Talking to Chan Park, Uber’s General Manager of Southeast Asia

Photo: Annette Chan/Coconuts Media

At a recent promotional event for Uber in Hong Kong, we sat down with General Manager for Southeast Asia Chan Park. While Park was unable to discuss anything to do with Hong Kong (where 22 Uber drivers were arrested in May), we chatted to him about the ridesharing giant’s legal troubles and strategies on a regional scale.

Uber has a nebulous legal status in Bangkok, a key market for you, and there’s been talk in the Philippines recently of suspending all ride-sharing services. Is there an element of risk in kicking off the service in a market before it’s been cleared with local authorities? What’s the strategic thinking behind that?

When we think about opening up a market, launching a product, serving the cities that we are in, we are constantly thinking about: Is it good for riders? Is it good for driver partners? Is it good for the cities? What we have seen over the last couple of years – we’ve been in the region for three, four years now – what we have seen is the conversation has definitely shifted, across the board.

The conversation has shifted from, “What is ride sharing? Should this stay or should it leave?” to “How do we make this work”? Because clearly, it’s benefiting millions of riders, it’s benefiting hundreds of thousands of drivers, and of course it’s benefiting the cities. So I can confidently say that no matter which situation we’re in, generally speaking, the sentiment and the tone and the purpose of these conversations with government stakeholders as well as the public, is always about, “what is the most sensible environment from a regulatory perspective to make this product work, and to make this a sustainable and a safe platform for riders and drivers?”

Bangkok is the same thing: we’re constantly having dialogues with the DLT as well as the government as a whole around the best way to make ridesharing work. It’s not about “illegal” or “legal”. It’s the same thing in the Philippines. The Philippines was the first country in the world that, at the national level, created a regulatory framework for ridesharing, to recognize ridesharing. This happened a little over two years ago, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a dialogue to be had. But again, the dialogue is about how to make ridesharing work.

I’m pretty proud to say that Southeast Asia as a region, we have seen some forward-thinking governments that want to make this work. And if you look at one of most recent launches in Myanmar – we actually announced that launch alongside the government. The chief minister actually came to the launch in Yangon and was a huge supporter of what we’re trying to do, which is to remove car ownership and congestion, which in a big deal in Southeast Asia.

As you said, there have been some forward-thinking governments, for example Singapore [which legalized Uber]. Do you have hope that [other countries in the region will follow its example]?

I would actually say that yes, Singapore is one of the environments where we and the ridesharing industry have been recognized, but actually if you look at Malaysia, they were actually even more ahead of the curve, because this dialogue started more than a year ago. We’ve been having working groups, public discussions, and debates around what the most sensible regulation would be [for the industry]. And the in countries like Malaysia, Myanmar, and even in the Philippines, these are all kind of trending in the right direction. Look, when it comes to local regulation, it has to make sense for that country, right? So it’s not like you can take what’s happening in one country and just apply it directly to a different country, but again, the tone is positive, the tone is collaborative, and it revolves around finding the best situation for ridesharing and how to make it work. I’m very optimistic about that.

Generally speaking, how important is Southeast Asia to Uber’s global strategy?

Well look, Southeast Asia as a whole, we’re looking at an opportunity of over 600 million people in population. Our mission is: transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone. That “everyone” piece is well, how many people are there [for us] to help move from point A to point B? That’s kind of how we think about it, and in that respect, Southeast Asia is a huge part of our global portfolio and our global business. Executives like Andrew McDonald (regional general manager of APAC and Latin America) come to visit us all the time, and are constantly talking about strategy in this region. From a product perspective as well, we get a lot of attention and priority, so strategically, the region is super important. And what’s also a good thing to remember is that we do have a global business. So we have different parts of the business that are profitable and are able to help us grow, like an investment market such as Southeast Asia, so I’m grateful for that and I’m happy to be part of a strategically important region for the company.

In a nutshell, explain why Uber drivers shouldn’t have to clear the same regulatory hurdles taxi companies are traditionally expected to clear.

