The never-ending public transport story
Can the Prime Minister’s Department resolve the ever increasing public transportation woes in the country?
The Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board, formerly under the Entrepreneur and Cooperative Development Ministry, is entrusted with issuing and withdrawing taxi licences. Yet the power to enforce regulations over taxi drivers comes under the Road Transport Department. And despite its enforcement powers, the RTD does not have the power to revoke taxi licences. The RTD comes under the purview of the Transport Ministry.
Now Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has decided to abolish the Entrepreneur and Cooperative Development Ministry, which is well-known for its generosity in funding Bumiputera businessmen, and put the CVLB under the Prime Minister’s Department under a new entity called the National Transportation Board.
The aim is to resolve the public transportation problems in the country, particularly in Kuala Lumpur and other major cities and towns.
My father was a minibus driver, and later a taxi driver, in Kuala Lumpur during the 1970s and early 1980s.
When then Prime Minister Tun Razak Hussein introduced the minibus to Kuala Lumpur after a visit to Hong Kong, it was meant to kill a few birds with the proverbial stone.
Apart from providing a practical solution to the transport needs of the working class in the city, it was also meant to be jobs and business opportunities for Bumiputeras under the New Economic Policy.
In the initial years, individual licences were issued, mostly to ex-servicemen and former police personnel.
My father, being a non-Malay, could only rent a permit from a retired Special Branch officer. I suspected my father, who hailed from the one of the poorest quarters in Kuala Lumpur, wasn’t very pleased that he couldn’t have his own permit.
Being a young boy at that time, all I could remember was a messy public transportation system.
But on hindsight, the minibuses that were driven by my father and many others like him formed a chaotic but workable transport mosaic in the city.
At the same time, the lives of some ex-servicemen or retired policemen, mostly Malays, were taken care of through such an arrangement, thus indirectly averting potential social time bombs as a result of poverty among these groups.
Herein lies the problem — the original good intention of the NEP for the transport sector has been turned into a deliberate scheme to reward certain people with strong ties to Umno. This means even those qualified Malays who were never members of Umno or connected to opposition parties would find it difficult to obtain the permits.
Since the 1980s, the CVLB has given permits by the thousands at one go to mostly well-connected companies, providing them with licences for taxis, buses and coaches. Rarely were individual taxi drivers given permits.
The minibuses ceased operations in Kuala Lumpur in 1996, replaced by various bus companies that were not able to match the vast coverage of the minibuses, causing further problems.
Given the growing city population including legal and illegal foreign workers, millions are facing daily public transport problems.
Taxi drivers work like slaves for the permit holders as most of their daily proceeds are paid as rental. As for coaches plying long-distance routes, they are known to be one of the country’s worst paymasters; paying peanuts to drivers, who are not given a fixed pay, by the trips. They often have to drive between 15 and 20 hours a day to make ends meet.
It is not surprising that driver fatigue is one of the major causes of many deadly highway accidents.
Some may argue that the government was never serious in improving the public transport system because it was more interested in pushing the sales of national cars.
The percentage of Malaysians using public transport declined from the region of 30 per cent in the mid-1980s to around 15 per cent now. But the population during the same period increased by about 50 per cent, excluding the number of illegal foreigners.
With government-produced cars competing with public transportation, and the use as well as abuse of the licensing power over buses, taxis and coaches, it is no surprise that the public transport service has declined over time since the introduction of the NEP.
Today, commuters are left with no choice but to use private vehicles. This, of course, adds to yet another unresolved problem of massive traffic jams. It also means that whatever’s left of a person’s income is set aside for the monthly car loan payment.