Today we have with us Peter Lee, a 59 year old full time taxi driver with ComfortDelgro Corporation Ltd. Peter has been plying his trade for almost twenty years. He was formerly a dock worker and goods driver before that, but lost his job when his company retrenched him in 1998 in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis. He took up a taxi license after that. The income he makes from driving has put both his children through university and still pays for his youngest son’s polytechnic school fees. On the side, he sells products for a multi-level marketing company for “pocket money”.
Interviewer (I): Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Mr Lee. I understand you work long busy shifts everyday, so I really appreciate you taking valuable time out of your schedule for us.
To start things off, I’d like to ask you about your life before becoming a taxi driver. What were you working as before this, at what age and why did you switch to driving a taxi?
Peter Lee (PL): I was a dock worker since my youth. I grew up in the kampung where Keppel Harbour is located, and many of my family members worked in this line [shipping and logistics]. It wasn’t bad, the pay… It was enough to afford my family with food and some schooling.
I started when I was just 12. I would help my father by counting lots while the men loaded goods onto the lorry using a plank. Eventually, when I was a bit older, I would load the goods myself. The more goods and lorries we could clear, the better. If we cleared more [goods], we could move on to the next batch and earn more.
I: Why did you start work so young?
PL: Money. I didn’t care much about schooling anyway. Back in those times I was always hanging out with some friends who took me around and showed me many things. They taught me how to gamble, drink and smoke. You can think of them as bad company but sometimes it’s not so simple.
I: What do you mean?
PL: It’s like this. Sometimes we start out and we’re young, we didn’t know what’s good and what’s not so good. So you just follow. My siblings had their own things to do, some of them joined me with these friends. We caused a lot of trouble, but we also had a lot of fun. Today I still keep in contact with many of them.
I: Back to your work at the docks, how long did you work there and when did you switch to driving a taxi?
PL: As I said, I started work when I was 12. By 1980s, I was experienced enough so they made me a driver and supervisor. I would still count the goods, but I also had to monitor where and how many goods were going in and out and make sure drivers made deliveries on time. I would carry around these log books and hand them out, telling drivers where and when to go. Sometimes when there were not enough drivers or when they didn’t turn up, I had to drive some of the lorries myself.
I: If you were a supervisor, why did you leave?
PL: I didn’t leave. In 1996 and 1997, my company wasn’t doing so well. They were losing out to bigger companies and we eventually had to be let go. It was a very tough time, I didn’t have any skills other than in logistics, the whole market was bad. You could see whole batches of containers sitting there but no one would claim them. The companies had gone bankrupt or were struggling.
I was jobless for a very long time. Almost 1 year, my wife and two children had very little to eat. We tried our best. My wife went to work and my two children were very obedient. It was very tough. I wish I had been able to give them more but I had no skills other than in driving.
That’s why I signed up with ComfortDelgro after that. Driving was the only real skill I had.
I: What were the challenges when you took up driving a taxi?
PL: The routes and names! They were all in English and sometimes I had a hard time understanding people when they said this street or that street… we had to rely on landmarks and rough guesses last time.
I: No maps?
PL: How to use a map when you’re driving? Sometimes customers would get angry with us if we brought them to the wrong place. For the sake of family, we have to just smile and bear with being scolded. I feel my temper improved greatly after I started driving.
I: What are some of the interesting experiences you had while working as a taxi driver?
PL: Ang mohs are very interesting customers. There’s many different kinds of them. Some of them are rich, some of them not so rich. Some are very rude and there are some who behave like you’re old friends. Some of them are very friendly and want you to bring them all around Singapore. They want to know about food, places to visit, things to do. Sometimes taxi drivers are like unpaid tour guides for Singapore!
I: What did you recommend to them?
PL: At first, it was just food, Orchard Road, shopping, Singapore Zoo, Sentosa… Some of them would request to see more “interesting” parts of Singapore.
I: What do you mean by interesting?
PL: Some customers requested to go to visit Geylang and Orchard Towers. These two locations are very famous among these ang mohs. Some local businessmen also frequent these places with their clients.
I: Do you have any interesting stories to share about such customers?
PL: Nothing that I find interesting. To me, it is just a job that I send them to the location and get out of there. I do remember one time when I picked up a passenger, a Chinese lady. She was working there and was dressed very revealingly. I knew she was a working lady but I just kept quiet and did my job.
At the end of the trip, she paid me and passed me her number.
I asked her, “What for?”
She said, “In case you need my help.”
I didn’t want to offend her, just took her piece of paper and smiled at her. I threw it away later.
I: There has been a lot of talk about Uber and Grab causing a lot of problems for taxi drivers recently. What do you think about these companies and their drivers?
PL: They are also out to earn a living. It is not my right to say anything bad about them.
I: But are you affected by them?
PL: Of course, more or less I will be affected. During peak hours, bookings are still plentiful but we taxi drivers can’t be so choosy anymore. When picking up passengers on the road, it’s still fair, but these days there are more difficult customers.
I: Why difficult?
PL: Sometimes customers would make multiple bookings of taxis and Uber and Grab. They want to see which company can send a driver first, especially for customers at Punggol and Sengkang. It used to happen even before Uber and Grab, but these days it’s not surprising to see a customer drive off with another vehicle just when you reach the location.
I: I think that’s just irresponsible behaviour from customers. Do you think it’s the fault of Uber and Grab?
PL: No, it is not their fault. But I have customers who tell me they are more willing take real taxis like mine.
I: Why is that?
PL: I guess they feel official taxi companies are safer and cleaner. I know that Uber and Grab don’t have insurance to cover passengers in case of serious accidents, but taxis must have insurance. In taxi companies, we must go through training every year and must pass a test and health check up regularly. If you don’t, you cannot drive. We are also more professional, we also have a test to memorise the different routes and places in Singapore. I don’t need technology to help me go where I need to now, I know it by heart.
I: That’s really impressive! What would you say to someone who wants to choose between a Uber or Grab service and a taxi?
PL: There is no choice. The customer chooses what he wants to. I just think that taxi drivers from the old companies are more reliable and safe, even if the price may be more expensive.
I: Thank you for your time, Mr Lee.
Interview and translation by Ellie Hu, a youth journalist with The Singapore Daily.