Malaysiakini Letter

Half-a-century of chaotic taxi services

YS Chan  |  Published:  |  Modified:

LETTER | Fifty years ago, bus service between Pandamaran New Village and Klang was poor and local folk often travelled by taxis sharing with other passengers as the fare was charged on per seat basis.

A bulky mechanical and noisy taximeter was fitted near the dashboard and high enough for rear passengers to read the fare, but no one paid attention to the amount clocked, as the fare was fixed at 50 sen per passenger.

Taxis were insufficient and pirate taxis were a common sight. Taxi permits were then issued by the Registrar and Inspector of Motor Vehicles (RIMV).

There were two common types of taxi, one called taxi cab or metered taxi, the other the non-metered taxi known as hire car, which was different from hire and drive or self-drive car.

Even today, many people in Penang, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Johor are not aware that metered taxis are hardly found in other states in the peninsula.

For example, the total number of budget metered taxis in Melaka and Terengganu combined was only 33 in 2013, and none based in Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang, Negeri Sembilan, Perak and Perlis.

However, hire cars are found in all 11 states and Kuala Lumpur. As such, passengers would be confused when told that they should insist on the meter be used in all taxis. This is especially so when taximeters are installed in hire cars, but charges are based on fixed fares.

The first air-conditioned metered taxis were introduced in Kuala Lumpur in the mid-1970s and were unpopular because of higher fares. By the early 1980s, air-conditioners were factory-installed and no longer fitted as an accessory for both private cars and taxis.

Earlier in the mid-1970s, the Road Transport Licensing Board (RTLB) was set up to take over the issuance of commercial vehicle permits from RIMV, which also changed its name to Road Transport Department (RTD).

Later, RTLB changed its name to Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board (CVLB), which was under the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development. But issuing permits to develop entrepreneurship took a toll on public transport, and the Land Public Transport Commission (Spad) was set up in 2010 with the mandate to place our nation’s interest above all else.

Taxi cabs long enjoyed excise duty exemption, which was only granted to hire cars in the 1983 Budget. But the Penang RTD registered some hire and drive cars with excise duty not paid, and the car rental company had to pay up after the mistake was discovered.

But there was more in the comedy of errors. The 1983 Budget was also to facilitate the entry of Proton Saga in 1985, given national car status to enjoy much lower excise duty, although it was nothing more than a locally assembled Mitsubishi re-badged as Proton.

Road tax was also increased to an astronomically high level. For example, a company-owned five-litre petrol engine car was subject to RM36,000 road tax a year, and so was a company-owned three-litre diesel engine car.

The RM36,000 road tax was higher than the market value of used Mercedes 300D, resulting in many owners replacing the diesel engine with petrol, and ownership transferred to individual registration.

But road tax for limousine taxis was only 12 sen per cubic centimetre for petrol engines and 44 sen for diesel. As such, road tax for 3,000cc petrol and diesel engines worked out to no more than RM360 and RM1,320 respectively.

Limousine taxis were introduced in the late 1960s, thanks to the pioneer tour and car rental companies in successfully persuading RIMV to introduce this class of taxi to service for the luxury and tourist market.

I was a tourist guide cum limousine taxi driver from 1973 to 1975 but driving without the required Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licence. The limousines I drove ranged from full-size American cars with five-litre engines to two-litre Nissans with six cylinders and the Holden Kingswood.

From 2000 to 2003, I drove premier taxis sourced from two companies. They were of the same taxi model custom-built on the Renault Espace and running solely on natural gas for vehicles (NGV) costing 68 sen per litre.

The starting fare was RM3, RM1 per km and RM16 per hour, compared to RM2, RM0.66 per km and RM8 per hour for budget taxis.

From 2004 to 2010, I drove a green colour budget taxi. Around 2001, major taxi companies could paint their fleet with assigned corporate colours. But none of the major taxi companies rose to the occasion by making their taxis the preferred choice of the public, unlike the blue taxis in Indonesia.

As the different coloured taxis served no purpose, budget taxis have reverted to red and white in recent years, as it was costly to repaint a car.

In 2007, I proposed that budget taxi fares be increased to RM3 starting fare, RM1 per km and RM12 per hour. In 2009, CVLB increased them to RM0.87 per km and RM17.14 per hour by pegging the fares without any scientific basis at 10 sen for every 115 metres and 21 seconds.

