Friday, September 14, 2007

How fares the cabbie?

Pet, I know I've told you this before but I have to stress this again: This is your best piece of writing so far. So proud of you.

How fares the cabbie?
by Petra Gimbad

I saw the lanterns today. Lit from within, they provided a breath of fresh air and light-heartedness to an otherwise stuffy shopping mall, filled with teeming customers. Then I realised: I look for hope everywhere.

It amazes me still to discover how misplaced our judgment can be. One of my closest friends blames it on my starry-eyed optimism and adamant refusal to have anything but faith in humankind.

In this case, I was surprised at the venom with which acquaintances responded to the recent request from cab drivers to raise their base fee of RM2. "They’re all cheats, they’re rude, they all are greedy," I heard again and again.

When my mother informed me that cab drivers were going on strike for two days around the Merdeka weekend, I asked every driver I met the week following that: "How did the strike go?"

The first said he did not go on strike and that the rest who did were crazy. He needed the income. But just in case, he drove only around his kampung, lest he incur the wrath of his fellow colleagues. He did not know what might happen to him otherwise.

The second talked about how the prices of goods have gone up, that cab fares in Kuala Lumpur are cheap compared to say, Penang.

I agreed. I pay RM10 for very short distances in Kota Kinabalu. Forget about the meter.

Another told me his meter was broken and I could pay whatever I liked. This was after I saw a few customers refuse to enter his taxi. Since it was the Merdeka weekend, he could not find anyone to fix it. He was not looking forward to paying a couple of hundred dollars on Monday.

"Is it not your taxi company’s responsibility?"

He laughed and sighed.

The most memorable chap started yelling about how ludicrous it is that Malaysia produces its own oil, yet we pay above minimum prices for gas. "Tak masuk akal! You tengok Singapore-ah, mereka tak ada gas sendiri pun masih boleh beli minimum price!"

The friend whom I narrated this incident to, grinned and remarked, "You can’t argue with that."

Which brings me back to hope and misplaced judgments. I use cabs on a daily basis, and rarely encounter drivers who lack courtesy. In fact, they gauge my facial expressions before opening up – with advice on how to live a good life, chats about the economy, politics, race and religion and asking what really causes rape when they discover I work for a feminist organisation.

Some of them quake when I say it is up to them which route to take, A or B. "Customer marah oh," they tell me. "Bagus kalau you bagi tahu saya mana mau pergi, nanti you tak happy, I pun tak happy. Nanti you cakap saya tipu dan tak mau bayar."

Smelling their fear, I suspect that Malaysian consumers of cabs are not exactly the paragons of graceful speech.

Once, I responded: "Saya ingat mungkin uncle prefer guna jalan itu kerana ada lampu. Saya dengar ramai driver kena attack lately."

He laughed, then sobered and told me it was true. A few days before, someone he knew picked up a young slight girl of my age. Upon reaching their destination, he was attacked and robbed by her friends. It happened in my area.

A couple of these cab drivers finally asked, "What’s your opinion on the fee raise?"

I responded honestly: Malaysians complain too much, their claims of virtue smacks of hypocrisy and their solutions are utterly misplaced.

If, for recreational purposes, Malaysians must fill the malls to the brim with the aid of a cab, then as far as I am concerned, a cab ride is a luxury. We do pay a lot less for cabs by the meter in this part of the country.

Malaysians complain that cab drivers show no respect. However, what about our respect for them as human beings? Too many instances of customers yelling rudely at waitresses instead of making a gentle request come to mind.

Most pressing: if what we want is efficient and affordable transport, we are barking up the wrong tree. We should be coming up with new ways to pressure the state to provide good bus and train services.

(A good friend, incensed with KTM, is now on first name basis with the main office after writing a flurry of letters to the press. A quick phone call from her complaining that the train is late gets an announcement two minutes later that the train will be arriving soon.)

The last I asked, there has been no response as of yet as to what has been decided on the issue.

This cab driver sighed. "Aiya, expected la."

Petra likes feminism and social justice. She is a media officer at the All Women’s Action Society. Comments: