Rant: Singapore’s Taxicab Problem and Lack of Modern Payment Systems

Gleaming, polished buildings, well maintained landscaping, even slick subway stations with swipe cards that are a pleasure to use—the last one clearly not a Ventra design, something our readers in Chicago can relate to.

You can find food from all over the world and see high-end fashion both in store display windows and paraded about on smartly dressed people everywhere. Singapore is a cleaner version of New York, with thinner people in a Tokyo designed setting with a bit of Hawaiian greenery incorporated.

A car guy like myself is practically getting a crick in the neck from looking at all the nice cars there. I saw more high-end Italian hardware in one cab drive in Singapore than during two and a half weeks in Italy. The cars are absurdly priced – around 5 times as much as in the US. The cheapest rinky-dink 3-cylinder mini-car available starting at $150,000 when you have factored in the necessary Singapore COE (Certificate of Entitlement – indeed!), so I wonder who can afford all the Bentleys, Maseratis, Porsches, etc. My Japan-trained nose detects a real estate bubble well under way, but that’s a different story.

Amidst all this sophistication and wealth, you have taxis of all varieties zipping around all over town – surprisingly many old Toyota Crowns but mainly the latest models from Hyundai and Kia. Most of the time it’s easy to get a ride, except from four to six in the afternoon, when the “shift” takes place. Here’s some background: Singapore’s cabbies rent their cars daily from one of a handful of companies (many with significant Singapore government ownership) and use them in daily two-shift sessions with rental fees tied to either half-day or full-day use. Cabbies pay around $50 to $70 for a full day.

That said, you’d think cabbies would rent a car every day and then put them to maximum use – and that the streets would always be bustling with cab drivers eager to pick up clients. Well, no, for some odd reason there is the “shift” that some genius has placed at the end of every working day, ensuring maximum chaos on the streets with long lines of people waiting to get a cab – and with empty cabbies driving back, turning down all waiting in line because these clients aren’t going to where the cabbie wants to go, i.e., to his home. Crazy! At least they could have staggered the “shift” across the cab companies with some shifting at noon, others as late as 8 pm – at least something other than all at once!

Clearly the city is long overdue for Uber – although that might become an offense punishable by caning, a method that Singapore still has on the books and doles out regularly. Although the punishment only applies to healthy males under 50, visiting foreigners who overstay their visa by more than 90 days should beware –- you will be caned; it is mandatory. Maybe we should try that in the US.

Anyway, when in Singapore, don’t assume that the city operates like other places in the world, where cabbies are typically available most of the time. Also, don’t expect to be able to pay with your non-Singapore issued Visa card – there’s a big kerfuffle between Visa and short-sighted business operators who insist on surcharges for those who use credit cards – so Visa simply will not process payments from those operators. Pay attention and be ready with cash, unless you want to pay 10 percent extra just because you pay with plastic.

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