By YS Chan
IT was déjà vu for me reading the report that Pan Malaysia Bus Operators Association president Datuk Mohamad Ashfar Ali said the commercial transport industry in the country is facing a shortage of 3,000 drivers each year.
In November 2011, I had mooted the idea of setting up of a professional drivers’ academy to address the root of the problem. Had it been taken up, the landscape of our taxi and bus industries would have been quite different as they are today.
Below was my proposal in toto.
The standard of taxi and bus services is easily gauged by the quality of the drivers. Any Malaysian above 21 and in possession of a driver’s licence may apply for a Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licence after attending and passing a short course.
Those who choose to drive lorries apply for the Goods Driving Licence (GDL). They may later obtain PSV licence and switch to passenger carrying vehicles or alternate between the two as determined by the opportunities denied or given to them.
The age for commercial vehicle drivers can range from those in their early 20s to retirees who wish to work at their own pace by driving a taxi. Driving to earn a living is one job where the entry and exit doors are wide open to large number of citizens.
Therefore, many have tried and given up driving commercial vehicles. Those who continue may do so by choice or without. The high attrition rate and the welfare of current practitioners should be a matter of concern, especially by the authorities.
Integrity and professionalism are the hallmarks of a healthy industry but these are grossly lacking in local taxi and bus operations. Stage and express bus companies weakened by corruption and pilferage can easily succumb to fierce competition or national policies.
The unrestrained ownership and unrestricted use of cars in support of our motor industry do not promote the use of public transportation. Mass repatriation or exodus of foreign workers can cause a sudden drop of bus passengers.
Problems are aplenty but none more serious than the issue of drivers as it involves lives. Many bus drivers do not take their employment seriously, as they can easily hop from one company to another as demand for bus drivers far outstrips supply.
Taxi companies employing drivers also face the same problem as the overwhelming number of taxi drivers prefer to be self-employed, driving their own cab or renting one from a company and doing what they fancy.
Upgrading the professionalism of our public service vehicle drivers would be the most visible and effective transformation of our road transportation. This can be achieved by setting up a driver’s academy.
We may have enough vocational and defensive driving schools but the industry is simply not getting drivers in the numbers needed. It is one area the industry players will welcome intervention by the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD).
A system is needed to churn out drivers so that road public transport becomes safer, more reliable and pleasant. For this, we need drivers who are well trained and mannered, and in good physical and mental health.
I obtained my first PSV licence in the 1970s after attending an interview and allowed it to lapse in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, I reapplied and was tested for driving a minibus, as I wanted it to be included in my PSV. Again, it lapsed.
In 2000, I had to undergo a mandatory course at a vocational driving school. I obtained a PSV to drive taxi after passing the driving and written tests. Disturbingly, some of those who failed their written tests somehow still managed to get their PSV.
Each year, I dutifully go to the same clinic to have a medical examination before the doctor signs on my PSV renewal form. However, it is common knowledge that many commercial vehicle drivers renew their PSV/GDL without proper medical examination.
Sitting all day behind the wheel takes a heavy toll on the health of these drivers. Food at popular eateries is no doubt delicious but also artery clogging and washing them down with sweetened drinks is a perfect recipe for non-communicable diseases.
Hence the need for a drivers’ academy not only for training in driving skills, but also to develop public service vehicle drivers as a professional career that will even attract graduates to join, as many of them are unemployed.
We need to make a paradigm shift in some areas if we aspire to become a high-income nation. A safe pair of hands is essential to navigate a new bus costing a few hundred thousand ringgit and the even more precious load of passengers.
Bus companies should not only adhere to the Safety, Health & Environmental Code of Practice but also ensure that the drivers are adequately paid.
This will only be possible if the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) allows bus companies to charge reasonable fares or are offered subsidies.
Graduates can be attracted to drive buses if the starting pay is comparable with other jobs and the drivers’ academy offers lifelong learning for them to continue developing themselves as driving need not be a dead-end job.
The best drivers can be designated as captains and wear uniforms similar to pilots after passing an exam set by the bus industry. As it is, some bus passengers address the drivers as captains merely out of courtesy although they may be donning T-shirts.
However, for these bus captains to be truly respected, they must be professional and act like one. Apart from driving the bus with utmost care, they should be courteous, communicate well and appear knowledgeable.
They must also lead a healthy lifestyle and not join the majority of Malaysian adults who are either overweight or obese. They should refrain from smoking and consuming alcohol as these could lead to taking drugs.
In order to become good role models for other drivers, they are to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy and fit. Currently, it would be difficult to find existing taxi and bus drivers that fall into this category.
New buses are written off the books after 10 years and they can still be in good condition for another 10 years if they are carefully handled by the drivers and well maintained by the company.
As such, bus companies ought to nurture young drivers and offer them a career path. The new recruits may choose to continue driving for the next 30 years or switch to other jobs, such as becoming trainers or work as field supervisors or office executives.
Their intimate knowledge of bus operations would prove to be a great asset for any bus company wishing to expand locally or overseas.
They also get to meet thousands of passengers, and connecting with just one good samaritan can change their lives forever.
In the tourism industry, many limousine drivers and tourist guides have progressed to senior positions in travel or tour companies and some running their own business.
It is said that there is no future in any job but the future lies in the person who holds the job.
The proposed drivers’ academy can transform the dreary job of driving a taxi or bus into a professional career and continue to support the drivers with courses and activities to develop their full potential instead of leaving them to fend for themselves.
The best investment SPAD can spend to transform public road transportation is to set up this Drivers’ Academy. Should the shortage of bus drivers reach a critical level, foreigners can be an option if they are well trained in local communication and culture.
The Drivers’ Academy will also be our best hope to upgrade the taxi service in this country. Taxi permits should not be granted freely but only to those who have been professionally trained and prepared to provide exemplary services to passengers.
*The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Times (TMT).