Behind the wheels in Phase 2 (HA): Taxi drivers’ battle for business and mealtime routines

It has been a year since COVID-19 latched its claws onto the earth, tearing apart and gnawing at people’s health, our livelihoods, and our sense of normalcy. In Singapore, working-from-home has weaved itself into our social fabric, and our concerns undergo shifts—from the initial connection problems on Zoom to the dilemma of opting for yet another delivery meal or buying another item online. And now, the million-dollar question of whether dining in on 21 June 2021 is an actuality or just another arbitrary date like 4 May 2020, the supposed end of ‘Circuit Breaker’. Before we bask in endless excitement, this Phase 2 (HA) calls for some reflection.

Collage of taxis and resting areas

During this period of no dining-in, a flurry of meal choices come to the forefront—fare from hawker stalls that need desperate support, inundation of take-away and delivery deals and even the rise of recipes for home-cooking. But I can’t help but think about the ones we’ve left behind as we adapted to the dining restrictions. What about our private hire drivers and taxi drivers who ferry us to restaurants that we deem “too out of the way” and the heroes who made sure we got to work appointments on time? Where and what do they eat, in the face of serious profit losses?

Feeling a guilty tug at my heartstrings when I see them around, I wonder how much about their situation we actually understand, beyond news articles about government support and designated resting areas for them. With that, I decided to be more than an armchair sympathiser and took a look around the resting areas where private hire, taxi drivers, and food delivery riders can have their meals, in hopes of learning more about how they’re coping.

After all, we’re human—and through the common language of food, I hope to understand them a little more during this trying time. With that, I spoke to three taxi drivers, Mr Eng, Mr Teo, and Mr Tan, working for Trans-Cab and Comfort Delgro, who very kindly gave me some insight into their lives during this Phase 2 (HA) period, through the usual fare they consume.

Natalie: Where did you usually have your meals, before the no dining-in restriction? 

Mr Eng: Same same lor, I just tapau from coffeeshop and eat in the car.

Mr Teo: Usually I eat (at) coffeeshops or wherever is convenient, or in the car also, depending on where’s convenient, and if I have time.

Mr Tan: I usually eat at the coffeeshop at my house everyday. 

Taxi 2

Natalie: How much has business changed? 

Mr Eng: It has dropped a lot, because people can’t eat outside, so no reason to go out also.

Mr Teo: It dropped quite a bit, but lucky we have rental subsidies from the government. When people cannot go out to eat, they don’t really go out and so naturally, they don’t take taxis also.

Mr Tan: There’s a 80% drop, worse than Circuit Breaker. This time round a lot of students got Covid, so the parents are worried and they don’t want to go out. Some more only two people are allowed to visit, so they don’t go around much. It’s school holiday now, but with restrictions and parents (being) scared, no one is going to the zoo, Sentosa, Resort World, parents won’t go mah. Also, the parents will take Grab also, not Trans-Cab. Hospitals also don’t allow visiting, so people also won’t take taxis. 

Natalie: With no dining-in restrictions and before the designated rest points were in place, how and where did you have your meals?

Mr Eng: I usually just go to the coffeeshop and tapau food, then I’ll eat in the carpark.

Mr Teo: In the car lor, nowhere else I can eat mah, we cannot eat in coffeeshops and all that.

Mr Tan: I usually just tapau from the same coffeeshop where I stay, I tapau and bring up to the multi-story carpark, from 9.30am to 11am, same place, same time. I drive from 6am to 3pm everyday. 

Natalie: What kinds of food do you have and why do you choose to have this for a meal?

Mr Eng: Suibian (Casually) eat lor, food that’s easy to eat, like cai fan, dry bak chor mee all that. Things like Hokkien mee, with gravy everywhere, how to eat in the car? Cai fan is convenient, you choose, you eat then you can drive off already.

Mr Teo: Anything convenient, packets of rice like chicken rice, fried bee hoon, char kway teow—what I like to eat lah; I’m very simple one. But I prefer to eat at coffeeshops, outside my car actually. Some food cannot eat inside the car; like wanton mee, got noodles and soup, how to eat?

Mr Tan: Anything lor, usually rice and noodles like bak chor mee, sometimes laksa when the weather is not so hot (laughs). Fishball noodles sometimes also. I like noodles lah

Chicken Rice

Natalie: Do you have to think more about the type of food to tapau now, since you’re not eating at the establishment itself? (if the food can travel well; it gets soggy faster, it’s messy to eat, etc.) 

Mr Eng: No need to think one, just eat something that is convenient lor. The government think too much, put these (designated resting) areas for us, but actually no need one lah. We eat in the car and then go already, so we usually don’t buy food that will be messy, and get soggy fast also. Think about what? Food costs very hard to save on one lah, plus I have enough to spend on food also, there’s still some customers so I’ll still earn a bit.

Mr Teo: I don’t really think more, I just choose the easier options to tapau. Rice, bread, and sometimes pau, all that easy to eat, especially when I eat in the car. But I don’t really like to eat in the car because sometimes very sian, drive whole day already still need eat in car, and the smell stays so customers may complain.

