost their smooth and youthful skin. Only our voices never changed. If the lights in the restaurant were switch-off to create total darkness, we would know who were talking, like we were chatting while having our meal in our common dining hall in Dammam 20 years ago. Each voice has an unmistakable personality and we know whom it belongs to till today.

About half an hours later, Andrew Chan commanded our attention by welcoming us all to the gathering and thanked the organizers sincerely. Perhaps we had all forgotten our hunger in the excitement of catching up old time with one another.
Over a selection of exquisite and delicious Teochew cuisine, specially prepared by Mr. Francis Lee, together with Chinese tea and beer, we chatted and rebuild bridges disconnected by time. And we also merrily reminisced those good old days spent working in a foreign land. I was busily snapping away pictures so those precious moments were not lost among the dust of passing time.

I'm never comfortable speaking to an audience, even when the audiences were friends, but that afternoon, after walloping couple of beer, I courageously suggested that everyone briefly share what happened after Dammam 20 years ago and also an unforgettable experience while working there. In this way, we update our profile instantly for the group and heaven forbids, NOT for purposes of comparing our fortunes. I thought of asking them to "ke-chiew" (raise hand) in agreement but I knew none would do that. Singaporean are generally shy and conservative in a gathering. So, I started as the first speaker since I initiated the idea.

I briefly related that after Damman, I tagged along with a friend, who was the boss of a public listed company here, in whatever he threw at me. With his help, I made a small fortune. A few years later, I ventured into sanitary steel pipe and fitting business in Philippine with a Singaporean friend. Sadly, I lost my investment completely within 5 years. Thereafter, I became a taxi driver at late 50 till today.

My most unforgettable experience in Damman was eating luncheon and pork meat in cans disguised as vegetable salad through the Saudi custom. The stickers of the pork meat cans were replaced with new stickers that stated vegetables salad were inside the cans. Each meal of forbidden pork was incredibly delicious and an unforgettable experience. Like the saying goes, "Forbidden fruits always tastes better".

Next to speak was Kong Chee. He's now with MOE after a few years lecturing and doing consulting work in the educational circuit .

Robin Lim has the most interesting and dramatic career change after Dammam. Trained in the accounting and financial discipline, he switched to work a few years in senior positions with SCDF, fighting fire and then switched to providing security services with two of the biggest security firms in Singapore till today.

Ronald Gan now runs his own million dollar business providing sales and services in the aerospace industry. He's a born salesperson and has found the love of his passion in sales.

BT Kwek never change his career path. After leaving the procurement department in Dammam, he continued his purchasing career with the biggest American engineering and construction company in Singapore.

Kevin Lok straddled into various fields and now works for a big HR firm. 

Andrew Chan (VP) left Dammam recently and is now retired. But with his extensive knowledge, experience and "guanxi" in the corporate world, stretching from Middle East to China, this wonderful and energetic man of 64 is not going to waste his time playing golf or watching TV. I think he has many plans up his sleeves.

The hero of the afternoon no doubt belong to Mr. Francis Lee, the owner of Huat Kee Restaurant. Tall, balded, and corpulent, he looks every inch a successful business man and an executive chef. Twenty plus years ago, Francis Tan went to work in Dammam as a cook. After his return to Singapore, he ventureed into food business and later set up Huat Kee Restaurant at 74 Amoy St. Today, apart from his restaurant business, he is also a leading OEM producer and supplier of package Shark Fin, Abalone and other exquisite ready-to-eat products. He's now a multi-millionaire and an inspiration to many. The afternoon lunch was on him.
4 hours after the pleasurable gathering started, we had to say goodbye to each other.

Someone suggested that we should dine once or twice a year and perhaps with our families as well. When we meet again (Inshala..God Willing in Arabic), Mr. Francis Lee shall be our guest.

In our entire life, we made many friends. They come and go for various reasons. Life goes on. I hope the seeds of our comradeship planted in Dammam will burgeon into enduring friendship with more socializing and get together. And the beauty thereof shall not wither away indifferently.

Matching Quote:

"Blessed is the man who walked not in the counsel of the evil
nor the way of the sinners
nor sit in the seat of the scornful.
But shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bring
forth his fruit in his season,
His leaf also shall not wither,
and whatsoever he does shall prosper"

P/S: The man with his wife was an Ex-SIA Station Manager in Dammam.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Cabby Bloggers - Gintai & I.

Our Photo in The New Paper on 13th July 2014

As we were both not driving, yesterday I met up with my taxi buddy, Alan Tang (Gintai) somewhere in Bugis area for some drinks and a chat, from about 5.30pm to 9pm.

