In the age of Uber and Grab, the phenomenon of pirate taxis with their blatant disregard for regulation feels like a world away. Here, 81-year-old Leong Seng Wai recounts his story about his stint as a pirate taxi driver in the 1960s.

Faced with a tough job market, Leong Seng Wai, who had been helping his brother with his fruit business, got his driver’s licence and started driving pirate taxis in 1960 at the age of 23, at his friend’s suggestion. Seng Wai made the switch to driving a licensed taxi when they were eventually introduced in 1964.

Seng Wai posing with his yellow-top taxi in 1992. Photo courtesy of Leong Seng Wai

“Pirate taxis didn’t have air-conditioning in those days and we would roll down our car windows and holler to passers-by, “Who wants to go to Hougang, Hougang?” Passengers would then stop us and come on board if they wanted to head there,” Seng Wai explained, his eyes sparkling at the memory.

The rental rates for cars varied according to the state of its condition, with an old car going for about 10 dollars. An additional two dollars was to be paid to the middleman – an envoy of the black market – who would recommend drivers to the pirate taxi syndicate and link up pirate taxi drivers with car owners. Seng Wai earned about $15 to $20 a day, with a net profit of $7 to $8 after taking into account overheads such as petrol and car rental, which would equate to approximately $80 today.

“The salary I earned from being a pirate taxi driver was considered high back then. Most people earned 30 to 40 cents a day but I could earn up to a few dollars every day from driving,” said Seng Wai. His parents had no idea he was a pirate taxi driver then, and had given him the liberty of forging his own path.

While the pay was attractive, it was a job that was not without drawbacks. The lack of regulation drew seedier crowds, making pirate taxi drivers susceptible to volatile disputes. Its covert reputation also alienated passengers who did not want to risk meeting unsavoury characters or court unnecessary drama. Drivers also faced the daily prospect of getting caught.

“Fights easily erupted from discontentment. For example, gangsters [were sometimes] unhappy that another person got the ride instead of themselves,” Seng Wai said.

Seng Wai in his heyday. Photo courtesy of Leong Seng Wai

Unlike conventional taxis, there were no restrictions on the number of passengers for each ride – some drivers would allow up to six people in the vehicle at once. The main draw of pirate taxis were their cheap rates. For short trips of half a kilometre to one kilometre, fares would range from 20 to 30 cents. Longer trips would cost about 40 cents. The fare was charged per trip, hence, the more the people that shared a ride, the more each individual would save. The absence of taximeters in pirate taxis meant that drivers could charge below market rate, unlike licensed taxis. Passengers usually hailed pirate taxis when they were in a rush but did not want to pay the full fare of a licensed taxi.

However, the illegal nature of pirate taxis meant that drivers were unprotected by the law; they had nowhere to lodge complaints or reports. Pirate taxi drivers were vulnerable to the exploits of unscrupulous passengers: from passengers who ran off without paying, to entitled elderly people who expected free rides, Seng Wai had no choice but to let them off the hook.

“Robbery was commonplace as well, but I was fortunate as that did not happen to me,” Seng Wai recounted.

Apart from having to navigate the dark underbelly of the streets, Seng Wai also had to evade the Registry of Vehicles (ROV), the equivalent of today’s LTA, who were on the lookout for pirate taxis.

Seng Wai with his wife. Photo courtesy of Leong Seng Wai

“I have seen them in action before. They stopped a pirate taxi and were going to round up the people inside. The pirate taxi driver and passengers all ran away, because [hiring] and driving a pirate taxi were both against the law,” he shared.

When licensed taxis were introduced, Seng Wai got his official taxi license and bought buying his yellow-top taxi for $8,000. In the past, taxis didn’t have satellites, they only had meters, which could be rigged to run faster. Furthermore, drivers could get around the meter system especially when it came to foreigners who did not know any better.

“For instance, if [drivers] saw a foreigner, they would say ‘This ride will be $6’ even though it could be $2 or $4,” he said. With the new satellite tracking system, authorities could clamp down on the exploitation of passengers because fares could now be accurately reflected and tracked.

Throughout our interview, Seng Wai’s pride was palpable as he shared anecdotes of his youth. In a nation known for its rapid changes, Seng Wai’s memories offer a window into a Singapore that few recognise today and should be remembered.

Written by: LY Kang

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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