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MGG: Highway Robbery And Skullduggery At The Petronas Taxi Cab Rank
By M.G.G. Pillai

8/1/2002 1:59 am Tue

This is a tale of what happens in Malaysia when arrogance and might replaces right and the weak; what happens when high ideals and the belief in destiny cannot be sustained after the shouting and the tumult. The arrogance of a cash-rich country, with its huge oil wealth, took it on a spending spree, building white elephants for no reason than its high cost or could enter the Guiness Book of Records. But once built, it was left to wither. Cronies made money out of it, only to lose it when they took that to mean they have arrived and painted the world red. And the government left to pick the pieces.

When Malaysia won the right to host the 1998 Commonwealth Games, a fresh round of building stadia, high-speed rail between Kuala Lumpur and the new, expensive, and now, largely irrelevent and cavernous international airport at Sepang, and a modern light rapid transit rail system for Kuala Lumpur. All were privatised to cronies in a still-born mantra of private sector efficiency. All have failed, all are back in government hands, the mantra discredited, and the government picking up the pieces yet again. Facilities promised then have yet to be delivered, like the rapid rail link, and the inner city transport. As they fell apart as soon as they were completed.

The tale I tell is of how one project -- of a taxi service running on natural gas -- lapsed into high-speed robbery, gangsterism, police reports, and the worst of the Malaysian corporate culture. For the 1998 Games, Malaysia imported 1,000 Renault (Enviro 200 NGV) vans which run on natural gas for an efficient taxi service, one that reflected the both brilliance, panache and a commitment to the world's concern for the environment. It was bought with the usual irrelevance to details as service requirements or spare parts. The Renault franchise holder in Malaysia was cut out of the deal, the wrong engines chosen or delivered, no account taken for wear-and-tear or how they would be serviced or maintained. The project ran into trouble from the start. The man who brought it in, at the Prime Minister's command, died in a helicopter crash.

Petronas, Malaysia's public cash cow, was lumbered with it. It had no licence to run a taxi service. So it was farmed out to a company called Eco-Transit, run by people who had none either. Taxi drivers paid a large deposit and a daily rate and everything went smoothly until Petronas, fed up with not being paid for the vehicles, put the pressure on Eco-Transit. Eco-Transit had signed contracts with drivers in which it passed off as owners when it was not. It could operate only 200 of the taxis, the rest for other towns and cities in Malaysia could not operate because Petronas never got to put the natural gas petrol pumps elsewhere. Unlike some of the converted taxis which ran on petrol or natural gas, this only ran on natural gas. The remaining 800 cars were first parked in the basement of the KLCC and later at an open yard in Shah Alam. Some were cannibalised for spare parts. The cars are brand new cars left to rot and cost, I understand, RM138 million. It would probably take RM10,00 each to bring it to service and run it.

The drivers realised something amiss was when they went to top up gas at the Petronas pumps on 25 December 2001 and were handed a leaflet, allegedly from Petronas, which read: "NOTICE TO ALL ENVIRO 200 NGV TAXI DRIVERS: Petronas/Petronas NGV Sdn Bhd (PNGV) had on 27 November issued a letter terminating the sale of the Enviro 2000 NGV taxis to Eco-Transit (M) Sdn Bhd. Please be informed that the ownership of the Enviro 2000 NGV taxis remain with Petronas/PNGV and Petronas/PNGV intends to obtain the return of all these taxis. You are therefore in possession of the Enviro 2000 taxis which belong to Petronas/PNGV. Kindly return the Enviro 2000 NGV taxis to Petronas/PNGV at the open space car park, KLCC (next to the KLCC Assyakirin mosque). (Time 9.00 am to 5.00 pm). Petronas/PNGV will take further steps to STOP supply of NGV to the Enviro 2000 NGV taxis effective from 27 December 2001." This pamphlet was handed out with a white slip which read: "Any Enviro 2000 drivers who wishes to drive Enviro taxi, please contact Sunlight Radio Taxi Services Sdn Bhd, Tel. 03-92001166 (Mr Lim)."

As any lawyer will tell you, this notice is not worth the paper it is printed on. It is not a party to the contract between Eco-Transit and the drivers. If it has a problem with Eco-Transit, it shoud resort to the courts or negotiate with it for redress. It cannot threaten those it does not have a contract with. It certainly cannot refuse to supply gas to any one who comes to it for it. Even if Petronas owns the vehicles and the driver is behind in its hire purchase instalments. And Mr Lim cannot advertise as he did for something he does not have. But in Bolehland, might is right; and those with might would break or misuse the law to threaten and establish their right.

It presumes Petronas has cancelled its contract with Eco-Transit and signed a new one with Sunlight Radio Taxi Services. It could not have. Petronas' one-month notice to Eco-Transit expired on 27 December. So, how could Sunlight offer the Enviro 2000 NGV taxis when it did not have them. Petronas, whatever its legal position on the vehicles, have no right to seize the vehicles without proper legal notice nor threaten drivers nor threaten to supply the gas to Enviro 2000 NGV taxis in a dispute with a third party.

The drivers, as expected, panicked. An action committee of its cooperative met Petronas officials and got an extension of the supply of gas until 10 January. Eco-Transit took steps to organise its drivers when those who accuses it of double-dealing refused to deal with it. The daily rentals are now paid into its lawyer's account, the company is told, and legal action have commenced. Meanwhile, Eco-Transit supporters among the drivers, repossessors and others take strong arm methods to force the drivers into its camp. This has led to drivers assaultied, chased in the highway, police brought in. In the height of this mess, the drivers attempted to get the Prime Minister's attention: his aides brushed them off.

There the matter stands. Petronas lost its head. At one stage, a senior officer told the drivers that it owns the taxis and it can do what it likes. It behaved disgracefully. It must explain how Mr Lim got into the act. And why these taxis must be run by a company. Why can it not be sold to the drivers on hire purchase and let them take care of it on their own? And what happens to the goodwill money of about RM4,500 Eco-Transit collected from the drivers when they took delivery of the taxis? Sunlight now demand another RM5,000 of drivers to continue driving their taxis. Would Eco-Transit return the deposit it collected? Hardly, likely. No one has yet explained this mess. This is not, as I said, an edifying morality tale. It is a tale of highhandedness, arrogance, and the sworn belief in Bolehland that the weak and the meak would fight back when their rights are trampled upon. The Prime Minister's Office must ask questions. And now.

M.G.G. Pillai