We are big fans of the Penang Rapid Transit bus system. At 1.40 to 4.00 Ringgit per adult, depending on distance, it’s an economical alternative to taxis, known here as teksis. The main bus lines run in front of our apartment in Tanjung Bungah, taking us up to the northern villages and down to Georgetown, the island’s capital. The frequency is stated as every 5 minutes, but sometimes it takes longer. Today was one of those days. We were heading to the Chew Clan Jetty in Georgetown and the wait would put our arrival past sunset. So we hailed a teksi for the first time in Penang and negotiated a 30 Ringgit ($10) fare.
The driver, Mr. Rama, was very chatty. Like most cab drivers (at least the ones in New York City) he was also highly animated and opinionated.
Sandeep: So, is there any tension between the various racial groups in Penang?
Mr. Rama: No! Maybe before I born. But now there is big punishment for fighting between Indians and Chinese.
Sandeep: A different punishment than if two Chinese were fighting?
Mr. Rama: Yes. I don’t know what punishment, but different.
Sandeep: So what do the Indians do here?
Mr. Rama: You see, Malays are lazy. Indians were brought here to work in the plantations. But you see all these rich rich buildings? There all the Chinese live.
Sandeep: So the Chinese have all the money?
Mr. Rama: Yes. You see, the Chinese keep all their money. We Indians – one foot here one foot in India. Always sending money back. Chinese keep their money. Can’t send it back because communist. So they stay rich here. I am here three generations. My father tell me don’t connect with family in India. They take your money if you go there. If they come here they spend your money. So better have two feet here.
Sandeep: Does that mean your kids will stay here?
Mr. Rama: No. Kids go to Kuala Lumpur after college. Private jobs here all for Chinese and governement jobs all for Malays. Better for Indians to go to Kuala Lumpur.
Sandeep: Isn’t that racism?
Mr. Rama: No, no. Just connections.
Sandeep: Do you know why most Indians here are Tamilians?
Mr. Rama: Because in south India, people are poorer, so easier to bring them here. Also, closer to Penang. Where are you from?
Mr. Rama: Oh! Malayalee. You see, Malayalees are rich. They have different mentality. The believe in education and support each other. Most educated are Ceylonese Tamil. All doctor’s and lawyers. Then Malayalees. Then Chinese. Then Tamils. This is the high court. You carry drugs, they hang you.
Diya: How long have you driven the teksi?
Mr. Rama: Eight years.
Diya: What did you do before that?
Mr. Rama: Bartender.
Diya: Oh, wow. That must have been fun. What happened? Not enough money?
Mr. Rama: No. I drink too much. I can’t drink when I drive a teksi.
Mr. Rama was very kind letting us off. He got out of the teksi to snap this picture and then stopped the traffic on both sides of a busy street so that we could cross with the kids. I was initially annoyed at having to give up loyalty to Penang Rapit Transit, but Mr. Rama’s candidness and perspective of the various groups in Penang made the 30 Ringgit well worth it.