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The controversy surrounding Uber in Malaysia continues – earlier, it was reported that the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) was approaching the topic carefully and was wary about taking action against the transport service provider, given its growing popularity with the Malaysian public.

Now, things are heating up. News reports from earlier today gave the indication that authorities had deemed the service ‘illegal’, which isn’t really the case. What SPAD is actually saying is that the mobile app-based vehicle for hire service must fully comply with all transportation laws in the country, which it apparently does not at present.

For starters, the commission says that the service utilises private vehicles, which are not allowed to carry fare-paying passengers. Doing so is an offence under the Land Public Transport Act 2010. The regulations also state that vehicles registered under ‘hire-and-drive’ conditions under SPAD cannot be used for taxi or limousine services.

According to SPAD chairman Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar, the commission’s findings had determined that Uber is utilising private vehicles as well as those registered for ‘hire-and-drive’ services in addition to vehicles from proper limousine companies.

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“Under the current regulatory scheme, among the vehicles used by Uber, only licensed limousines are eligible to offer chauffeur-driven services,” he said. Plying the trade with private and ‘hire-and drive’ cars is the concern. “This illegal service provided could be colloquially referred to as kereta sapu,” as Syed Hamid put it.

Additional issues concern the fact that vehicles utilised by the service are not covered under commercial vehicle insurance. They might not also be put through Puspakom’s semi-annual checks, he added.

On top of all this, SPAD also found that some Uber drivers do not possess a Public Service Vehicle (PSV) driving licence, an offence under the Road Transport Act 1987.

Syed Hamid however said that the commission is taking a more pragmatic approach and is open to allowing this service, as long as the services are provided by appropriately licensed vehicles and drivers.

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He added that there should be no shortage of options to bring compliance about. “Since there are 839 licensed limousines nationwide which are eligible to offer this service, the supply of vehicles and drivers should therefore not be an issue for Uber,” he said.

Syed Hamid stated that as the regulator in charge of Malaysia’s land public transport, SPAD would not hesitate to take enforcement action on service providers who do not comply with the law.

Earlier, Gabungan Persatuan dan Syarikat-Syarikat Teksi Semenanjung Malaysia (GABUNGAN) called on SPAD to act against Uber. Apart from taking away their customers, taxi operators claim that the law does not bind the service, and if an accident happens, passengers are at risk.

Malaysia is of course not the first country in which the service – which was launched in KL in October last year and which recently introduced its budget UberX service – has faced such vitriol.

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Uber’s services – currently covering 57 cities in 22 countries – pose a definite challenge to many public transport regulators around the world, so much so that some cities such as Miami, Berlin and Seoul have banned it.

The claim by SPAD that Uber utilises private cars, which have no operating licence and as such contravenes existing public transport laws, might have a ring of truth to it. Many of the team here at paultan.org have utilised Uber in their daily travels, and we’ve talked to some of the service’s drivers who used to work in the Uber system as part of limo companies but who are now working in the Uber system on their own. We didn’t go into detail with them on what this meant, and whether the vehicles they were driving were private cars.

So, loopholes exist, and they should be plugged to bring compliance about, but how will it pan out, and how will Uber respond in terms of compliance to the law? The service only supplies the technology and the system to connect customers to transport providers – the cars are all provided by third-party partners.

More importantly, it remains to be seen how the authorities will go about things, and whether they will curtail its growth. Shutting it out, if it comes to that, would be a travesty – the point is, something like Uber is a godsend to many public transport users in the Klang Valley, given the efficiency of regular taxi operations.

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It’s not like we have a truly efficient taxi service, despite having 60,000-plus taxis in the Peninsular – as many will undoubtedly agree, it’s a challenge to get a cab most times, whether on foot or by phone. On one occasion, this writer stood outside his taman for 43 mins attempting to flag a cab down, simply because calling in for one got the usual “No teksi” reply. Two did stop, but didn’t want to go the intended route.

So yes, the livelihood of taxi drivers is important, of course, and something like Uber naturally challenges it, but the idea is that you need to compete, not just discredit it and whinge that it’s taking away your income. How to go about it, well, how about improving the attitude and approach towards users – the very people you depend on for your livelihood – for a start? We won’t even begin to go into the condition of some of the rides.

Until taxi operators can show users that their service is efficient and accessible, without us having to listen to those tired, familiar “tak mau pergi” and “no teksi” lines or asked to pay a flat rate because there is no other option, something like Uber will always be the better choice. To ban or eliminate it would be taking a few significant steps back in public transport – hopefully, it won’t come to that.

As Syed Hamid put it during the briefing with the press, “SPAD would also like to take this opportunity to urge the taxi industry to use these current developments as an opportunity to enhance the level of service provided and improve the reputation of the domestic taxi industry, in order to further gain public confidence.” Time then for everyone to wake up – getting Uber to play by the rules is just one part of it.

What are your thoughts on the Uber topic? Share your views with us in the comments section.

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