Words of wisdom from a 59 year old taxi driver

Posted: January 12, 2010 by fievel in Labels:

I think it's been quite established by now that Singapore has some of the most over-qualified taxi drivers...tonight I met one taxi driver whom I had a nice conversation with.

To me, old taxi uncles are the best keepers of Singapore's local history. They tell you the stuff you cannot find from google or Singapore history books; and so I really relish every chance meeting I have with a coherent, logical and wise old taxi driver, such as this uncle tonight.

He wears a sporty cap over his crew cut head of white hair. His face looks weather beaten and slightly tanned but sturdily strong for a 59 year old. He speaks good English and he is not a myopic creature - which to me means somebody who knows about the world outside of Singapore.

He asked me, "Wah you get off work at such a late hour ah?"
After explaining to him the reasons we got off to a little chat about different time zones in the world and that got him started on telling me how he was once working in Saudi Arabia as an aeronautical technician for Saudi Airlines...not sure if it is exactly called Saudi Airlines or some other form of that...but anyway, the topic quickly got me interested, as I am always interested in taxi drivers' beginnings, especially those who seemed to have once had it better.

Well let's call him Uncle T. Uncle T says he joined SIA as a technician after NS in 1972 and worked there till 1978. He was paid in the region of $600+ per month. He moved on to join Saudi Airlines in 1979 when they first bought what he recalls as the "Jumbo plane" from SIA and needed good, hardworking Singaporean technicians.

"They wanted to recruit about 30 of us, 20 of which were Malays for obvious reasons, and the rest of us, we had to pretend to be Christians because they didn't like other religions like Buddhism. I had to get Christian friends' ICs to photostat and so on...because they got baptise and all that..." He explained.

"Why leh? I don't understand about the Christianity part.." I replied.

"Because they don't like Jews..." he added without a thought, leaving me curious to wonder if I was so ignorant as to not know some sort of a link between Judaism and Buddhism...ANYWAY, I let that thought hang for the time being.

He added that his wife and kids used to get 4 tickets per year per person to visit him there.
"The Saudis are so rich that is nothing to them lah.."
"That's nice...but is there anything they can do there?" I asked as I pictured a 1970s version of the land of the Saudis.

"You know, Singapore only started having all these huge shopping malls in the recent years. The Americans were there in Saudi back then and they had all these mega huge shopping malls even then!" He quipped.

So anyway, he went on to tell me they were paid SGD 3000 a month worth of basic salary for 8 hours work days, and every extra hour they worked it was an additional 1% of their basic salary, which pretty much allowed him to earn a total of $6000 every month, not counting a $10,000 per annum allowance. He did this for 5 years, and he decided it was time to return to Singapore.

Back in Singapore, he had the means to pay off his 5 room flat in Bedok Resevoir which cost him $70,000 at that time. He tried to join SIA but decided to snub them when they offered him only what a fresh recruit would be getting. He decided to take on taxi-driving, which he further explained was rather profitable back in the days of 1980s. He was bringing home about $2k-$3k per month.

At this juncture we started talking about his kids who are about my age and how today's housing costs are horribly out of sync with earning power. Today, a graduate earning $2k to $3k starting salary is very much the average statistic, and yet our 5 room flats in Bedok Reservoir cost up to $400,000 and more at the time of writing.

I told him I am saving up to escape this crazy island and he said he regret not being daring enough to move to Australia back when his friends were asking him along. He also has a brother-in-law whose entire family migrated to Canada almost 10 over years ago and are not regretting a single bit of their decision.

He ended his story saying, "no doubt they pay higher taxes there if they are working, but if they are not, they get welfare in return...I liked talking to you, I'll try to come round to spot for you again and we can talk again..I wish you luck" He gave a wise old man-ish white stubbly chinned grin and patted on my shoulder as I took the change and receipt.


  1. Did you give him a nice big tip? :)

    Thanks for the cool story! Did he say how much taxi drivers earn per month nowadays compared to the past?

  1. Anonymous says:

    If you are lucky one can earn $20 to $30 after deducting rental, disel and car wash, per day. In these very hard times. -TAXI DRIVER

  1. vinyarb says:

    2k - 3k in the 80s is really pretty good money! For every decision you make, you're bound to miss out on other opportunities, be they more lucrative or set you back a couple of steps.
    The best way to live life is to not harp on those i guess.. otherwise, we'll be harping all day long.

  1. anonymous says:

    Thanks for the story. Costs in Singapore are skyrocketing and my gf and I are feeling really crowded-out. We're not exactly poor, so the possibility of saving up to migrate is quite real. But I really feel for fellow Singaporeans who are struggling to earn enough to feed their families and finance their HDB home loans. These people don't have a choice but to stay and try their best to make a living on this tiny island. Singaporeans truly deserve a better government that doesn't suppress the wages of low-skilled workers by importing boatloads of much cheaper but equally low-skilled foreign labour. I don't think the taxi driver saw this coming. I might have made the same choices if confronted with the same circumstances he had in those days.

  1. Fievel says:

    Hi Cheewai, I didn't ask him as I have some reliable sources saying taxi drivers earn anywhere from $1k to $4k a month depending on the number of hours they can slog - which is on average 10 to 12 hrs per day x 7 days a week. They do not have CPF contributions from the cab companies though.

    hi Vinyarb, you are right about different decisions taking people different places. But I beg to differ if there are collectively a significant amount of people suffering from the same bad decision of chasing after money in Singapore the "hard work" way, as inflation and a general inability of citizens to retire is a phenomenon definitely worth a few words, if not some serious thoughts.

    Hi Anonymous at 3:43am, I think with the increasing level of education and qualifications and globalization, comparisons of quality of life in different countries is becoming much more prevalent amongst Singaporean citizens. Try asking your friends and colleagues what they think of this topic and I figure you'll get pretty much the same answer. However, migration, which Uncle T in the above story pointed out to me (but I did not capture in the recount above), is a major decision not to be easily taken. Family members need to be consulted and a certain level of financial planning is required as well. Even with all the knowledge in the world, actually having the chance to experience the difference of life overseas speaks a million words and without which, many a times it becomes mere "grumbling", to quote our Lee Kuan Yew.