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WHAT is the difference between a person who arranges clients for prostitutes and a smartphone app that matches customers with unlicensed taxis?

Not much really, as the pimp can also make use of social media just as Uber operates with a ride-hailing app.

While prostitution is generally accepted as immoral and illegal in 109 countries, it is legal in 77. Malaysia is among the 11 countries where prostitution is restricted.

Universally, the promotion, facilitation or exploitation of persons into prostitution is illegal, and likewise, soliciting or loitering in a public place for the purpose of prostitution remains an offence.

So, if pimps cannot be absolved of prostitution arranged by them, neither can Uber distance itself from illegal services provided by unlicensed taxis through its matching service.

But there is no shortage of gullible or desperate drivers turning their private vehicles into pirate taxis for ride-hailing apps to operate in a taxi black market.

Uber communications head for India and South Asia, Karun Arya, told a Malaysian daily that the nature of its business was about “ride-sharing”, which means it does not compete with regular taxis for customers.

“Anywhere in the world essentially, or anyone in the world, only uses their cars four per cent of the time, while 96 per cent is spent parked. Ninety-six per cent! If you can increase that four per cent utilisation to even 70 per cent or 80 per cent by making that a shared asset, that’s a tremendous achievement. Then, you can start taking more cars off the road. That’s where our concept of Uber comes into the picture,” Karun explained.

But the fact is that Uber is a ride-hailing app and passengers do not share the ride with others. A true ride-sharing app is Tripda, which is available locally. It is an online carpooling platform that connects drivers with passengers heading the same way to share costs and savings can be substantial for daily commuting or for a long outstation trip.

BlaBlaCar is the world’s leading long-distance ride-sharing service, connecting drivers with empty seats to people travelling the same way. Originating in France, it has recently entered Brazil as the huge country offers vast potential.

Ride-sharing apps deserve to be promoted as there will be fewer vehicles on the road and less pollution, apart from cost savings for both drivers and passengers. On the other hand, ride-hailing apps, such as Uber, would increase the number of private cars on the road cruising for passengers.

Uber’s claim that it operates an entirely new industry is no different from Ah Longs (loan sharks) demanding that they be allowed to operate freely so that more people will have access to financing, as they do not compete with the banks.

San Francisco-based Uber head of Global Trust, Bhavdeep Basin, said the company had been engaging with the local authorities to help them understand the ride-sharing business and how it would improve traffic management in Malaysian cities, and dismissed claims that Uber had been running illegally or flouting local laws, claiming this was not the case.

He said: “We are 100 per cent compliant and regulated through local regulations that are in place… and we encourage the government to put in place regulations for our kind of business. So, when people say you are illegal and you are unregulated, we couldn’t be further from the truth.”

As far as I know, no established transport industry player has ever dared to claim 100 per cent compliance. Until the laws are amended, the only certainty is unlicensed taxis are 100 per cent illegal, period.

n Y. S. CHAN,  Kuala Lumpur

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