So sometimes, I’ll go to the areas we can eat at if it’s near where I am, if I don’t need to specially go find the areas. I don’t mind stopping if I have time, now not much business also. Like today I happened to be in Bedok, so I stopped here at Heartbeat @ Bedok. It’s even better because there’s a lot of food that’s very close to the resting area, got hawker centre and even eateries, (there’s) many choices. So ya, I’ll tapau food there (from elsewhere to the resting areas), but not too difficult to eat lah, I don’t have a hanger in the car, soup all that very hard, not convenient, later will spill in the car.

Mr Tan: Not really leh; I just tapau from the same coffeeshop then bring up to carpark, very near only, the noodles won’t be soggy so fast also. 

Tapau Bak Chor Mee

Natalie: Do you have any concerns over your mealtimes? (e.g, timing to eat due to unpredictable business and pick-up times) 

Mr Eng: Used to it already; got passenger of course we pick them up (points to the machine he uses to accept pick-ups), no matter what time. So we don’t eat on time, never mind one. But since your own time own target, you can choose when to eat also.

Mr Teo: Not a concern lah, we’re used to it mah. But you want to stop and eat also can. So sometimes I will stop halfway to eat if I’m hungry lor.

Mr Tan: Before the work-from-home period, there’s school in the early morning and some teachers and students will take cab. After that is normal work timing also so I will have passengers usually, so no time eat lor. But now work-from-home, no business, we (taxi drivers) can take a break at 9.30am, when last time it’s peak hour. 

Natalie: How do you feel about these designated areas to have your meals? Are they useful in allowing you to consume your meal safely? 

Mr Eng: I think the government is thinking too much lah. These CCs and shopping malls, we still need to go and find when we may not be in the area and sometimes it’s ulu. If they want to give us areas (for our meals), void decks are better because they are everywhere. We just need to cooperate, clean up after ourselves and keep the void deck areas clean after our meals, very easy. The CCs are safe areas but not convenient lah.

Mr Teo: It’s good, and very considerate for (food delivery) riders especially, so they can rest and eat more comfortably, their jobs are very hard. It’s good for us also, like sometimes when I have time I can take a breather outside my car and eat here. But not often lah, passengers still come first. They are useful, but only if you are in the area I think, some still need to go find, we don’t know every place in Singapore leh (laughs). But good lah, got proper table and chairs, you want to eat chicken chop (which needs cutting) also can (laughs).

Mr Tan: It’s useful lah, but they open at 10am, too late for me, I’m usually hungry before that (laughs). Their policy there is very strict, there’s only 45 minutes for you to eat and rest during peak hour. If there’s no one you can stay as long as you want, but you only have one table and one chair, and cannot talk to your friend (fellow taxi drivers), so no point to go there also lah. I also need to find the CCs, very mafan

Collage Of Rest Area At Geylang Serai Cc

Natalie: With more people going for vaccinations, do you think that your business will improve? 

Mr Eng: Eventually yes lah, but also depend on government’s policy, whether people can go out or not. Like this time, they restrict (during Phase 2 HA), business drop a lot.

Mr Teo: Yes, definitely, when people are free to move around and life is back to normal. But I don’t know how long it will take lah.

Mr Tan: Not for now leh. Because I think people are still scared, the government also advise people to stay home and away from shopping area. Like JEM and Westgate was closed for two weeks after COVID cases, and after reopening it’s still empty because people are still scared. So maybe not for now because people are still at home. 

Convenience is the pervasive notion that came through all the conversations I’ve had about these taxi drivers’ mealtimes. Their choice of food comes second; with taste and variety succumbing to convenience as well. Yet, from these helpful drivers, I understood that our hawker food is their everyday staple that satiates them beyond consumption for mere survival. Unlike many of us, they hardly or nary opt for restaurants and delivery services, usually on the go, even when business is less than ideal. It is the pride in their hustle that deserves our utmost respect.

Collage Of Hawker Food

Initially, I thought that the designated resting areas would be more utilised by taxi drivers, with proper spaces for them to rest at, since hours of driving may be toiling. But of course, convenience takes precedence. And as much as the accessibility that Community Centres in Singapore are meant to provide, to these drivers, locating them takes extra effort and time that they’re unwilling to spend. This explains the emptiness in most of the resting areas I visited, even at peak hours like lunchtime. Somehow, I’m left wondering if this status quo is truly beneficial for them. Are we, as a society, too used to how things are because it’s not happening to us? Blindly accepting that work hours for these taxi drivers are long and tiresome, impervious to their difficulties and discomfort of spending mealtimes in their cars when dining-in is prohibited? The privilege of eating at home is real, more than we actually realise.

Setting up designated rest areas only after the photo of a driver eating in the car boot surfaced seems like a mere attempt to place a band-aid over wounds, rather than to correct and improve the system where people of all occupations should be taken care of in the very first place. Behind the wheels, lie not just your taxi driver who sends you to your destination within 15 minutes, but a fellow person who doesn’t necessarily have the same privilege to have meals on time and in utmost comfort.

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Various CCs & spaces designated for food delivery riders, drivers to eat & take breaks