By Yoolim Lee
On March 26, 2018, the news in my world was all about Grab. The local ride-hailing startup had just announced it was acquiring the Southeast Asian operations of its biggest competitor, Uber Technologies Inc. In return, Uber would get a 27.5 percent stake in Grab Holdings Inc.
It looked like a clear win for the hometown company. Founded in a Kuala Lumpur storage room as a taxi-booking app, Grab had moved its headquarters to Singapore and survived Uber’s relentless price wars in the region. As it expanded its operations to eight countries, its valuation had risen to $6 billion. “Today’s acquisition marks the beginning of a new era,” Chief Executive Officer Anthony Tan said in a statement about the deal.
I wrote the story for Bloomberg News, where my beat is startups. But Grab had become such a part of life in Singapore that it barely registered that I was using its app the next morning when I ordered a ride to my daughter Anika’s kindergarten graduation. The cost, S$24 (about $17.50) for a 12-minute trip, seemed a bit high, but I had a promo code to get S$4 off. Thanks to price wars, there was always a promo code.
Discounted fares are only part of Grab’s appeal. If there’s any place on Earth that was made for a ride-hailing app, it’s Singapore. The city-state is among the world’s most expensive places to own a vehicle because of high taxes, congestion pricing, and rules that require owners to dispose of their cars after 10 years, by either scrapping them or selling them overseas. Before the ride-hailing apps came along, it was difficult to find a cab during rush hour.
With Grab and Uber fighting for market share, rides through the apps were cheaper and more widely available than cabs, but the drivers weren’t always as experienced. While taxis would hurtle confidently down the narrow one-lane road where I live, many Grab drivers would creep at a snail’s pace, then make multiple attempts to turn back before knocking down our garbage bin and escaping, often while swearing. Others would simply wait at the end of the road.
My Grab driver that morning was one of the latter. An older Chinese man wearing a cap, he was standing by a white Mazda when I walked over. It was an especially sultry day, even for Singapore. The sky above our neighborhood was thick with clouds. I felt the faintest drizzle.
“Good morning, Uncle!” I greeted him. (All the city’s middle-aged cabbies are uncles or aunties.) I hopped in.
As we set off, I noticed he was taking an unusual route. Instead of heading for the expressway, he turned in the opposite direction and took local roads, following GPS directions shown on the Grab app on the smartphone mounted next to his steering wheel. I was going to tell him there was a better way but decided against it. I figured the app must have known something I didn’t.
The first thing I remember about the accident was the sound of thunder. The second was realizing the sound wasn’t thunder, but my head banging against the window. We’d sped through a junction where my driver was supposed to stop and had collided with a black Mercedes-Benz.
A moment later there was another loud noise—the sound of a second car, a Honda, crashing into my door. The contents of my blue purse scattered in every direction.
When it was over, I couldn’t move my upper body. I was in more pain than I’d ever experienced, my left side felt numb, and it was hard to breathe. I could see my driver, the man I’d called Uncle, frantically trying to open his jammed door. As I watched, he crawled over to the passenger seat and let himself out. He didn’t turn back. I tried to scream, but no sound came out.
Eventually, a woman came over to check on me and offered to call my husband, Sagar. When I couldn’t remember his phone number, she grabbed my phone and called him herself. Then she called an ambulance.
At the hospital, X-rays were taken, blood drawn, a catheter inserted, and a “computed tomography angiography” performed to examine my blood vessels. In the end, the doctors told me I had a cervical vertebrae fracture and vertebral artery dissection. In other words, the accident had broken my neck and torn one of my body’s most important blood vessels. I was at risk of blood clots, which could lead to a stroke.
The next day, a Grab safety and security manager showed up in my room and said he wanted to see how I was doing. Sagar told him politely that I wasn’t in a physical or mental state to see anyone and wouldn’t be for some time. But he showed up again the following day, when I was alone in the room, causing me to start crying uncontrollably.
A few days after the accident, Tan, the CEO, texted and asked if he could come visit me at the hospital. He had never texted me before. I said I appreciated his thoughts, but there was no need, since I would soon be discharged. An outspoken Christian, he asked if he could come over and pray with me. Two weeks later he visited me on a rainy Sunday afternoon and brought flowers and bird’s nest drinks, a popular get-well gift in Southeast Asia made from the nests that swiftlets build with their saliva. (The concoction is expensive and supposed to be good for you, but I’m from Korea, where the drink isn’t common. I’d never tasted it and had no desire to try it.)
