Saturday, October 27, 2007

Misbehaving cabs

Most Singaporeans and the Singapore Authorities frown on any form of touting - propositioning by vendors to buy their services, usually at a higher than normal price. This was, as I understand, still is, the case at certain Food Centres. Over the last week, the Straits Times has reported on touting by taxi drivers, particularly those who drive the luxury Mercedes-Benz cabs. They reportedly prey on tourists and foreigners at popular hangouts such as Boat Quay, etc.

Well, touting is not all that uncommon. I was in Beijing some months ago on vacation. After enjoying a day at an Amusement Park, we had dinner and did a bit of shopping. It was about 7.30pm when we were done. I looked out on the roads and didn't see any available taxi cruising around. But there were quite a few people standing around offering their 'taxi' services, like touts swarming all over you. So we asked for the price and one quoted RMB60. That was RMB20 less than what we had paid for when we came to the Amusement Park (also by flat fare), so we agreed to take his car. It wasn't even a taxi, just a small private car. It was quite a squeeze for four people in the back seat. I sat in the front - the privilege of having the biggest frame size in the group.

The journey was uneventful. But the 'cab driver' asked if he could drop us off at the shopping centre beside our hotel. Funny, shouldn't he just drive us around to the Hotel? I didn't want to argue, but upon nearing our destination, I unwittingly directed the driver into the road just across from our Hotel. He wouldn't drive to the Hotel lobby, but I wasn't prepared to argue. I paid him with a 10 and a 50 dollar RMB notes, but he returned the 50 to me because it was torn at one corner. I exchanged it with another.

At about that moment, I heard commotion outside the cab. Some official had come by to check on us and the driver. They began to question my companions - where we were from, what we were doing, whether we called for the cab, or was offered the ride, and if so, how much we paid.

For the un-initiated, it felt pretty scary - to be stopped in the night by somebody in some official uniform and assisted by a plainclothes person. The person in uniform (the official) told us that we had taken an unlicensed cab. He then asked for my ID, which I duly produced. Then he ticked off a list of questions on his 'form' and recorded my answers, including my HP number, address - the Hotel just across the street, etc. Finally he asked me to sign on the completed form. Mindful of not putting my signature on any document, particularly a document which I couldn't make out in the dark of the night, I didn't want to sign, but the official requested that I write my Chinese name. He did seem to be honest and sincere about the whole thing, so I obliged. He also asked me to write on his pad that the RMB60 I had paid for the cab fare had been returned to me. Indeed, the official had confiscated it from the cab driver and given it back to me.

Throughout the whole incident, the official was totally honest. He wasn't corrupt. He didn't ask for money. He wasn't threatening and he explained his motives clearly to us. He said that so long as we had not initiated the hiring of the illegal cab, it was ok for us. On our part, we cooperated fully with him.

We didn't know what happened to the driver. I was told that he was questioned, but whether he was arrested, fined, or whatever, I don't know, though I would have liked to know. Another driver later told us that a heavy penalty is meted out to such drivers. I am surprised by the active enforcement action against the illegal hiring of unlicensed cabs in Beijing.

We speculated that this enforcement action was to clean up the unlicensed transportation racket ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Certainly, the Central Government does not want to hear complaints of unlicensed activities during the Olympics - that will be akin to the Government of the People's Republic of China losing face over its inability to govern and control.

I must congratulate the Beijing Municipal Authorities on their active engagement in making sure that tourists do not get the short end of a deal.

It appears that to match the effort of the central government of the PRC, their Singapore counterpart have their work cut out for them.

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