ON JUNE 20th, at Kuala Lumpur’s bustling KL Sentral station, over 50 taxi drivers attacked an Uber. Rocks were used to break windows. The passengers, an Iranian couple, were dragged out and hosptialised. It was an event that brought Malaysia’s long-running taxi app debate to a resounding head, appearing to justify public disdain for taxis and the growing use of mobile services. Here, the heroes and villains rotate in a complex trajectory, as technology seeking to address problems creates others.
“These apps are illegal,” says a taxi driver (who requested anonymity). “The government should catch that guy who made these apps and put him in jail.”
“Illegal” is a contentious term. Grabcars and Ubers have floated around in legal limbo. To operate a taxi in Malaysia, one needs a commercial driving license (PSV). For years drivers have gone without them, subject to various government crackdowns, but their sheer popularity has kept the app-based engines running. Over 4 million people use GrabCar across Southeast Asia. A full-time Uber driver can make up to RM8,000 per month (£1,500). This has put massive strain on regular taxis, who often struggle to make ends meet.
Recently, the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) has considered replacing the PSV’s with a “driver card” system, allowing the likes of Uber and GrabCar to operate legally. This has resulted in massive backlash. The Klang Valley Taxi Drivers Action Committee have taken court action. Major taxi operator Big Blue Capital Sdn Bhd threatened the current ruling party, Barisan Nasional, that 95% of Malaysia’s 75,000 taxi drivers would withdraw their support. Yet Umno Minister Nazri Aziz insisted that “the rights of the customers” cannot be denied, leaving taxis with little choice but to adapt or die.
As huge taxi queues line up outside Kuala Lumpur’s stations and shopping malls, customers turn to their phones for their transportation needs. GrabCars and Ubers now often request that passengers get in the front seat to dissipate suspicion, wary of who may be watching.
“We have to be careful when picking up customers,” said Nigel (name changed), a GrabCar driver. “Sometimes these taxis will download GrabCar, pretending to be a customer, then shout at you when you arrive. I tell them to go away, this is my right, just like you.”
In July two taxi drivers were fined RM2,000 for damaging a GrabCar at the Mid Valley Megamall. Taxis have used GrabCar to lure drivers miles away from Kuala Lumpur, wasting their time and fuel. Stories like these are emerging more frequently, indicative of the rising tension between the taxis of two very different generations in Malaysia.