I was wearing a neck brace and couldn’t move much, which left me feeling like a sad C-3PO from Star Wars. Tan took my hand, and I sat quietly while he prayed aloud. I knew he meant well, but I’m not religious, and I wasn’t sure how prayer was going to address the pain or the vague sense I felt that Grab might have let me down somehow.
When he finished, Tan asked if there was anything more he could do. I asked him about my driver. Who was he? How long had he been with Grab? Did he have a clean record? Tan said he had a memo about the accident. He scrolled through his inbox for a while but said he couldn’t find it.
In the months that followed, my journalistic curiosity took over. I began to wonder not only about my driver but also about all those who’ve poured into ride-hailing cars on the streets of Singapore and around the world. Were these companies doing enough to protect passengers from negligent drivers? Maybe Grab’s growth and its perceived triumph over Uber the day before my accident had come at a cost. Was it possible that, for all the convenience ride-hailing services offered, they were making cities less safe?
I first met Tan and his co-founder, Tan Hooi Ling (no relation), in early 2016 at a Grab event I was covering. It was at an old chapel-turned-restaurant where Tan had celebrated his wedding seven months earlier. The mood was joyful. Grab had just achieved a valuation topping $1 billion—still tiny compared with Uber, which was worth $63 billion at the time, but huge by the standards of local startups. Anthony Tan, then 33, said he would “build the greatest technology company in Southeast Asia.”
Youthful and fit, with thick, dark hair, Tan is outgoing—he’s always greeted me with a hug—and very determined. “Anthony, he’s competitive,” a venture capitalist who’s known him for many years once whispered to me, as if sharing a great secret.
Like many CEOs, Tan sometimes talked about “servant leadership,” but unlike any I’d met, he defined the concept in theological terms. “If Jesus can wash his disciples’ feet, then who am I?” he once asked me. One of his favorite lines, “We are so blessed,” was a sort of catchphrase among employees.
While Uber executives seemed to relish the role of disrupter, Grab portrayed itself as a sober, law-abiding startup keen to cooperate with taxi companies and regulators. That paid off, especially when Uber was confronted with a series of scandals in 2017, including reports that an executive had obtained and circulated medical records of a woman who was raped by her driver in India. After the Uber merger, Grab had raised more money, this time valuing the company at $14 billion, according to a person familiar with the financing. It now has operations in 235 cities across Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
As I recovered, though, I reconsidered the conventional wisdom about Grab. I remembered I’d once had a driver who dozed off behind the wheel on a highway. When I frantically got his attention, he told me he’d been driving more than 12 hours to earn a bonus. I’d had an equally scary experience in an Uber, when a driver who kept randomly hitting the brakes confessed she hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car in years.
Singapore’s government requires drivers for services such as Grab to be licensed, a process that includes a background check, medical screening, classroom instruction, and a written test. The city-state used to require 60 hours of training for taxi drivers to earn a vocational license. That’s now 25, which is still longer than the 10-hour course required for private-hire car drivers. In those 10 hours—two of which can be done outside the classroom as “self-study”—applicants are supposed to learn all they need to know about service quality and road rules.
After I returned to work in May, I began digging into the licensing process. Before July 2017, the government had allowed drivers who applied for a new mandatory vocational license a one-year grace period during which they could take the course and pass a written test. But of the 42,900 private-hire car drivers in this category, only 22,000 had managed to get a full license within a year. The implication, to me anyway, is that roughly half of these drivers shouldn’t have been on the road in the first place. The Land Transport Authority says the vocational license is designed to protect drivers and passengers and that as of Nov. 1 there were 37,000 license holders.
It was around dusk on a Sunday four months after the accident when I arrived at the apartment building of my Grab driver. For a long time, he’d been just a license plate number and a name—Chia Chong Meng. Then, through a request for traffic accident reports, I found his address. Before entering, I walked around the playground behind his building, working up the courage to face him.
The home was on a high floor. Like many in Singapore, he kept the main door open for cross-ventilation, securing the apartment with a wrought-iron gate and large padlock. Inside, I could see an old sofa, a sewing machine, and an altar with a statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy in the Taoist tradition. A woman was making dinner in the kitchen. She saw me at the door and called for Chia in a Chinese dialect.
Eventually, my driver appeared, bare-chested and wearing red shorts. Without his cap, he looked far older than I’d remembered. He was bald, with sunken cheeks and deep wrinkles.