We catch-up over four big bottles of Carlsberg and had a simple dinner together. Since I live in the wild wild West and he's from the carefree laid-back East, we decided to meet half-way in town, Bugis.

Alan had to buy me drinks cuz he lost to me in the recent World Cup soccer bet. Amazingly, our bets were sealed before the start of the World Cup tournament and both of us were spot-on in picking the finalists. I followed Andy’s father by betting on Germany whilst Alan on Argentina.

Even though I’ve known Alan for about 3 years, we only met on few occasions. Yesterday was the 4th time we met over the 3-year period. We got to know each other thru blogging and keep in touch over the internet via Facebook or email. We follow each other’s blog and sometimes we exchange comments on our own respective blogs. 

Each time we met, we got to know each other better. Maybe with more drinks, I became more open and loosen up. I started to relate some of my personal past stories, like how I had to struggle in the beginning when I started driving taxi due to my lack of familiarity of local roads. Though I live in Singapore all my life, yet I'm still not so familiar with all our roads when I started driving taxi. I just can’t imagine those new citizens driving taxi on our public roads not facing any problem at all.

Anyway, I also related how I ever worked in Saudi Arabia’s 2nd largest city, Dammam in the late1990s after my retrenchment before taking up taxi driving. At 48, I left my family with young children to work there. Even though the pay was about 4 to 5 times of an average worker here, I dearly missed my family and the lifestyle here. Everything was paid for by the largest petrochemical engineering and construction company in S.Arabia, where I was employed as a procurement supervisor. I was given free lodging, company car and even a local cook was deployed there for us. I was part of a group of locals (FT) working for the MNC in Saudi Arabia.

After our story ( Cabby Bloggers ) was published in The New Paper, one in the group of Singaporeans working then with me in Saudi Arabia contacted me on my blog. Soon, I will have a gathering of all my ex-colleagues, all of whom I have lost contact for almost 20 years, to reminisce those good old days spent working in a foreign land.

I was in jovial mood cuz I just came back from a short holiday trip in Bangkok. All of a sudden, I remarked that one of us should blog about our recent story in The New Paper. Alan was not keen and mentioned I could blog about it if I wanted to. I told Alan that I was in fact waiting for him to blog about it. He replied that there is nothing to blog about.

“Come on, we need to capture that memorable moment in our blogs just to keep a record lah!” I appealed to him.

"No," Alan replied adamantly.

I then flipped out a 50 cents coin and suggested that we toss the coin to decide who is doing the blogging. Again, he lost in the flip of the coin. He seems like a hopeless born loser with no luck and I'm a lucky gambler.

Alan pondered on how to go about blogging on that story where we appeared together in The New Paper story published on 13th July 2014 – about 10 days ago? I suggested he could blog at whatever angle or style he fancy so long as he blogs about it and I, with his permission will reproduce it in my blog.

Well, actually Alan was ever approached by few reporters for interview before The New Paper initiative. He did not bother to accede to their requests. He was also invited by think tanks and other organizations via email to participate but he ignored them totally.

If not for me, Alan would not have agreed to that New Paper interview. I was approached by the lady reporter from The New Paper and recommended that Alan should also be interviewed together with me. Alan reluctantly agreed to my idea as he didn’t want to disappoint me. What a friend, Alan! I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I would have also declined the interview if Alan had not accepted my request to come along with me.

Finally, we met somewhere in Bugis area and Arab street near to the Sultan Gate for the interview and photo shoot. We spent about two and half hours over the session. The reporter was a nice little lady pursuing a degree in a local university. The Malay photographer was also very professional and friendly taking so many shots of us in different locations with many poses. The interview was conducted in the middle of June but only got published on 13th July 2014.

Of course, I was delighted when the story got published and especially with a photo of us together – that’s the main satisfaction. As taxi drivers and bloggers, we have got lots of things in common to share. We admire each other’s strengths and limitations as fellow bloggers. In a way, we synergise each other in our different life perspectives as we observe and comment on things happening around us.

In a way, I compelled Alan to blog about The New Paper write-up on us. Maybe, I felt that the photograph of us appearing together in The New Paper cemented our friendship that blossomed in the cyber world. It had to be archived here for eternity.

Thank you, Alan Tang for being a friend. It’s my honor and privilege to have you as a friend. May The Force Be With You!

Read Alan Tang's Blog - "Gintai" Here!

