THE Ministry of Transport (MOT) will study third-party taxi-booking apps such as GrabTaxi and Uber, and where justified, level the playing field between private-hire drivers who offer their services through these apps and taxi drivers, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said on his "Moving News" blog on Friday.
"I have asked Senior Minister of State Ng Chee Meng to take on this assignment, consult our taxi drivers and the general public, and forge a fair solution," added Mr Khaw, in his third blog post since assuming the role of Transport Minister.
The former National Development Minister was responding to concerns from a number of taxi drivers who had informed him during the recent General Election campaign that "UberX is unfair", referring to the private-hire service of Uber, where its drivers, unlike taxi drivers, do not require a vocational licence to provide (on-demand) transport services. "While taxi drivers welcome competition, they demand that the playing field be level. I think our taxi drivers have a point," Mr Khaw noted.
Meanwhile, he urged Singaporeans to be open to new innovations and business models. "Our instinct must be to flow with the time, keep an open mind to innovations," he said, pointing out that GrabTaxi, Uber and the like have made it easier for commuters to call a taxi, leading to better resource utilisation and consumer welfare. "But we must always be fair to players, whether incumbent or insurgents, and strike a balanced approach," he urged.
Aside from UberX, on-demand private-hire services here include GrabTaxi's GrabCar and Uber's UberEXEC. These services, unlike taxis, do not pick up commuters off the street or from a taxi stand.
Asked about MOT's plans, a Uber spokesman said: "Uber has always believed in providing riders and drivers more choice and was the only app that offered such a variety to Singaporeans from the most affordable option of UberX to the regular UberTAXI and the premium UberEXEC. In fact, Uber has helped thousands of Singaporeans - former taxi drivers, students, young professionals - become thriving driver entrepreneurs using our platform."
As for GrabCar, its priority has always been to ensure that passengers have access to their preferred mode of transportation, whether taxis or private-hire vehicles, said a spokesman. "These multiple services help to grow the industry as a whole, as they ease barriers that exist within the industry, such as the lack of available on-demand transport options during peak periods."
Park Byung Joon, adjunct associate professor at SIM University, told BT: "MOT must recognise that the distinction between private hire vehicles and taxis has drastically blurred. Uber has broken this boundary . . . by making both do very much the same thing now."
A revolutionary framework that treats the booking of taxis and private-hire cars as a unified service is therefore necessary, said Prof Park, who praised Mr Ng's involvement in the study as this will require "new thinking" driven by a "top-level guy", he said.
Lee Der-Horng, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the National University of Singapore, said that what commuters really need is a "white knight", a one-stop taxi-booking platform that aggregates all the taxi drivers regardless of taxi company, which will work because "brand loyalty is not big here". But neither GrabTaxi nor UberTAXI - both of which are open to all taxi drivers - has captured a significant share - much less all - of the 50,000 taxi drivers here, Prof Lee noted.
"Moreover, assuming that the average household size is 3.5 persons, and that of the extended family is another 3.5 persons, we're talking about the livelihoods of over 600,000 affected citizens, a sizeable proportion of Singapore citizens (3.34 million as at June 2014). The societal impact is significant and is probably why Mr Khaw called for this review to help our taxi drivers."
In June, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) said that it was exploring removing the current exemption for private-hire drivers from obtaining a vocational licence, as part of measures to ensure commuter interests and safety.
In May, former transport minister Lui Tuck Yew told Parliament that LTA would explore extending regulations to the booking of private hire cars in addition to taxis, after a bill was passed to grant LTA powers to regulate third-party taxi-booking platforms here.
Among the proposed regulations is the need for such platforms to register with LTA in order to operate in Singapore. Registration has opened on Sept 1, and platforms will have to register by Dec 1, BT has learnt.