“It was not my fault!” he said in halting English when I told him who I was, still standing behind the gate.
When I said I’d mostly recovered, he took a step closer. “Why didn’t you help me or call an ambulance?” I asked.
There were other people at the site who could help, he mumbled, adding that he’d tried to open my jammed door.
He continued, calling Grab “Grape.” I gathered he was trying to say that he, too, was in shock at the time of the crash.
“I was very angry at you,” I said, my heart beating fast.
Chia nodded. “Of course. I would be angry, too,” he said.
He said Grab had suspended him for two months after the accident, then let him go. He’d paid a S$200 fine to the traffic police, which had concluded he’d been at fault. He said he’d also received nine demerit points on his license. (Under Singapore’s demerit points system, drivers can have their licenses suspended if they accumulate 24 demerit points within two years.) He was working part-time jobs to make ends meet, and he still owed the company that had rented him his car S$3,500 to cover the costs in excess of his insurance coverage. He was broke, he said, gesturing helplessly.
Chia told me that he was about 70 years old and had been a construction worker as a young man before driving a taxi on and off for 40 years. During that time, he said, he’d had several “small and big” road accidents. He said he’d been driving for Grab for just over a month when he picked me up that day.
“Small and big accidents?” I asked. He nodded. I asked him how he’d passed Grab’s driver-screening process. He said there was no issue, because he already had a taxi driver’s license. Grab says that at the time of the accident, Chia had a valid license and had completed more than 500 rides on the platform with a good passenger rating, and his record was spotless. Grab notes that Singapore law forbids the company access to driving or criminal records, and that authorities wouldn’t have issued a vocational license if they judged Chia to have a poor record.
We chatted some more—Chia inside his flat, me on a step below the entry, the gate between us. My neck was killing me.
I realized he hadn’t intended any of this mess. He was just a guy who would get up at 6 a.m. and try to make a living. I’d been his second passenger that morning. He and I had been brought together by the technological revolution taking place in our city.
“Uncle, I’m not angry with you anymore,” I told him as I left, feeling strangely at peace.
Chia smiled and said softly, “I am sorry. I didn’t want to give you this kind of trouble.”
On my way home, I wrote down in my notebook only some of what the accident had cost everyone.
Me: left vertebral artery.
Driver: livelihood + S$3,700 in fines and expenses.
Grab: S$20, the refund they’d given me after the accident.
Shortly after I returned to work, I found myself at Grab’s swanky new offices for a media event. The building, in Singapore’s central business district, has more than 70 conference rooms named after big cities in Southeast Asia and subway stations in Singapore. Each has walls with frosted glass featuring a different design.
I hadn’t expected to meet Tan, but I was escorted into a conference room where I found him waiting for me. The space was decorated with a small table, a daybed, and a ride-on toy car with the name of his young son on it. I felt myself trembling as I asked him about Grab’s safety procedures. Following my accident, he told me, the company had started reviewing its entire safety system. Then he leaned forward and said, “I can’t stop apologizing for the pain I caused you. I hurt you.”
In October, Grab held a press conference to announce its enhanced safety measures. They included using the data collected by the company’s app to monitor driver fatigue and driving patterns. Like Uber and the Chinese company Didi Chuxing, Grab has installed an emergency button on its app, and riders can add emergency contacts. The company said it will double its investment in safety measures by the end of 2019 and that incidents were already trending down. Its incident rate, which includes traffic accidents and complaints about driver behavior, was 40 percent lower in the third quarter of 2018 than it was a year earlier. But the data lacked substance. Grab didn’t provide any breakdowns of the number or details of the incidents. The company says it is “working with local governments as part of a safety task force to formulate benchmarks for the industry.”
During our meeting, Tan remarked on my recovery. “You look great compared to the last time,” he said enthusiastically. “Vibrant and healthy!”
It was only partly true. Since the accident, the feeling has returned to my left side, but my left thumb remains numb, reminding me constantly of the trauma. I still have pain in my neck and shoulders, and I’ll have to get regular scans of my blood vessels for the foreseeable future.
I’m grateful that I’m otherwise better, but I’m also more aware of the profound compromises we’ve made in giving tech companies, even those with well-intentioned CEOs, so much power over our daily lives. Tan showed me kindness in the months that followed my accident. But we deserve more than expressions of remorse from companies such as Grab. Detailed safety records would be a good place to start.
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