Minimum wage and the tyranny of public transport

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Waiting for public transport in the sweltering heat. However, that’s not the main challenge for minimum wage earners.Waiting for public transport in the sweltering heat. However, that’s not the main challenge for minimum wage earners.

By Sharmila Valli Narayanan

Last week, I elaborated on my challenge to try live on minimum wage to feel the pain of people within this wage bracket. I had a few advantages that other minimum wage earners didn’t: I would only use my RM900 to pay for food, transport and other necessities. The amount would not be used to pay my bills, mortgage etc. That meant I had RM30 per day to spend on food and transport. On paper, RM30 looks like quite a generous amount for a day especially for someone like me who is single and childless. But as I discovered, it was the public transport that messed up my budget, especially if there were taxis involved.

If Malaysia had its own version of Dante’s Inferno, public transport would definitely be in one of the circles of hell. I don’t drive and depend on public transport. Before my minimum wage experiment, my public transport consisted mainly of LRTs and taxis. I came to work in KL in 1992, before the LRT. Back then the taxi fare started at RM1. Although my salary was less than RM2,000 at that time, I could afford taxis and they were my choice for public transport. I hardly took the bus back then. However, over the years, taxi fares have gone up. The recent fare hike in 2009 has made catching a taxi expensive even for the middle class.  There are indications that there might be a fare hike in the future. Many of the taxi drivers I spoke to say that many passengers have now cut down on their taxi rides. Instead of taking a taxi straight to their destination, they either take the bus or LRT before taking a taxi to the final destination.

The coming of LRT made it my favourite mode of public transport, especially the Kelana Jaya line. I always took a cab to and fro from the LRT station. I did not have the patience to wait for the LRT feeder busses.

Over the years when I began freelancing and had to watch my budget a little, I began using the buses more but taxis were still my favourite mode of transport. But all this changed when I “became” a minimum wage earner. Suddenly I realised that if I needed to stick to my RM30 per day, I would have to use buses most of the time.

This is what I learned as I was forced to take buses more often: Malaysia might have the trappings of a developed country with its sophisticated LRT and monorail systems. But its third world mentality and outlook is evident in its buses.

I also learned that the poor spend a lot of their time waiting patiently for buses that never seem to arrive on time. Sometimes you can’t blame the drivers – the horrific state of traffic jams can sometimes cause a bus to be caught in a two-hour jam when it would normally take about 20 minutes to arrive at the destination. This is especially true after a heavy downpour. And sometimes the punctuality of the bus depends on the driver. This I found out from my experiences of waiting for the LRT bus in my area of SS7 in Kelana Jaya.

According to the schedule, during the peak hours from 7am to 9am, there is supposed to be a bus every 15 minutes. We Malaysians are very understanding. We do not expect the bus to come at precisely 15 minutes. A delay of 10 to even 15 minutes due to traffic is understandable. The LRT feeder bus route to SS7 is the shortest of all the other feeder bus routes but, speaking from personal experience, the SS7 bus is the most unreliable. There are about two to three drivers who are quite punctual. If the bus comes at the designated time, I can roughly guess who the drivers might be – they are the ones who are quite conscious of the fact that many passengers are waiting for the bus and need to make it to the office or their destination in time.

But there are other drivers who are not bothered at all. They will come 30, 45 minutes late and when you ask why the bus is late they will either glare at you, ignore you or use the standard excuse – the bus broke down. Why this particular bus that plies this route should always break down is a mystery to me.

To take a taxi from my place to the LRT station costs anywhere between RM5.20 to RM5.60 depending on the traffic. If there is a bad jam, it can come up to RM7 whereas the feeder bus costs just RM1. The RM6 difference is huge for a minimum wage earner. So you spend a lot of time waiting, waiting and praying for the bus to please come on time.

I’ve learned that if you are dependent on taking the bus everywhere, your time is not your own. You have to leave your home at least two hours earlier for your appointment. You will never know what time the bus will turn up. And if you live in an area where there is only one bus service, my heart goes out to you.

The Government can spend billions extending LRT lines and building new MRT lines but if they are not well connected via feeder busses, how are people going to get to the stations? Especially for those who do not have cars? I sometimes cannot help but think that LRTs and MRTs are only meant for people who can drive to the station to take the trains. Have the authorities considered that if the feeder busses are efficient, these people don’t even have to drive their cars to the stations?

And the condition of some of the public busses is really pathetic. I once had a project for a few months at Ampang Point. The area is well served by several buses. However, some of the buses were in deplorable conditions. The seats were torn and tattered; some had metal bits sticking out – I needed to be extra careful that one of those pieces did not pierce or cut me during the journey. Sitting in these buses I sometimes asked myself: Am I in Kuala Lumpur or am I in an extremely poor third world country? How are these buses allowed to operate in such conditions?

Our buses do not seem friendly to senior citizens, those physically challenged and those with bad knees like me. The steps are so high that it is difficult to climb up and get down these buses.

Once when I was getting down a bus, the last step was so high that when I landed, I landed heavily on one knee and sprained it badly. The pain was almost unbearable and a visit to the doctor cost me RM40. That’s more than one day’s budget! I have taken buses in Singapore where the steps are low so that one does not injure oneself while boarding or alighting the bus. Why can’t our buses be more passenger friendly?

Despite not wanting to, I was forced to take taxis especially during occasions when I was in a hurry and there was no sign of a bus, or when my appointment was in places that were not well served by buses or LRT.  I hated going to Desa Sri Hartamas and Mont Kiara! The nearest LRT stations for these places is Bangsar. The taxi fare going to these places can range from RM9 to RM11. Taking a taxi to and fro from Bangsar LRT can be a very expensive affair if your budget for the day is only RM30!

My biggest enemy when I took a cab was not unscrupulous taxi drivers – I was very lucky that most of the taxi drivers I met all used meters. I never got into a taxi where the driver refused to use meters – but traffic jams. If you are caught in a jam, the meter keeps running even when the taxi is not moving. I once ended up paying RM34 for a ride (when the usual fare should have been RM16 the most) due to a bad jam caused by an accident along the highway. I learned that poor people only used taxis if it was for short distance or if they had absolutely no choice.

Politicians here keep on harping that our taxi fares are among the lowest in the world and compare it to fares in neighbouring Singapore. They forget that Singapore’s bus and MRT system and the connectivity stations to residential areas are so good that most people especially the poor do not need taxis to get around the island. That is not the case here.

What I learned when I was a minimum wage earner was that I could  somehow get by with eating only Maggie Mee, Nestum or bread but waiting patiently for the bus that was always late was something I just could not take at times. It so annoyed me that I was close to tears several times.

And suddenly I was no longer critical of people who piled three to four passengers on a motorcycle that should only fit two. When children need to go to school on time and when the buses are unreliable and taxis too expensive, what is a poor parent to do?

But most important of all, I asked myself, how in the world are minimum wage earners supporting themselves and their children? One cleaning lady told me, “My children get to eat rice and some vegetables for the first three or four days after my husband and I get our salaries. After that it’s just porridge and acar (pickle).”

When she saw my shocked expression she quickly added, “But it’s not always so bad. I am lucky that in my office they have lots of functions like lunches and teas. The management very kindly allows us to take home the leftovers. That’s the time my children have a feast. I still believe that there are nice people in this world.”

Next week: Summing up what it’s like to be a minimal wage earner

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