I’m curating an art, food and history festival for Ipoh in October 2015. It will be called The Other Festival. Things have been changing in my hometown and since I cannot stop that, I will instead try to join the movement and shape it with a clear arts and culture direction. I’m not crazy enough to think I’m alone in this endeavour, nor so vain that I wish it were so either. I do think plenty is happening, but maybe without cohesion.

Ipoh is a living year-round Chinese Whispers festival. I’ve been encountering many pleasant surprises in the old town area since I (unofficially) announced my festival. Stakeholders and potential partners are demanding to meet — everyone interested/suggested was already in my list so far, except for one new establishment I’ve not heard of, but damn, news spreads faster than the possibility of festival logistics in Ipoh.

One thing that bugs me is public transport. It’s not great in Ipoh. However I complain in KL, I can still walk out in central locations and expect to be able to hail a cab, catch a bus to an LRT station, or use MyTeksi/Uber. During my most recent trip, I made it a point to reacquaint myself with public transport, and left my car behind. I have forgotten much. But chatty cabbies provide a host of (potentially very inaccurate) info to digest and mull over.

Calling a cab in Ipoh is different. In Ipoh, after you call a cab, chill for about 15 minutes (depending on how far away you stay from where taxi drivers generally hang out), and if a taxi still doesn’t show up, call again to check. Unlike in KL, even if they take down your phone number, you don’t get a confirmation call or any follow-up info. Sometimes they will call you back if they don’t have enough cabs around. Sometimes they will just wait and try again later.  Sometimes they don’t take your number at all, so you just chill and wait and see. If you have deadlines to meet, it is up to you to do the follow-up call. Follow-up calls are generally treated as confusing nuisances, and occasionally misunderstood as a new order for a taxi. Still, KL folk will do what KL folk will do. And Ipoh folk will…be Ipoh folk.

BK Radio Taxi is the default cab company I call in Ipoh, and they recently implemented a satellite system. It means you call the operator centre to book a cab, and you get an SMS informing you the cab is on the way about ten minutes after it has already picked you up. This is the start of good things for app-loving convenience-dependent lil ol’ me, but not for everyone else.

With the implementation of the satellite system, BK Radio recently had about 40 drivers leave their fleet, to join their rivals Ipoh Radio Cab. The main reason is high illiteracy rates amongst a segment of the local cabbie community: generally old, Chinese and unable to read, they could not understand the GPS system they were required to use, couldn’t read the addresses for where to pick up a client, were reliant on inaccurate GPS maps, and generally not able to work a smartphone. They found themselves booking less clients and earning much less, in a system that charges RM1 for every client they get through it. There was also some resentment about the fact that these RM1 charges are not capped by quantity at any maximum point, and not all passengers are willing to pay it. They also dislike having to call the passengers themselves to check for location verbally, because the cost of the call comes from their own pocket, and it requires some level of literacy to navigate the calling function within the app. It also requires them to admit to being illiterate with every phone call.

The illiterate cab drivers do, however, like being able to radio in to a person at the call centre, to get all the information they need. They like that they can get the broadcast with details, to see if they already know the pick-up spot and destination. Since they cannot read road signs, they rely on known landmarks or their extensive memory of road and area names to find locations. An app doesn’t do verbal communication (yet — although it could), and certainly doesn’t help if the GPS is inaccurate on top of it. The cabbie I spoke to stuck it out for a while, then decided he couldn’t cope with the apps.

About 40 cabs leaving your fleet in Ipoh can be quite significant — BK probably had the largest fleet of taxis before the 40 drivers left. Now it’s probably Ipoh Radio Cab. The difference in numbers shows most clearly at night in terms of availability (Ipoh Radio had more taxis on the road than BK), and in the daytime shows most clearly if you time how long it takes for a taxi to get to you. There are four main taxi companies in Ipoh. Two Chinese-owned, two Malay-owned. BK and Ipoh Radio are both Chinese-owned. It is presumed if you call a Chinese cab operator company, you will order for a cab in Cantonese. My Cantonese cracks under pressure.  The Chinese companies are also the bigger ones. One of the taxi drivers told me the larger Malay taxi company had only about 20-30 cars in its entire fleet.

Language does matter — there are pockets of Chinese-speaking citizens in Ipoh who speak a range of Chinese languages but barely any Malay. Calling a Chinese-cab company nearly always ensures you can communicate readily. Likewise Malay cab companies.

Now if you’re curating a festival, and conservatively estimating maybe about 60 taxis out on the roads at night, with a significant chunk mostly Chinese-speaking, you may start to worry too. I wasn’t out at midnight, this was 9pm, right after dinner. I have to say, this is going to weigh on my mind all the way till after the festival. I’m only hearing from cabbies so I’m sure there’s more to the story, but for now, aku stress.

Also, all the information I got from this was from taxi drivers, so who knows how accurate the stories were.