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Two Wheels Good: Motorbike Diplomacy in Southeast Asia

A recent heated debate is just the latest incident in the motorbike taxi scene in Southeast Asia.

Preeti Jha
Two Wheels Good: Motorbike Diplomacy in Southeast Asia
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

They weave through traffic-clogged roads every day, cutting short journeys that could take triple the time by car. For millions of commuters across Southeast Asia, they are a transport lifeline. But in Malaysia, the advent of the ubiquitous motorbike taxi has sparked a furious debate of late.

Unlike neighbors Indonesia, Thailand or Vietnam — where motorbike taxis were an integral part of urban life even before ride-hailing apps — Malaysia hasn’t so far allowed two-wheelers to ferry passengers. Local startup Dego Ride began a bike-hailing firm in late 2016 but it was quickly declared illegal by the previous government due to safety concerns. Now it looks like the success of Indonesia’s ride-hailing startup Gojek — valued at up to $10 billion — may have inspired the new coalition to embrace the two-wheelers.

Late last month Malaysia’s cabinet gave the green light to a proposal to introduce motorbike ride-hailing services in the country, subject to viability studies and legal provisions, soon after a meeting between Gojek chiefs and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. This could open up the Malaysian market to motorbike taxis, not only from Gojek but also homegrown Dego Ride and others such as Southeast Asia’s leading ride-hailing firm Grab, based in Singapore, whose four-wheeled taxis are already plying Malaysia’s roads.

The prospect of a new transportation player was bound to spur an outcry from the powerful taxi lobby. They’ve previously rallied against Grab and Uber disrupting their industry, like cab drivers worldwide. And Gojek is no stranger to protests itself, including on its home turf. But this time, provocative comments from the founder of a prominent local taxi service, suggesting Indonesia is economically and culturally inferior to Malaysia, have managed to offend some ordinary Indonesians as well as Gojek drivers.

Gojek is “only for poor people like in Jakarta, Thailand, India and Cambodia,” said Shamsubahrin Ismail, founder of Big Blue Taxi Facilities, in a video that went viral in Indonesia, according to local media. He also said: Indonesian “culture is very different compared with ours. In Indonesia, their women can hug the rider (most of the riders are men) just like that but how about Malaysia? Do we want to see our women hugging the riders here and there?”

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The taxi chief apologized after a predictable social media backlash and the threat of a counter protest from Indonesians. But it wasn’t enough. More than 400 Gojek drivers massed outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta earlier this week, demanding he apologize in person.

It’s important to note that Shamsubahrin’s opinion on how women should behave has received far less scrutiny than his remarks linking Gojek to poor people (the service is known to be used across income groups). Rather, his views were seemingly backed-up by a religious leader raising similar objections. Yet women’s advocates in both Muslim-majority countries have warned that the moral policing of Muslim women is on the rise and needs to stop.

This is just the latest public tussle between Indonesians and Malaysians, who have a history of trading insults that can at times turn into full-blown diplomatic spats. The neighbors have much in common culturally and linguistically, but colonial-era borders have helped spawn competing claims on everything from dance forms and music to national dishes.

From that broader perspective, Shamsubahrin’s remarks have some echoes of comments made by a former Malaysian minister, who in 2017 said Kuala Lumpur shouldn’t go “backwards” and become “a substandard city” like Jakarta by relying on motorbikes as a mode of public transport. “We want to be on par with Singapore and London,” he had said.

Times have changed. Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan coalition has itself made a U-turn since coming to power last year when it spoke against legalizing such a service due to high motorbike accident rates. Now the youth and sports minister, who has been cheerleading Gojek, is projecting motorbike taxis as a major employment opportunity for young Malaysians as well as a solution to mounting congestion woes.

Yet safety concerns persist, and it’s not surprising why: Southeast Asia has the second-highest rate of road traffic deaths, after Africa, among regions compared by the WHO, with the majority of deaths among riders of motorized two and three-wheelers. Even loyal moto-taxi users will have stories of heart-pounding rides on sometimes treacherous roads. According to local media, Malaysia has the third highest fatality rate from road traffic accidents among ASEAN countries, after Thailand and Vietnam.

Cutting through some of these concerns Akmal Amri, head of the Institute for Research & Development of Policy, a Kuala Lumpur-based think-tank, recently urged critics to consider the shorter journeys motorbike taxis tend to make compared to regular bikers. He suggested that it might be more pertinent to forecast accidents for the service by analyzing the accident rate among existing bike-riding services that offer food deliveries for instance.

Malaysia’s urban landscape could be on the cusp of a significant change if motorbike taxi firms get the go-ahead now widely expected. Yet while it moves towards approving such transport some other nations are trying to clamp down on two-wheelers. Last year Hanoi said it would ban motorcycles by 2030 in a bid to improve the city’s declining air quality — deemed the second worst in Southeast Asia in 2016 — and in turn boost public transport.

There are worries in some Malaysian quarters too that motorbike taxis might bode badly for the environment, by discouraging the use of a public transport system already trying to pry upwardly mobile consumers away from their cars.

But motorbike taxis can also serve as a “complement” to public transport in countries where systems are still being developed, Faela Sufa, Acting Southeast Asia Director at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, told The Diplomat. “Many commuters use motorcycle taxis for the first and last part of their journey as there’s a transport gap” between homes and offices and public transport stops, she explained.

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Walking or cycling to fill such gaps would clearly be more environmentally sustainable than motorcycles. But until countries put in place much-needed facilities such as improved sidewalks or dedicated bicycle lanes, motorbike taxis could play an important role in the public transport ecosystem too.