The Grab and Go-Jek of 1960s Singapore

The Grab and Go-Jek of 1960s Singapore: Pirate Taxis or ‘Ba Wang Chia’

The proliferation of disruptors the likes of Grab and Go-Jek in the local transport scene has been incessantly talked over. It is however, a lesser discussed fact that the on-demand chauffeur service scene in Singapore, interestingly enough, witnessed predecessors. We take a walk down memory lane and shed light on the 1960s forerunners of the present day Grab and Go-Jek.

Original feature image: singas.co.uk

Transport in the 1960s

In her early years of nationhood, Singapore faced difficulties establishing a transport system. The key impediment was the lack of funding to build the necessary transport infrastructure. In that era, public transport services were unreliable. Supported by formidable trade unions, bus drivers boycotted work in a bid to push for the melioration of their abominable wage and working conditions. As a result, bus schedules were often in disarray. Aside from strikes and riots, bus services were plagued with frequent breakdowns. The faults were largely due to operators cutting corners in maintenance in order to maximize profits. While taxi chauffeur service was an option, prices were on the higher spectrum due to licensing fees and insurance policies.
 

Taxis in the 1960s

Taxi Fleet on North Bridge Road in 1968. Source: National Archives

Born out of demand

Born out of the need to bridge the gap between demand and supply, pirate taxis (霸王车) flourished. In essence, it was an unlicensed on-demand chauffeur service provided by anyone who had a car. Pirate taxis plying the streets were identified by a ‘H’ sticker to indicate that they were for hire. A key advantage of pirate taxis was the ability to operate at lower costs in comparison to their licensed counterparts. Pirate taxis were readily embraced by the masses.

“I still remember, Sir, during the Hock Lee riots and the strike by the Singapore Traction Company, that I suggested the relaxation of certain measures against the pirate taxis because, during that time, it could be said that our entire transport facilities had come to a stop and that the pirate taxis then rendered a valuable service. They were running in the most reasonable way. For example, I took three trips, one from Robinson Road to Alexandra Road, for which I paid 50 cents; from Bras Basah Road to Serangoon Road, I paid 70 cents, and from Changi Market to Changi Point, I paid 50 cents. I think it was a wonderful service to the public during that period.”
Lim Cher Kheng, 1957 (during the debate on the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill)

The GrabShare equivalent

A unique selling proposition that pirate taxis had over licensed taxis was the structure of a sharing economy. They operated in a similar model to the modern day GrabShare or carpooling platforms. Drivers stopped to pick up and drop off passengers at destinations in close proximity. Passengers enjoyed a lower cost while drivers benefited from increased earnings from more passengers in a single trip. Our ancestors, no doubt, understood and capitalized on the benefits of a ‘Sharing Economy’ before the 21st century buzzword was even coined.

During this time (1960s), about 5000 illegal or pirate taxis were reported to be plying the roads. Such taxis were not metered, requiring passengers to negotiate their fares at the start of the journey and often, sharing the taxi with strangers picked up along the way.
Fwa, Tien Fang. 50 Years of Transportation In Singapore: Achievements And Challenges. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2016

Fare Surges

Price surges happen when demand exceeds supply. Similar to how current day booking platforms facilitate price surges during peak periods in high demand areas, pirate taxis back then had the opportunity to charge above-average prices. While there were no doubt a number of drivers who were fair in fare charges, some were as the name suggests – pirates. Ultimately, the ball lies in the passenger’s court. A quick modern day illustration – it’s raining, you’re in the middle of CBD and you’re running late for a meeting. Prices are sky high but you book yourself a ride anyway, pronto.

Passenger Safety Concerns

The key concern regarding pirate taxis back then echoes those of private hire platforms today – passenger safety. In comparison to the present day, the situation in the past was worse off. Prior to the advent of the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, there was essentially no way to track passengers. Now the keystone of ride booking platforms, the GPS function allows passengers to share their location with loved ones. Technological advancements has mitigated problems faced with regards to chauffeur service in the past.
In addition, as these private taxis were not licensed, there was no insurance coverage for passengers. To make matters worse, they were often overcrowded to maximize the benefits of a sharing economy. Passenger capacity limits were flouted frequently, not to mention the lack of proper usage of seatbelts.

As they were not regulated, drivers often tried to take as many passengers as they could to increase their takings, paying little attention to service quality and safety.
Fwa, Tien Fang. 50 Years of Transportation In Singapore: Achievements And Challenges. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2016

End of the Pirate Taxis

In 1970, the government intervened to eradicate the pirate taxis. With a firm determination to reshape the country’s transport infrastructure, the government issued a white paper on the Reorganisation of Motor Transport Service of Singapore. It enforced measures such as the doubling of diesel taxes for private diesel vehicles. Anyone caught touting illegal on-demand chauffeur service warranted immediate arrest coupled with the suspension of one’s driving license for a year. At the same time, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) introduced a fleet of 1,000 taxis, which has evolved to be known as ComfortDelGro today. These strategic moves successfully integrated the majority of pirate taxi drivers into the public transport sector by 1971. Consequently, a good number joined NTUC-Comfort as licensed taxi drivers while others took up positions as bus drivers or conductors.

Chauffeur Service in 1970s Singapore

NTUC-Comfort Taxi Fleet 1970s. Source: The 2nd Decade National Building in Progress 1975-1985, adapted from Remember Singapore

Conclusion

There are a number of parallels we can draw between what went down in history and in current. Quite notably, governmental intervention. In recent, the Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) has fined Grab and Uber a total of S$13 million over their merger.
The governmental intervention in the 1960s sought to curb illegal activities and reshape the nation’s transport infrastructure while the recent wave aimed to deter mergers that harmed healthy competition. While the intentions behind both actions were well founded, more weight can be placed on the preservation of the innovative aspect of these enterprises. It was a pity that the enterprising idea of the ride-sharing economy was stamped out in the sixties and only resurfaced decades later.
Moving forward, with Uber out of the picture, all eyes are on the arrival of Go-Jek. It is safe to say that both Grab and Go-Jek have set their sights beyond the transportation industry. Grab has partnered with UOB while Go-Jek has entered a partnership with DBS Bank. With these innovative players, we look forward to the promising progress of the transportation and financial industries in Singapore.En
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