The Truth is Nuanced

Thinking deeper & broader about Uber showdown in Malaysia

So, here we go again. Another city, another Uber fight against authority. Just another episode in a drama starring Uber.

We all love good drama of course. Especially those with simple, clear narrative — good vs evil, agile startup vs slow bureaucrat, local vs foreign.

But is it that simple and clear cut?

Uber has been in Kuala Lumpur for almost a year now. They started with their flagship UberBlack by hiring local limousine operators. It’s all good at the start — generous vouchers, excellent cars, easy to use app. The prospect of getting a ride in a BMW 7 Series made early adopters very excited. Existing users from other countries simply call for Uber when they’re in Kuala Lumpur.

Enter UberX — with price as cheap (or cheaper) than taxis it sends a shockwave to the local landscape. SPAD took notice and said things that’s similar to any other authorities around the world said. Need to comply with licensing, safety, etc. Just a reminder, not a crackdown.

MyTeksi, a local cab-calling startup starts to toe the arena. They issued a statement to their drivers regarding an impending ‘threat to our livelihood’. There’s no mention of Uber by name but the phrase ‘We shall face this giant head on as One, showing them the indomitable Malaysia Boleh spirit’ is a dead giveaway. They even co-opt the ocassion of Merdeka to galvanise their warcry.

Uber Malaysia didn’t stop offering UberX but they did stop using private cars such as MyVi and switched to licensed limousines. Essentially, they are offering almost-UberBlack at UberX price.

However, the move didn’t appease the authorities. Soon after, Director General of Road Transport Department announced a joint operation with SPAD and the Royal Malaysian Police to crackdown on Uber’s operation.

Article in Kosmo reagarding JPJ, PDRM, & SPAD Joint Operation against Uber

Now the grand narrative seems to be properly set up; agile startup VS slow bureaucrats — Uber’s usual frame of story. On the other hand; national interest VS ‘foreign intervention’ and protecting the livelihood of taxi drivers.

Time to grab some popcorns and enjoy the showdown?

Well, not so fast.

Zoom-In

Let’s put aside the media news cycle and go the ground. What does the users want? Fast, cheap, and safe mode of transportation. What choice do they have now? They have regular taxis, taxis augmented by MyTeksi and UberX.

Regular Taxis

Truth to be told, taxis are a regular punching bag. The chief complaint is wildly inconsistent service. The car condition can range from super clean to intoxicating kretek smoking den; charge by the meter to arbitarily exorbitant charges; polite professional drivers to downright criminals.

It’s tempting to lump all these taxi drivers into one category but the reality is they come from all walks of life. On one hand there’s people who work as taxi drivers as last resort, some are just part-timers (including civil servants!). On the other extreme, there’s ex-top civil officials (ie; JKR Engineers) who drive taxis to fill their time and genuinely seek to serve people post-retirement.

MyTeksi

MyTeksi seems to smooth out the wild inconsistencies in taxi service. So far, I’m yet to find a rude MyTeksi driver. They are a pleasant bunch of drivers. In fact, I found one of the most professional driver ever through MyTeksi.

However there’s still some inconsistencies such as whether who should pay for the booking fee — some choose to absorb it while some pass the cost to the passenger. Other than that; we can expect that the drivers charge according to the meter, dress decently and drive safely.

In short, taxi service as spelled out in government regulations.

UberX

The first ride with UberX is in a brand-new MyVi. No idea whether it is owned by Uber or the driver, forgot to ask. The ride is from Avenue K to IKEA with a young male driver and the total charge is RM18. The small car strained a bit climbing hilly highways but overall experience is still good.

Only when I came back from IKEA with a taxi I realized a critical difference — UberX uses SmartTag lane while taxis are still bound to cash lanes. This create a remarkable difference in experience as it shaves off precious minutes. Imagine how valuable it is when you are chasing a bus trip or an important meeting.

That was before SPAD issue any statement so to be thorough another round is required.

As for the second ride the app informed me that I’m getting a Mini Countryman. Wow! But then a Nissan Teana came along and picked me up from Low Yat Plaza to KLCC. The car clearly have a limousine license and the driver is an ex-VIP driver who is bored chauffering them to the same place.

The icing on the cake for UberX is there’s no need to whip out my wallet and fumbling with small change. So you can focus on getting your stuff out from the car and whatever you wanted to do next.

p/s: EasyTaxi reported to offer the same payment service now

Zooming In Between

No Internet?

Tough luck, IKEA was super congested on Merdeka weekend so no Internet service. I can’t hail UberX nor MyTeksi. Even though the signal indicator shows full strength with 3G all packets get dropped and I have to wait until the crowd disperse before able to use either app.

Surge

This is the bane of any kind of centralized commercial clout. Uber’s algorithm can automatically drive the price up when the demand is high. On the other hand, taxi drivers at bottlenecks such as train stations and bus stations form mini-cartels to impose an all time arbitary surge pricing.

Credit Card

Uber requires credit card and that might be a deal breaker for many. They fear unauthorized usage or over-charge. Uber has mistakenly over-charged me once but later promptly refunded in the form of ride credit. Recent survey by Nielsen indicates that more than half of Malaysian respondents (55%) say they are either hesitant or would not shop online and use their payment card details on either a smartphone or tablet device although their personal information is protected.

Zoom Out

Meanwhile in New York, Uber drivers also find their livelihood threatened when the company permanently lowers the price. Furthermore, they also cannibalize other startups such as Lyft.

‘The touted start-up is proving to be the embodiment of unrestrained hyper-capitalism’

Uber is also not safe from criticism in their home country. ‘The touted start-up is proving to be the embodiment of unrestrained hyper-capitalism’. A. Asohan also pointed out in his article that Uber is playing a loss-leader game for now to garner support. Once it became a dominant player and demanding profit, there’s no telling what will happen.

If Facebook is any indication, it’s not really pretty. Once the market is thoroughly saturated, Facebook tighten the flow and start putting up tolls. Page owners are the worst hit with post reach approaching zero percent.

The Future

It doesn’t matter much whether Uber win or lose this round in Kuala Lumpur. They have super deep pockets and can always come back later. Other startups such as Lyft and Sidecar can also come try their luck. Even Richard Branson is stepping into the game.

There’s also not-for-profit service such as BlaBlaCar. You can’t frame them with the usual corporate greed narrative. Currently, 2 million BlaBlaCar members drive 200 miles together each month.

The thing is, you can’t connect people to each other without expecting them to continue as it is.

This article also appeared on TechInAsia.