Written for The Diplomat
For several Southeast Asian countries, 2014 ended disastrously: the Air Asia QZ8501 crash, intense flooding in eastern Malaysia and south Thailand, and the destruction caused by Typhoon Jangmi (known locally as Seniang) in the Philippines. The devastating consequences of these tragedies are still being felt today in the region as governments scramble to recover and provide relief to their affected constituents.
The tragic crash of Air Asia QZ8501 was just one of a series of disasters that struck the region in the past month. The flight was carrying 162 passengers, mostly from Indonesia. An international search party has located the crash site near the waters of the south side of Sumatra Island. As of this writing, 48 bodies had been retrieved from the waters, of which 27 have been identified.
While global attention was understandably focused on Air Asia QZ8501, there were other disasters that hit the region but received less attention. For instance, heavy rainfall in Malaysia caused flood waters to rise in the northeastern coastal towns, forcing the evacuation of more than 120,000 residents. It was reported to be the worst flooding in the eastern states in the past two decades.
The floods caught everybody by surprise, including the government which was accused of being slow to distribute relief to stranded refugees. The prime minister was forced to cut short his vacation in the United States after he was criticized for playing golf with U.S. President Barack Obama while many of his people were drowning in flood.
The opposition wanted an audit of how the disaster fund was spent following reports that many victims were unable to receive proper assistance from the government. There are also calls for an investigation to determine if the unusual flooding has been caused by the logging operations approved by local states.
The rains that unleashed the floods in Malaysia also affected the southern provinces of Thailand while the country was commemorating the tenth anniversary of the deadly 2004 tsunami. Eight provinces have been declared disaster zones due to floods. Nearly 8,000 residents have been displaced. In Narathiwat’s Tak Bai district, more than 4,000 households in 52 villages suffered from the floods.
During the same week, typhoon Jangmi battered several islands in the Visayas and Mindanao regions of the Philippines. According to authorities, Jangmi caused 66 deaths and 43 injuries. It also damaged almost 4,000 houses. As of this writing, 27 roads and 20 bridges are still not passable after they were destroyed by strong rains. The high number of casualties was attributed to complacency. Some officials claimed that many residents refused to spend the holidays in evacuation centers. But the government was also blamed for allegedly failing to give accurate information about the threat posed by Jangmi. It didn’t help that the country’s president was seen attending the wedding of two local celebrities instead of monitoring the typhoon situation in the south part of the country. Palace officials responded by assuring the public that the president was briefed about the destruction left behind by Jangmi and he has ordered the release of aid intended for storm survivors.
Some critics cited the lackluster disaster response as evidence that the government has not yet learned its lesson after the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan tragedy.
So 2014 ended badly for Southeast Asia and the situation appears even more depressing at the start of 2015. Will poor governance hamper the ability of the region to recover? At this point, one can only hope for the best.
Uber Faces More Regulation in Southeast Asia
Written for The Diplomat
Since last year, Uber has been quietly expanding its transport business across Southeast Asia; and while this has been welcomed by many commuters, the company has failed to get the approval of various regulatory agencies.
The common complaint against Uber is that it lacks a franchise to operate as a transport service. Unlike taxi owners, which have to apply and pay for government permits, Uber initially operated without being subjected to these regulations.
Bong Suntay of the Philippine National Taxi Operators Association explained the position of the group with regard to the issue of whether or not to accredit Uber: “What we are asking government is to level the playing field. Taxi and rent-a-car operators own our vehicles and employ so many people like mechanics, cashier and dispatchers, apart from drivers. Our operation is also limited to the number of authorized units and the routes stipulated in our franchise. Our fare is also regulated.”
Authorities have also raised several concerns about Uber. The Jakarta Transportation Agency doubts if Uber is paying the right taxes because it did not apply for a permit. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Road Transport Department has warned the public that they are not covered by insurance if they become involved in an accident while riding an Uber car. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have threatened to detain Uber drivers if their company didn’t secure the correct license.
Even Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA), which didn’t restrict the operations of Uber, has recently announced that it will be implementing new rules for third-party taxi booking apps next year. The regulations stipulate that operators like Uber should register with the LTA, company drivers must have a valid Taxi Driver’s Vocational License, booking apps should specify all information on fare rates and other fees, passengers have the choice not to provide destination information before they make bookings, and customer support services should be provided.
For Tomas Forgac, an entrepreneur, the new regulations would affect the way Uber conducts its business, and may also discourage innovation in the transport sector. He particularly noted that the requirement for drivers to hold a taxi license is counterproductive because the license is given only to Singapore citizens above 30 years old.
“Even if regulations are made with the best of intentions, they tend to introduce unintended consequences while trying to solve issues which free market competition takes care of much more efficiently,” he stressed.
For its part, Uber has expressed willingness to cooperate with authorities and it insists that it has been complying with existing rules. But it reacted strongly to the crackdown ordered by Malaysia’s Road Transport Department. “This is clearly an attempt to protect the taxi industry that has failed its customers in Kuala Lumpur. Preventing our driver partners from earning a living and getting people safely and reliably around town doesn’t just hurt the residents and visitors, it hurts the city,” Uber’s regional general manager Mike Brown told Malay Mail Online in an e-mail interview.
But if Uber thinks it is being unjustly treated, it can find consolation in its growing customer base across the region. Even some high-ranking officials have declared support for Uber.
Philippine Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya challenged taxi operators to upgrade its services instead of opposing Uber. “People prefer to use these tech-based transport services because they are more convenient. It’s that simple. So my advice to taxi operators: Modernize, innovate and improve your systems and services.”
Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Francis Tolentino added that to ban Uber is similar to curtailing the mobility rights of the people.
Uber is likely to survive the legal and bureaucratic woes it is facing today. But its expansion should be welcomed as an effort to improve the public transport systems. While authorities are correct to regulate services that affect public safety, they should not unduly penalize innovators and tech-based operators. The important stakeholders here are not taxi operators or Uber but a public that is becoming increasingly disenchanted and even desperate over a worsening traffic situation