                       The New Paper Reporter and Photographer.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Mr. Zubir Said = Our National Anthem

Mr. Zubir Said (Died 1987-aged 80)

An uncle of my wife was a taxi driver for more than thirty years and died at 86 recently. When I first met him about two year ago at a wedding dinner, I was greatly impressed with his storytelling skill.

Old but lively as he was, he hypnotized me with his amazing anecdotes and stories of local celebrities he met during his long taxi driving career. He had a favorite celebrity and this was how he met him many years ago.

Early one evening in July, 1983, he was cruising down Scotts Road looking for a fare. A doorman from Asia Hotel hailed him and directed him into the driveway of the hotel. Waiting at the entrance was an elderly Malay couple.

The gentleman was rather frail and was assisted into his cab by the doorman. Their destination was Bedok. He was happy to meet people who were elderly but were still active and enjoying themselves. The couple were the enthusiastic conversational type and so they chatted happily on everything in Singapore. As he recalled, their conversation began on the subject of the Singapore after independence in 1965.

"What had changed after 20 years of independence?" the driver asked.

"Now, we have a national anthem and I wrote it" the old man replied proudly in English with a distinct Malay accent .

He was fascinated and delighted to learn that none other than Mr. Zubir Said ( (Link) was his passenger that night and this led to a brief conversation about the song and about his career.

Briefly, Mr. Zubir Said was a self-taught musician and worked as a songwriter for Cathay Keris Film Production for 12 years. In 1958, City Council approached him to compose a song for the city to be titled "Majulah Singapura", which was a motto to be displayed in the Victoria Theatre after its renovation.

When Singapore attained self government in 1959, the Government felt that a national anthem was needed to unite the different races in Singapore. It decided that the City Council's song, which was already popular, would serve this purpose. After Singapore's full independence from Malaysia on 9 August 1965, "Majulah Singapura" was formally adopted as the Republic's national anthem.

In a 1984 oral history interview, to sum up his philosophy when composing the anthem, Zubir cited the Malay proverb "Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung" ("You should hold up the sky of the land where you live").

When they arrived at Bedok, he got out of the cab and came around to help the frail 80 plus Mr. Said out. He hold Mr. Said's hand and hoisted him up so he could get his legs into the proper exiting position. And the thought occurred to him that he had held the hand which had written our National Anthem - a song that is so much a part of our culture, heritage and something which Singaporean are always proud of. He felt it was an honor, really.

Yes, indeed a rare honor. Each time when I hear our National Anthem it reminds me of Mr. Zubir Said. If he is alive, he would be 107 years old today.

In his pioneering days, Mr. Zubir Said did not have an illustrious music career nor was he ever wealthy in his lifetime. He came to Singapore in 1928 at the age of 21, from the highland of W.Sumatra. He struggled to make a living as a local Malay musician, bandleader and part-time photographer. With natural musical talent and some luck, he eventually became a conductor and a songwriter for Shaw Brothers theater. Only in 1957, some 30 years later, did he received his first public recognition when his songs were performed at the Victoria Theaters. He never receive a Cultural Medallion but had a road named after him.

Pioneers of Singapore like Zubir Said, C.K. Tang, Tan Tock Seng, Tan Kah Kee and many others, are men who braved the rugged journey across the plains, mountains and seas, embody the spirit and soul of our country in our early days. They overcame the obstacles of the times to carve out a future and a country from an unyielding environment. It is that pioneer spirit we honor today in celebration of Mr. Zubir Said's birthday. I believe many young Singaporean don't even know who composed our National Anthem, not to mention the name, Mr. Zubir Said.

People should take pride and preserves the memories of the past today, so that they can keep alive the spirit and hope for tomorrow. Whether they pulled a bullock cart in Chinatown, carried night-soil buckets, bricks at building sites or simply walks and sells wares along streets, these pioneers came with a determination and a fighting spirit which stirs admiration in the hearts of all who are familiar with their trek. . . .

I think we should set aside "A Pioneer Day", not now, maybe 20 years down the road, to remember the sacrifices of those men and women who boldly came with just a dream and spirit, to open up this country that we enjoyed it so much today. We cannot thank them enough for their efforts.

I wonder whether our young Singaporean today has the pioneering spirit of our fore-fathers of yester-years?. Nevertheless, I hope the pioneering spirit is still present and will continue with us all in many generations to come.

"Young men and young women, "mai-kaisi, mai-kiasu", be brave, break into new frontiers and draw new boundaries".
                      Singing Our National Anthem at Hong Lim Park
Source : Wikipedia - Zubir Said.