New Internationalist

Pedalling in Penang

Issue 092

Trishaw taxis are a cheap form of transport in Penang, Malysia. But they don’t conform to the planners view of a modern city. Peter Rimmer looks at the conflict through the eyes of Ahmed, one of the threatened trishaw drivers.

Hey Mike, where are you going?’ calls the unusually tall Malay trishaw pedaller outside the Penang-Butterworth ferry terminal. The clock near the Georgetown General Post Office, Penang, Malaysia, registers 4:45 on Friday afternoon. The Australian serviceman emerging from the ticket of touts around the flood of passengers disembarking from the Butterworth ferry cheerfully responds, ‘Sorry,Ahmad, not tonight’ Hopes not only of fares but tips from the passenger and hostess alike in a tour of bars are dashed.

As the quick trips with a school teacher and an office worker in the early morning had covered the daily trishaw rental of $0.40, ferry fare, snacks and cigarettes, Ahmad does not have to cut his fares to take passengers to hospital and clinic, offices and shops during the rest of the day.

Ahmad will probably continue to wait until 6:30pm, or maybe 7:00pm, to see if he can augment his earnings of $3.50 by picking up tourists or servicemen. Should these ‘big fish’ not bite Ahmad will turn over his vehicle to a younger pedaller who will scour the night restaurants, local hotels and bars and cinemas for custom.

On the way home Ahmad often remin­isces on the frenetic activity when service­men from the United States were on rest and recreation leave from the Vietnam war. Then the catch cry, ‘Hello Johnny, where are you going?’ generated sufficient trade not only to pay the agent’s coffee money (inflated fines for traffic offences) but also purchase the plot of land on which he built his two-room home.

Tonight, as always, his wife is waiting with the evening meal anxious to learn of his earnings. For Ahmad, despite his previous good fortune, has not only to look after his aging mother-in-law but his three school age children. Fortunately, his eldest son is already married and about to be a builder’s labourer in the Middle East, his second son lives with a relative and his eldest daughter works in a supermarket. After his evening meal Ahmad will take his aching limbs to bed while his wife packs his tiffin for tomorrow.

An ex-soldier in the British Army, Ahmad found it difficult to fit into the Malaysian Army on Independence in 1957 and chose civilian employment. Unfortunately his job search coincided with growing unemployment in Penang during the 1960s, triggered by the loss of the island’s free port status. The government’s remedy followed conventional wisdom by concentrating attention on industrialisation, free trade zones to attract foreign company investment, and tourism. However there is little evidence that benefits have ‘trickled down’ to people like Ahmad.

As a trishaw pedaller Ahmad is an un­attractive proposition to a manufacturing firm and at 47 - the average age for trishaw pedallers in Georgetown - he is too old for the young (and predominantly female) labour force in the free trade zones even if he was willing to accept the low wages offered.

Ahmad is also no match for tour agents and taxi drivers in competing for the tourist dollar, although his secondary school English gives him an advantage over fellow pedallers in conducting tourists around such exotic city sights as the Khoo Kong Si, the Goddess of Mercy Temple and the Reclining Buddha.

Besides tourist services, pedallers also offer monthly contracts for schoolchildren, negotiated trip rates to hospital (with a surcharge for proceeding slowly from the maternity wing), fixed trip rates for carry­ing vegetables, laundry or tiffin, variable rates for hostesses (return leg double the outward leg of the journey) and rates determined by naval passengers when the pedaller stays on all throughout their stay in port. Impulse journeys are catered for by cruising pedallers with no fixed stand. Threats to eliminate trishaws would not only inconvenience the sick, schoolchildren and housewives but would affect the 8,500 direct dependents of 1,700 registered pedallers.

Ahmad fears that despite their use­fulness trishaws may be stopped because of their alleged association with petty theft, drug pushing and causing traffic congestion. The real reason for wanting to sweep this poor man’s technology from sight is that it presents an image of under­development to overseas visitors. Proponents of suppression contend that pedalling is a humiliating occupation. Ahmed is quick to respond that it is more humiliating to be without any job whatsoever. But local government is now reducing trishaw num­bers through ‘natural wastage’ and Ahmad is worried that this will ultimately lead to more restrictions in operations - a step closer to the pervasive vision of a modern city.

Ahmad’s fears may be stilled if policy­makers heed the unconventional wisdom propagated by those who emphasise the positive aspects of small-scale ‘informal’ activities epitomised by the trishaw industry. This unorthodox advice highlights how the trishaws give jobs and opportunities for servicing simple machinery and building up small businesses. The less ‘westernized’ transport planners agree. They have spot­lighted that trishaws offer a personal service, highly responsive to demand, are cheap, closely attuned to local needs and are non-polluting and have low energy require­ments into the bargain! .

For the present this isn’t enough for the city fathers of Penang.

Peter Rimmer is Senior Fellow, Dept, of Human Geography, The Australian National University, Canberra.

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