This issue of
Citylife

Talking Songtaews

Citylife’s intern, Orathai Panyayuen, from Mae Fah Luang University sits down to interview Singhkham Nanti, President and Founder of Nakhon Lanna Cooperative.

Citylife: Can you tell us about Nakhon Lanna Cooperative?

Singhkham: Nakhon Lanna Cooperative has the duty to provide for and cooperate with the Department of Land Transportation, the police department and related organisations on our systems of transportation. While we try to make sure that our members do not violate Thai laws, our organisation cannot completely control them, but we act as a guideline for them. We work legally. Our drivers are diverse with some holding university degrees and others having no education, so I think that we do our best to make sure that everyone works within the confines of the law. I think that the cooperative system is the best in Thailand, in accordance with His Majesty’s words, and if there was no cooperative, then where would we be? We wouldn’t be in a line, we would be all over the place. The police have laws, we have rules. Even people aren’t all born with ten fingers and ten toes — doctors, government officials, people with doctorates, they break the law too. We earn our living honestly and don’t cause much crime in society. When we make even the smallest mistake people make such a big deal about it but when we do good deeds no one mentions it. When we return someone’s wallet or bring them back something, no one says anything. You just bring out the negatives to attack us. What is wrong with Thai society, Chiang Mai society? Where would you all be without the cooperative to control everything? We never commit a crime in Chiang Mai. Even car crashes involving a red songtaew or using drugs while driving? People only focus on our few mistakes. But they don’t see the whole picture. Like today I just held a training seminar, and everyone understood me. Look at the history of crime in Chiang Mai, do we go around killing people or taking drugs? You don’t bring these issues out to discuss. Only smear us. You need to look around you and you will see that the coin has two sides, why are you only talking about one side? We just make a small mistake…and there you go. For Chiang Mai, the highlight of our society are our songtaew. People complain about our illegal parking, but look at all the Mercedes-Benz, BMWs or Volvos that park illegally, no one gets upset about that. But you get two songtaew double parked and we get into trouble. Even the 5, 10 or 20 baht fees that people get upset about. What about planes? Just because they cheat like rich people, no one minds, they don’t mind paying more money during high seasons. But we ask for an extra 5 or 10 baht for long distance and we get accused of overcharging.

Citylife: How many songteaws are there in Chiang Mai nowadays?

Singhkham: There are 2465 red songteaws in Chiang Mai, most of them are owned by Nakhon Lanna Cooperative members.

Citylife: What does the cooperative do for its members?

Singhkham: We help take care of members in case of accidents or death, and we also help them make a loan when they wish to purchase their songtaew. Members who buy petrol at the petrol station we operate also receive a 30 satang discount per litre, and members can also earn 900 baht per month for putting an advertising sign on their songteaw, as long as they are active within our organisation such as purchasing at least 3000 baht per month of petrol from our station.

Citylife: Do you think that songtaews are a part of Chiang Mai’s culture?

Singhkham: Around 40 years ago, there were buses in Chiang Mai. Nakhon Lanna Cooperative was founded on November 20, 1978. At that time, buses failed because most people didn’t take the bus as much as they should’ve. They preferred our songtaews as they can deliver them straight to their homes; that is why we became the main mode of transportation in Chiang Mai.

Citylife: A lot of time has passed since then, how has this affected your cooperative?

Singhkham: I have been in Nakhon Lanna since June 24th, 1993. At that time, there were around 5,000 songteaws. The number of songteaws were reduced because in the past many of those vehicles were illegal and didn’t pay their annual vehicle tax nor did they contribute towards the coop. We selected people who were really willing to do this job and only kept drivers who passed our standards.

Citylife: Can you tell us about your newly launched application CM Taxi?

Singhkham Nanti

Singhkham: Now we have around 400 songtaews on the app and there are two to three languages. We are continuing to develop the technology. As to our drivers, they work in shifts and we often have retirees, head of villages, police and soldiers driving. Drivers must be older than 25 years by law to have a public transportation license and we also check their criminal background. But Uber, you don’t know who the drivers are; they do something wrong and you can’t investigate. We can.

Assistant Professor Dr. Poon Thiengburanathum from Department of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, CMU is helping us to develop this app and it’s been in use for the past few months. Actually, the app has been under development for years, but we don’t like to put on an act for the public like Chuan and Abhisit, so we didn’t pubicise it until now.

Citylife: How will this application be promoted?

Singhkham: Mostly, we use the media like LINE to advertise our app. Dr. Poon and Department of Land transport help us with this. We don’t have money to advertise in newspapers. How do we have lots of money? People who break the law can become rich, they can buy Mercedes and BMW easily. But for us, we almost cry when we have to pay rent at the end of each month. You have to think positively. Do not think negatively. We work legally. Do you want us to kill other people? Do you want us to rob others? The things I told you are really true. I am not afraid of anything, but I am only concerned about my members’ livelihoods. No matter what happens to me, I only hope that my members will live happily.

Citylife: Many of your drivers are post retirement age, do you think that they can learn to use the app?

Singhkham: Don’t look down on old people, they have raised and supported families. Do not underestimate old people. If you want to look down on them, go look down on [Ed. Edited out name of politician due to political climate]. When is he going to die?

Citylife: Why do you think that songtaew’s reputations is bad?

Singhkham: People who ruin our image are illegal people, they try to compete with us like Uber. They try to ruin our image. General people don’t ruin us because they still use our service, but Uber, they lose profit to us and that’s why they try to attack us.

Citylife: What are you going to do to work on the image of the songtaew?

Singhkham: You said we were low-tech, now we have the application to compete with others. Back in the day I was called “one-hand driver”, my right hand held the car’s old door and the left held steered the wheel. Now there are many new cars with air conditioning and I spent years improving the organisation without anyone’s help, single-handedly. I had to borrow hundreds of millions to lead Nakhon Lanna to the better way. People who accused me of cheating were just jealous. I don’t cheat anyone unlike [Ed. Politicians’ names edited out].

Citylife: Are there other ways to improve Red songteaws image?

Singhkham: Why not look at those who break the law first? There are a thousand black license plate cars (privately owned) used as public transportation. Handle Uber and Grab first; they are illegal. Nakhon Lanna can solve whenever problem I want. I just say the word, they all will follow. Uber is a large organisation but they can’t seem to follow a command. The government has told them to stop, they simply refuse. Can you understand our frustration? When we surround Uber drivers, it’s like we are selling food and then someone with no FDA license comes and undercuts you, wouldn’t you be angry?

Citylife: Are the authorities doing a good job to support you all?

Singhkham: They only come out when the media spotlight is on, then everyone wants to be involved. The laws are good, but they need to be applied. If our own members break the law then we have our own form of punishment while accepting the court’s order.

Citylife: Can you tell us about the latest announcement about the total overhaul of sontaews? [Ed. To re-register all songtaew as commercial cars and adjust pricing.]

Singhkham: The new policy is very good and solves the problems with standard pricing, which by the way is not set by us, but by the Department of Land Transport. We are doing reguar seminars and training now, so far having trained over 600 members. Once members have passed the training they will receive a new car licenses plate as commercial cars versus the old ones which were for regular routed transport, not commercial transport.

Citylife: Any last word to those who view your cooperative unfavourably?

Singhkham: Mirrors, you have to look at the mirror before you want to blame or attack other people.