Last Day at Work: The taxi driver who puts his passengers before himself
In this series where Channel NewsAsia profiles individuals leaving the workforce after long careers, Amir Yusof speaks to a cabby who is reluctant to put his driving days in his rearview mirror.
SINGAPORE: Stuck on the dashboard of Mr Loh Liang Yong’s blue ComfortDelGro taxi was a laminated card with a picture of him in his 50s alongside his name and license plate number.
The photograph was taken 17 years ago, when Mr Loh started his driving career after a stint in the construction industry.
Now 74, his hair has greyed, and his face is thinner and set with more lines. Yet, Mr Loh still has the same cheerful smile and warmth in his eyes.
“That photo is for people to complain to the company if they’re not happy with me,” said Mr Loh with a chuckle. “I have to put it there.”
He joked about the vocational license card being used by passengers to report him for wrongdoing, but they have used it to identify him for praise instead.
In his career, Mr Loh received three official compliment letters from ComfortDelGro.
One was for taking pains to return a passenger her money after she had mistakenly given him a S$100 note instead of a S$10 note, the second for helping an elderly lady fold her wheelchair into the taxi boot, and the third for returning money to a passenger when Mr Loh was given several notes stuck together.
Mr Loh called time on his taxi-driving earlier this month, and these positive memories about his passengers are what he cherishes the most.
Still, despite such moments of humanity, some passengers can be demanding, and Mr Loh had to learn this the hard way.
During his early days as a driver with ComfortDelGro, Mr Loh was involved in an accident after a customer had requested for him to drive more quickly as she was running late.
In a hurried state of mind, he accidentally hit a car in front of him and consequently had to pay for damage to his taxi as well as the other car.
The incident taught Mr Loh not to accept such requests from customers.
“If (passengers) tell me to go fast, I will ask them why they are late. If they woke up late, it’s not my problem,” said Mr Loh.
He also related how some passengers think that taxi drivers like to take longer routes to earn extra money.
“This is not true,” he said. “Time is money, we are fighting against time. More job pick-ups mean more money.”
COMPETITION AND LIVELIHOOD
Typically, Mr Loh worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He carried about 20 passengers each day, beginning his shift at 8am and ending long after it gets dark.
He started off each day with goal to break even – a threshold that can take six or seven hours to reach. On some days when passengers were elusive, he lost money.
“If we don’t hit our target we have to continue working. We have to gather enough for rental, fuel, and other expenses,” said Mr Loh.
Mr Loh also related how increased competition from the ride-hailing industry has affected him.
"Even though I was affected at the start, I made up for it by driving longer. I didn't mind at all because I've always enjoyed driving. The situation got better later."
Mr Loh took breaks every day. He would stop for coffee and have lunch at his home in Toa Payoh, but he knew that if he was not turning the wheel, he was not making a living.
On top of that, Mr Loh was forced to confront hazards more potent than potholes: His own fatigue, other distracted drivers and getting cheated by his customers.
‘WHAT A BASKET’
On his last day at work, Mr Loh looked back on his experiences and recalled, with a hint of exasperation, a certain passenger he once came across.
“The passenger I will never forget is this man who boarded my taxi and asked to go to two locations. During the journey to the first location, he sat in the front passenger seat, and was so friendly. It was like talking to a friend,” said Mr Loh.
“But he abandoned me at the first location. The fare then was S$34 … And I later realised that he took some cash from the console box in between our seats,” he added.
“I couldn’t believe how someone so friendly could all of a sudden steal from me - what a basket,” said Mr Loh.
He lost about S$50, which was around half of his earnings for the day.
“I became sad and angry, and had no heart to drive. I was thinking whether to report the incident to the company, but I later realised that I would be wasting my time,” said Mr Loh.
“Ultimately, I let it go and carried on with driving. I believe that forgiveness is happiness, and this mantra allows me to feel relaxed when I face life challenges,” he added.
MORE FACE TIME WITH GRANDDAUGHTERS
While Mr Loh loved his job, he admitted that being on the road day in and day out is a lonely endeavour. He would listen to music on the radio but he still missed contact with friends and family.
Now that he will have more time to himself, Mr Loh is looking forward to taking his three granddaughters out during the school holidays and spending more quality time with them.
The three girls study at CHIJ Our Lady of Good Counsel at Burghley Drive and Mr Loh used to occasionally pick them up after school in between his shifts.
“I miss them … When I am able to, I’ll take them out during school holidays. Sometimes I like to show them around Singapore,” he said.
Mr Loh said that he has learned a lot from them too, especially on how to use smartphone apps like Instagram.
In particular, he found it amusing when they took pictures with a filter that would mirror animal features to their faces.
“They are bright girls, and very advanced in (using) phone apps. We take photos together of us looking like bulldogs,” he said.
All things considered, Mr Loh has no regrets over his career choice of being a taxi driver.
“I enjoy driving, and it keeps me fit and active. I also like the freedom the job offers,” he said.
However, he is approaching 75, the age limit for someone to hold the Taxi Driver Vocational Licence, as legislated by the Land Transport Authority.
He feels that he has been forced to hang up his keys and is reluctant to call it quits.
Not wanting to be bored, Mr Loh has already applied to do part-time work as a guide at a hospital in Singapore. He is also looking to do charity work after taking a month off after his retirement.
But the thought of taking the laminated photo of himself from his dashboard and storing it in some box in his home unsettles him slightly.
“I feel sad because I don’t want to retire,” said Mr Loh. “It’s no good to be less active. I’ll just be miserable.”