Singapore cabbies dream of upturn

Mariko Oi
BBC World

A decade ago, James Yang upgraded his taxi to a seven-seater maxi cab to target Singapore’s corporate sector.

And for a while it worked out well, “bringing in more money”, he says.

“Travel agents asked me to pick up their clients, or I did big corporate events.

“But now, companies are spending less on taxis. My revenue has fallen almost 90% since last year.”

So recently, Mr Yang has been scouting for passengers on the streets.

Unaffordable luxury

Taxis in Singapore are already amongst the cheapest in the world, with a minimum charge less than $2 (£1.20).

They have been a popular form of public transport for everyone from builders to executives.

But in the recession, it is the luxury that they cannot afford.

“People are more cautious. They prefer to get up early and take public transport instead of taxis,” says Mr Yang.

“And to make things harder, they tend not to hail my cab, assuming it would be more expensive, so I have to drive around even longer than an ordinary taxi to find a customer.”

Bouncing back

As long as people are reluctant to spend, business will remain tough for Mr Yang, though there are signs that the worst recession in Singapore’s history could be nearing its end.

The economy expanded at an annualised rate of 20.4% between April and June.

It was the first quarterly expansion for a year, and the fastest growth for nearly six years.

It is a huge bounce-back compared with the 12.7% contraction in the first quarter ending in March.

This is thanks to increased drug sales and construction activity, according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Manufacturing is not a huge part of Singapore’s economy, but the island specialises in pharmaceuticals and high-end specialist manufacturing.

Increased demand for flu vaccines helped an already recession-proof sector to expand.

Unsustainable recovery

While this is a huge relief for many Singaporeans, the government remains cautious.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry says the economic growth seen between April and June “may not be sustained”.

“The real economic indicators are still plunging,” says Roman Scott of Calamander Group.

Retail sales suffered their biggest drop since 1999 in April. They fell at an annual rate of 11.7%, after dropping 7.3% in March and 5.5% in February.

This is not surprising, as people are worried about losing their jobs.

The government revised up its first quarter unemployment rate to 3.3%. That is a jump from 2.5% in December.

“You can never have a real economic recovery when people are still getting fired,” Mr Scott adds.

“The economy was at the bottom so it had to bounce back. In this economic climate, any recovery looks huge because we saw a total collapse.”

The government still expects the economy to contract for the year.

It now predicts the economy will shrink between 4% and 6% for 2009 as a whole, less than its earlier estimate of a contraction of between 6% and 9%.

Still not healed

And yet, Mr Scott says, it will take much longer for ordinary Singaporeans to feel the miracle recovery.

“Singapore was taken out of an intensive care unit a month ago, after so much stimulus medicine was given.”

“But it is not out of hospital. It can walk around and meet visitors, but you will have to wait until the end of the year for it to be discharged.”

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