Straits Times Article Slammed As Biased By Netizen
When The Straits Times published an article by its Senior Transport Correspondent Christopher Tan last Saturday (June 10), on private-hire car services Uber and Grab, many netizens were perplexed at the lack of balance in the piece.
Touted in the standfirst as “How Uber and Grab sustain themselves is among a list of mysteries that remains unsolved”, it proceeded to list down 10 “mysteries” of such services that have become an essential part of Singapore’s transport landscape in just a short time.
The article’s whole conception and wording was curious: To many Singaporeans, there is no mystery about Uber or Grab — they are providing a very important service to commuters who have lost confidence in Singapore’s public transport system and an alternative to the high expense of getting a car. Read our story about Millennials preferring private-hire car services.
The piece was a tad overdramatic from the very beginning:
It has been four years since private-hire operators Uber and Grab landed here, but there are still many unknowables about the two high-profile and yet secretive organisations, the people who drive for them and even their customers.
“High-profile and yet secretive organisations”? “Unknowables” about the drivers and customers?
Erm, is Mr Tan comparing Uber and Grab to the freemasons or some other cult-like organisation that inducts members via secret robe-wearing ceremonies?
Mr Tan then goes on to question private-hire car companies’ business model — they are starting to behave like taxi operators and buying up fleets of vehicles, despite starting out as a matching service between commuters and private car drivers who are willing to be hired.
He then questions why investors are putting in so much money into these companies when they are starting to become asset-heavy, will give zero returns in 6 years and are supposedly losing money.
At this point, the article starts sounding like it’s been sponsored by taxi companies, the direct competitors of private-hire companies, to plant seeds of doubts in the minds of investors and customers of Uber and Grab.
That wasn’t lost on some netizens:
We all know ST doesn’t do sponsored articles, so why is this article starting to sound like one?
After questioning the investors, Mr Tan takes aim at the drivers who let their cars and driving skills be hired.
A car is private transport, which means you don’t have to share with the public. Otherwise, it’s called public transport. So, why are tens of thousands in Singapore allowing strangers into their cars?
Well let’s see, not everybody is smart or fortunate enough to be paid well to write about transport matters for our national newspaper, so they have to make money through other means.
Driving a taxi is one, but they might have to pay crippling rental fees to the taxi companies — so if you happen to already own a car, why not work as an Uber driver, where you have the flexibility of time and freedom of a taxi driver but not have to pay the rental for a taxi?
And Mr Tan already answers part of his own question by saying that some folks who might not be able to afford a car can use the money earned from driving for Uber to pay the monthly instalments on a car.
He then compares private-hire car services to Airbnb, and asks why anyone would do it — well, why not?
Saying that Uber, Grab and Airbnb aren’t “sharing”, but commercial transactions, and then comparing GrabShare, GrabHitch or UberPool to carpooling, Mr Tan then questions why they are able to get away with what they are doing.
We don’t know, but perhaps it’s because even though they might be affecting the businesses of fat cats at the helm of taxi companies, they are actually popular with the public because they serve their needs — which is exactly what public transportation is supposed to do, serve the public. However, our taxi-based public transport hasn’t been able to do that for awhile, and it was inevitable that a better service would come along to take their places.
Mr Tan’s next target are the commuters — why do they like to engage private-hire car services so much?
Because they could never get a cab? Statistically, the chances of getting a taxi in Singapore by phone booking are close to 100 per cent if you book with bigger operators. Chances are, of course, slimmer if it is raining, but that is to be expected.
Ah yes, here comes the plug for the “bigger” taxi companies. He’s not doing himself any favours amid that allegation of being paid by ComfortDelGro.
And perhaps someone who drives a car to work at a building where he’s paid to write about transport shouldn’t make a throwaway remark that it “is to be expected” when people can’t find cabs when it’s raining.
He attributes the public’s love for private-hire cars, despite their “unpredictability”, to the sometimes lower prices and freebies:
But perhaps it all boils down to dollars and cents. We’re Singaporeans after all. Uber and Grab fares are at times lower than regular cab fares.
… Freebies, that’s why. Free rides and discounts are dished out regularly.
Yes, prices are a factor and freebies are a good marketing ploy dished out by the companies as well.
But according to a survey of Millennials that MustShareNews conducted, they also prefer private-hire car services due to service — with many saying Uber and Grab drivers are friendlier and more service-oriented.
However, that’s something about the experience that taxi companies seem unwilling to address, and Mr Tan does not mention either.
Questioning Surge Pricing
Well, having conjectured that price is the reason why people love taking Uber and Grab so much, he then casts a disapproving eye over their use of surge pricing.
Surge pricing jacks up fares when demand is high, so only the “highest bidders” – those who are willing and able to pay the escalated prices – get the ride. It is in practice fare auctioning, which until very recently, was not allowed in Singapore.
It is different from surcharges applied by cab companies, which are spelt out and therefore transparent.
Well, guess what, obviously the taxi companies don’t have an issue with it, at least not any more, as they are also rolling out surge pricing!
Some netizens weren’t complimentary about the tone of this article, calling it biased.
While Mr Tan did manage to garner some support:
We’re also confused as to why an article that’s clearly slanted against private-hire car services could make it past the editors.
Satire Gone Wrong?
Note that Mr Tan’s article was not published in the main Home section of The Straits Times, but in the Lifestyle-Motoring section.
Was it meant to be a light-hearted, satirical piece gone wrong?
As it had a curious lack of balance, was it meant to be an opinionated commentary akin to how ST writer John Lui doesn’t like to be called “dude”?
If so, like the aforementioned “dude” story, it backfired and only caused revulsion.
Perhaps Mr Tan should just stick to writing serious news stories?
Featured image adapted from Facebook