If someone were to ask me to sum up Singapore in one picture, I would show them the taxi rate chart. I feel there is no better symbol of the nation than that swirling soup of numbers. It captures the beautiful madness of the Singapore style of behaviour modification.
Earlier this month, many were stunned to learn that taxi drivers work for money, cheekily thumbing their noses at the public opinion that they work round the clock, for free.
The fact of their greedy capitalist leanings came to light when a check by The Straits Times found that in the minutes before the 5pm peak hour surcharges kick in, cabs vanish, only to reappear at 5pm.
Readers e-mailed with suggestions, one of which was that cabbies be tracked by GPS to make sure they were behaving themselves and punished if they were not, in a scheme that turns the whole vehicle into an electronic ankle tag. In the minds of some people, cabbies should be treated like inmates on home release.
How about we aim for a solution that does need us to monitor our taxi drivers like they were drug offenders?
It is staggering to me that taxi surcharges have been in play for decades, along with the hide-and-seek games they cause, yet the fountain of public outrage never runs dry. Something must be done, they cry, systems must be tweaked, carrots and sticks must come out.
The mess is made murkier because it is all so emotional. Value judgments like "lazy", "cherry- picking", "picky" or "choosy" will be flung at cabbies, and "demanding" and "spoilt" will be thrown at taxi users, as if the issue was about good morals. It is not. It is about economics.
Taxi drivers, I believe, are behaving just as you or I, or any rational player would, given the rules of the taxi game. It is a game that takes away a lot of their power as players, and the problem of taxis disappearing when you need them is caused by drivers exercising what little power they have.
For example, what with the tower of rules they work under (traffic rules, customer service rules, damage investigation and minimum distance rules, among others), one of the few things they have control over is when to take a break.
It makes perfect sense to take that break 30 minutes before the peak hour or midnight surcharge kicks in. If you need a short rest, the best and most rational time to take it is right before the most lucrative and busiest earning period.
If you ran a restaurant, you wouldn't schedule a staff meal break at 7pm. You would do it at 5pm, before the dinner rush. If a customer wanders in at 5.30pm expecting to eat, tough luck.
Taxi drivers are not, as some have said, "gaming the system". They are simply playing the game in a way that makes the most sense for them.
But things get complicated because of the vaguely important status of taxis in our national transport infrastructure. They are somewhere between being an essential service (like electricity or water) and a luxury.
In Singapore, the test of whether something is a luxury or a necessity can be found by asking: "Do I need it, or do others need it?" If the answer is "me", then it is absolutely a necessity. If the answer is "others", then it is a luxury, of course.
As a diehard MRT and bus user, I will say taxis and cars are a bloody nuisance on roads meant for the buses of thrifty plebeians like me.
I won't be the first to say that the Babel tower of extra charges, with all its unintended consequences, needs to go.
The best, and most painful answer, is to let the buyers and sellers find their own level, as is the practice in Hong Kong, where peak-hour, midnight or zone- based charges (for airports and other out-of-reach areas) do not exist, but where supply and demand somehow manage to stay in harmony, at all hours of the day and night. It is almost as if there was a free market or some such nutty scheme like that going on up there.
We need to get out of thinking that we are owed a flag-down taxi. Those days belong in the past, when roads were less clogged. Cruising not only wastes the driver's time and money, but is also a really poor way to meet demand, especially in housing estates.
This is where booking apps, like the third-party ones from the likes of GrabTaxi or Easy Taxi come in, because they are operator-agnostic.
Then, if we are feeling really adventurous, we should try variable pricing - not surcharges, but spot prices calculated from how badly demand outstrips supply at any moment.
Ridesharing service Uber calls it "surge pricing" (though during super-peak demand periods, some have called it "gouge pricing", but no one said that capitalism was going to be kind).
If the midnight surcharge is retained for some reason, then MRT trains should run till 1.30am so riders, especially those staying out late in the Central Business District, have more options for getting home.
Today, the train service ends around 11.30pm, when all over Singapore, taxi drivers are migrating to their nightly rest areas, from which they will emerge at midnight.