by Hafiz Noor Shams. First published in The Malay Mail Online 29 October 2015

Unlike cabbies whose occupation is mostly driving (save for the minority), most Uber drivers drive part-time. I have had engineers, civil servants, doctorate students and advertising people as my Uber driver.

That occupational diversity makes conversation during an Uber ride much more interesting than that of a typical taxi journey. I have heard many fascinating tidbits across industries. This makes Uber a gold mine for economic anecdotes, giving colour and warmth to hard cold data.

These conversations have turned depressing lately.

The economy is going through a rough patch and official data tells you just as much. No citing of how well Malaysia ranks in the WEF Global Competitiveness Index ― an index that does not measure economic cycles -– can overcome concerns over the economy at the moment.

We are not in a recession but recession as a concept can be a statistical abstract. I would suppose in personal terms, you are in a recession if you lose your job and then struggle to meet your financial obligations. It is within this context my Uber conversations took place.

The worst stories almost always come from oil and gas professionals. With low petroleum prices and spending cuts by Petronas, the whole Malaysian oil and gas sector is in a recession of their own.

This has led one geologist to drive Uber. He used to spend months at sea and all around the world on lucrative contracts looking for oil and gas for big companies. But he has not been out of Kuala Lumpur for a while now. There is no new contract to sign. Nobody is exploring anymore.

Petroleum professionals like him are used to big pay and those in the industry did appear to be among the best paid compared to the rest. And this geologist in particular was used to big spending. He bought a property in a good neighbourhood along with a car last year by borrowing from the banks. Then, the repayment seemed insignificant.

But the times are changing. With no job on the horizon and no money coming in, his personal finances are not in a great shape currently. He is not the only one. “My friends are trying to rent out their places. They did not need the money before but now every sen counts,” he insisted.

I fear what this portends. These are highly qualified and well-paid members of the middle class. Upper middle class perhaps but they are now at risk of losing that status.

There has always been somebody struggling with their finances even during good times. But the idea a person with a fine education such as the geologist could fall so far down so rudely because of something out of his control made me shrink in my seat as he drove me towards my destination.

There might be some comfort the petroleum industry employs just a small segment of the Malaysian labour force.

Yet, it is not the only one in trouble. Retail is not doing well too. It is unclear if the tough time there is temporarily caused by the GST or due to something bigger and more lasting. Meanwhile, euphemisms like downsizing, voluntary separation scheme and “having to let you go” are making its rounds in the banking sector.

Another sector I have had anecdotes to share is advertising.

One person running a small production house told me he drives Uber because there are fewer and fewer advertising jobs available for grabs these days. “In tough times,” he said when the lights were red, “businesses would cut advertising spending first. It is the easiest thing to do for them.” Indeed advertising expenditure has fared badly so far, contracting 9 per cent in the first eight months this year compared to 2014.

Before we parted ways, he joked that driving was his full-time job now judging by the hours he spent on the road instead of at the desk doing creative work.

I only hope these are mere anecdotes.

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Hafiz Noor Shams is a founding Associate of IDEAS

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