Singapore Revisit Log #3.1: Chinese New Year, Taxi Drivers and Security Guards

I used to joke about the Big 4 sunset careers in Singapore, namely SMRT (Security, McDonald's, Recycler, Taxi Driver) only that it wasn't funny when I realised how many locals ended up in one of these vocations after their useful shelf lives. Of course not everyone in that situation had been forced to cast their eyes on 'SMRT'. At least, from a neighbour I spoke to, he chose to take up a taxi license after he left his cushy civil service job because he was too tired of the bureaucratic crap and felt apprehensive about trying out in the corporate environment. Understandably so, since I had been there before. I knew exactly how he felt, though I wouldn't exact encourage him to rule out future possibilities for good. After all, he wasn't exactly anywhere near retirement age and was probably still quite employable.

Though not usual, there are times where the grass is actually greener on the other side. But taxi driving is probably not one of them. The attraction of 'being one's own boss' is the biggest advertisement to the trade. However, as far as I'm concerned, that had been long vanquished when the government decided to stop issuing taxi licenses to individuals and corporatizing the industry. But the taxi giants were smart enough to maintain the 'being one's own boss' notion by repackaging the concept altogether, creating the illusion for taxi hirers that they have the freedom of that entrepreneurs enjoy. Some may argue, any entrepreneur of small capital start ups have to rent and work without annual or sick leave for long hours everyday. So a taxi driver is not very different in that sense. I don't agree with that. A real person 'running his own business' has the opportunity to grow his business and even get out from renting by purchasing his own premises one day. A taxi driver can neither own his cab and stop paying rent even if he can afford it nor own a fleet of cabs and hire his own drivers. That is a key difference. So to me, the taxi operators have passed a bulk of their business risk to their drivers and put themselves in a no-lose situation. Taxi drivers are left to their own devices, taking up one of the most risky jobs in Singapore. Imagine you are told by your company you can come to work as and when you like but you have to rent your own seat in the office, you will be given no leave, no CPF and employment benefits and your income depends on how much you work but you can neither set your own pricing nor innovate your work processes to be different from the others in your office. Is that 'being a boss?'

The cabbie of 20 years who drove me on Chinese New Year Day 1 told me most taxi drivers stopped driving after a few years, some even as short as a few months. Not many of them survived in the trade for 20 years like him because they couldn't stand the stress of daily scrutiny from random people and technology alike. [Read Gintai's account for more details] The taxi driver told me that ultimately, the secret of lasting so long in the industry was passion in the job, such as enjoying driving in general.

I met nobody who collect scrap metals or cardboard for a living this CNY. No Mc Donald's staff either. But it seemed like security jobs were in rage. Almost every man in my family had been and still worked as a security guard. In fact, one of my uncle who learnt that I finally returned for my first CNY visit in two years, asked to talk to me on the phone and apologised for not turning up that day because he wanted to work overtime. He told me it was a golden income opportunity he couldn't convince himself to miss out on. Not only he would be paid over time allowance, he would be able to collect $400-500 of ang bao money from passing cars on a single day alone. That would be substantial over the first 2-3 days of CNY. He apologised again and told me he really wanted to meet Albany for the first time. I told my uncle not to worry about that and I would have done the same thing if I were in his shoes.

Personally, it was sad to see how the elders end up in their careers. There wasn't much choices for people over their middle ages other than cleaning, security and if you have health to burn, taxi driving. It had been an eye opener to see many senior employers in retail, hotel, tourism, trades and many more industries earning a 'living wage' - more about that in one of the coming posts.

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