I think there are fundamentally different characteristics. I actually think of our competition as car owners and the concept of private ownership of a car. And what we’re trying to do is make use of those private cars more efficiently. For example, a driver partner on Uber is able to switch off the app whenever they want, they can work how long they want, wherever they want in the city. There’s no set rules on fixed shifts and things like this. And, depending on the market, anywhere from 30, 40, in some markets even 50 percent of the total driver partner population drives less than 10 hours a week. So when you’re thinking about the fundamental characteristics of what this platform represents, it is very different from some of the other kind of industries that have existed in the past.

It’s the same with things like pricing. If you’re trying to make the platform efficient, you have to balance supply and demand at the right times, and we just look at when sufficient cars are not on the road and there’s too much demand, we let the market sort of float and sort of balance supply and demand on its own. So that just means that when it comes to some of the key characteristics of this ridesharing product and industry, whether you look at how many hours drivers are putting onto the platform, as an income opportunity, pricing and things like this, it is just different.

I want to be clear, we are not saying, “Let this industry run freely with no guardrails”. We want to be regulated. And that’s why the conversation has been about “how do we regulate the space that is sensible for the market and for this product?” And that has been what we’re asking for and I’m glad to see the conversation is shifting in the right way. So there’s a bit of a misconception sometimes, where I’ve heard people say “Uber doesn’t want to be regulated”. We do want to be regulated and that’s why we’re having this conversation with governments across the region in a positive way.

As you said, you want to be regulated, so what has been the single biggest hurdle in [acquiring that regulation]? Each market is different, but do you find that there are commonalities? Is there a huge hurdle you’ve found to be consistent across markets?

I think it’s education more than anything. You know, for whatever reason, in some markets, because the stage of the product or business in that market, the more the public, the more riders and drivers are benefiting from the platform … the more they can relate to it and the more they can speak up for it.

So I think in varying parts of the region … some markets were faster, some markets were a little bit slower to adopt, but the overall trend has always been sort of “OK, we need to make this work because clearly, this is here to stay. This is the future.” The world of using your smartphone to get a ride reliably at an affordable rate, that’s something that not many people can argue with. So I just think it’s public education. Of course there needs to be consideration to your point about commonalities; we have to protect consumers, we have to protect the safety of riders and drivers. That’s a very important thing, and those are the anchoring points around which we have this conversation: how do we protect consumers, how do we protect drivers, how do we protect riders, and how do we make sure we’re growing this service and platform in a sustainable way? Those are the commonalities.

In Hong Kong, there’s a phenomenon that traditional taxi drivers will turn you away after a night out unless they can charge you an exorbitant sum. Can you promise Uber passengers that they won’t be treated this way?

By the way, that’s not just a Hong Kong thing [laughs]. I think there’s a reason why that happens in an analog world. One is, you know what, drivers have to make a living too, and sometimes if they live on the west side of the island and late at night they’re being asked to go to the east side of the island, that’s inconvenient to the driver. So we’ve created this feature where, at the end of the day, if the driver wants to go home, they can accept a request that’s somewhat along the way on their way home. The second reason is, in an analog world, I’m the driver, and you ask me to take you to [destination] and I have the option of saying no to you, in that analog, street-side world. Well, on the Uber app, the driver is not given where the destination is, so he or she has to accept. What we promise to do is continue to create these features that make the experience for the driver, which is the feature of going home and being able to have a convenient route back – and the rider, which is not feeling like you have to beg someone to take you home… we promise to continue to look for those product opportunities and do some things on the policy side, but in terms of “can I promise 100 percent of the time it’s never going to happen?” Drivers can cancel and it’s not necessarily because they don’t want to take you, but it can be because, like, maybe on their way to you they got into an accident. There can be a lot of reasons.

So is it never going to happen? I’m sure [it will] when you’re facilitating millions and millions of trips but generally speaking, we feel good about the policies that we have set, we feel good about the product features that we’ve created on the app to minimize those incidents, and overall the experience should be a lot more convenient and reliable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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