What ‘fairy tale’ of S$7,000-a-month cabby can teach us

Belmont Lay
Belmont Lay
The Flipside

In "The FlipSide", local blogger Belmont Lay lets loose on local politics, culture and society. To be taken with a pinch of salt. Parental permission is advised. In this post, he talks about the recent media storm over the S$7,000-a-month cabby.

The recent news that taxi drivers are capable of earning big bucks has not gone down well with Singaporeans.

It was reported by The Sunday Times on Oct. 28 that two cabbies, Muhammad Hasnor Hashim and Mark Leow, both 32, earned S$7,000 and S$6,000 a month respectively as taxi drivers.

While Leow was spared most of the backlash, Muhammad has borne the brunt of it.

What followed was not surprising: cynicism and backlash from an incredulous public.  (Since then, both the cabbie and the reporter have explained their side of the story)

And there are at least five good reasons why such news is bad for everyone.

1. Fairy tales are different from good news

First and foremost, the S$7k-a-month cabbie news is essentially a fairy tale. It is about an one-off occurrence, but wasn't presented as such. And fairy tales aren't the same as good news.

While good news is verifiable with data, fairy tales are based on word-of-mouth -- which is what it is in this case -- and paints an overly rosy picture of life in Singapore.

While good news is supposed to make everyone feel better, fairy tales tend to only make reporters look bad and their editors look worse.


2.Shoddy reporting

The basic fact is that the news story was written from a poor angle that disregarded the wider facts and statistics of how much cabbies really earned.

True, people want to read good news once in a while for a kick. But they don't want to feel like an idiot reading it. Especially one written with a pitiful lack of hard data.

Ultimately, what can be gleaned is the dubious underlying message that anyone can make it given a bit of hard work.

And nobody likes to be told that they are less well-off simply because they are not hardworking enough.

Not because it is misleading. But because it is simply not true.

So where does this lead us?

3. Readers' intelligence taken for granted

With a simple back-of-the-hand calculation, any reader can dismiss the claim that Muhammad Hasnor Hashim makes "an average of $7,000 a month working Mondays to Saturdays".

This very fact already takes for granted the intelligence of readers. Worse, it makes them cynical and suspicious.

And what does it show? It shows shoddy work on the part of the reporter. Someone who gives short shrift to mathematics. And ignores common sense.

Because what is the ulterior motive of telling me something so unbelievable? What is the point of this story?

Is it supposed to make people jealous? Why am I presented a topsy-turvy view of Singapore?

4. Image of drivers tarnished

The larger implications can be felt almost immediately: the image of taxi drivers is tarnished as it trivialises the work done by them.

This point requires a bit of explaining. From the readers' perspective, what are they supposed to imagine and believe?

That cabbies no doubt work hard driving around a lot but, hey, they are capable of earning so much more than white-collar professionals, so it shouldn't be so bad?

Well, that's absolute rubbish.

Cab drivers have it brutally bad. Next time you board a cab, talk to the driver.

With more than 20,000 cabs plying the road on any given day, they are fighting for scraps all the time.

And who makes up the bulk of them? The old, the unhealthy and those who should be retired but cannot because they have a housing loan to pay or kids to send to school.

5. Takes spotlight off taxi operators

The focus then should be on how much profits taxi operators, such as ComfortDelGro, derive from the blood, sweat and tears of taxi drivers.

A much more interesting question a newspaper should be asking is what market forces are at work to determine the rental rate for taxis daily.

If COE and housing prices can fluctuate, why not taxi rental rates?

Where are the statistics? Where are the spokespersons from the various transport operators?

Think about it: if taxi rental is S$100 a day, that's $2 million worth of rental collected per day by taxi operators from at least 20,000 taxis.

That's $60 million a month and that sounds like a really interesting news story.

Silver lining?

The silver lining from this case is that readers overall score much higher in media literacy than perhaps what the government gives them credit for.

Following the publication of the $7k-a-month taxi driver, people have snorted, cast doubts and done their own homework.

Because deep down inside, people do know if anything is too good to be true, it usually is.

And the last thing they want to read is a fairy tale. In a newspaper.

Belmont Lay is one of the editors of New Nation, an online publication that is honest about being dishonest.