In 2013, I proposed for budget taxi fares be increased by 44 percent for distance to RM1.25 per km, and 40 percent for time to RM24 per hour. In 2015, Spad increased budget taxi fares to RM1.25 per km and RM25 per hour.

Fares for Teksi 1Malaysia (TEKS1M) were raised higher to RM4 starting fare, RM1.50 per km and RM30 per hour in greater Kuala Lumpur, and more in Penang at RM1.75 per km and RM35 per hour.

Although higher fare for TEKS1M was justified because of higher costs for operating a Proton Exora, a mini MPV, it backfired when many passengers shun using them. Earlier, when their fares were the same as other budget taxis, many passengers were afraid of higher fares.

Permits for the first batch of 1,000 TEKS1Ms were converted from those surrendered by taxi companies that hoarded a large number of taxi permits from 2009. In 2014, there were 52 TEKS1Ms in Penang, 251 in Johor Baru and 687 in Greater Kuala Lumpur.

These 1,000 TEKS1M drivers were given training by Spad but many did not apply the knowledge gained to earn a higher income, such as building up a pool of regular customers, later made difficult when passengers could book using taxi apps, which are much more reliable than radio taxis.

Many TEKS1Ms were often been seen in the queue with other budget taxis below Platinum Sentral, where Spad HQ is located, waiting for passengers to emerge from KL Sentral.

They collect the same taxi coupons but incur higher operating costs compared to others that sourced budget cabs from taxi companies.

TEKS1M was launched with great fanfare and it was touted as the best taxi in its class for the Asean region. But it was derailed because of its Campro engine, which worked well running on petrol for private use.

But the high heat generated by NGV combustion often burnt the engine valves, and taxi drivers who were the first to operate Proton Exora as taxis dumped them at taxi companies after the engines had to be overhauled more than once.

The engine failure should have been conveyed to Spad or Proton for remedial action to overcome the issue, but this did not happen. In contrast, the Mitsubishi engine used in old Proton models was legendary in reliability. Twice, the engine of my Proton Iswara taxi overheated because of blocked radiator but the engine never needed to be repaired, even after clocking several hundred thousand kilometres running on NGV.

As Proton could not sort out overheating issues for the Proton Exora engine, Spad was gracious in allowing other models to be used as TEKS1M, provided it could achieve a minimum of three-star safety rating under the Asean New Car Assessment Programme, as stated in the Taxi Industry Transformation Programme unveiled in August 2016.

These models include the Perodua Axia 1.0 but we have yet to see the bigger Perodua Myvi 1.5, popularly used by Uber and Grab drivers, being licensed as taxis. This is probably due to the blockade by RTD, which controls registration of all private and commercial vehicles.

Since the 1960s, limousine taxis looked no different from private cars and only those who knew looked for the Puspakom inspection sticker on the front windscreen. But in recent years, new limousine taxis are fitted with number plates in reverse colours, with black letters on white background, just like normal taxis.

When Kuala Lumpur International Airport was opened in 1998, international travellers mocked at the Proton Wira taxis operating from there. Their roofs were fitted with a giant satellite dish that was normally installed in big boats. The alphabets used for their number plates were LIMO, inferring that the small car for budget taxi service is a limousine.

RTD should have chosen KLIA where they operate, and not the name of the taxi concessionaire, for the alphabets of their registration and number plate.

This wrong has not been corrected even after 20 years, whereas a new method used for registering vehicles in Kuala Lumpur by placing additional alphabets after the numbers and causing much confusion has reverted to the traditional alphanumeric system.

Recently, I spotted a Kia Pregio, a cheap bumpy van, registered as limousine taxi. In 2007, this model could be licensed as executive taxi, and the next cheapest model was Kia Carens. The most popular models then were Toyota Innova, Nissan Serena, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.

Today, the same vehicle model, such as the Toyota Innova, could be licensed as a TEKS1M, executive taxi or limousine taxi, all with different fares. Passengers would be confused when charged differently for the same service.

Taxi drivers will no doubt be happy when collecting much higher fares than others operating the same model, but not their passengers. As the character of individual drivers also varies greatly, taxi service will continue to be a game of chance for many more years to come.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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