#OpinionOfTheDay

My love-hate relationship with innovations and sharing economy

Ten months ago, I professed in this column my love for shared bike services in Singapore, how these bright yellow and orange bicycles have given me a newfound sense of agency as a commuter by bridging the last-mile connectivity gap.

It is now 2019, and older and wiser, I take my words back.

Just like many other Singaporeans who have abandoned these services, my love affair with the likes of oBike and ofo is officially over.

While these bikes used to be ubiquitous in most neighbourhoods, making it so easy for me to get from point to point with the apps that I have on hand, poor maintenance and regulatory constraints have made it a lot harder to locate a working bike these days.

In June last year, oBike crashed out of Singapore, owing more than 200,000 users here almost $9 million in unrefunded deposits. Not only did I fail to get my $49 deposit back, but I am now experiencing the same sense of deja vu with ofo, which appears to be in similarly poor financial straits - and owes me $40.

I sent them an e-mail about two weeks ago to ask for a refund. I am still waiting for a response.

As a consumer, I now feel more wary about forking out money to other disruptors.

For instance, promotions for GrabPay can be seen in many shops these days, inviting you to put money into e-wallets which can then be converted into credits - you can store up to $999 worth of credits in your account. Virtual mobile telco Circles.Life has been sending me multiple e-mails lately, telling me that I can get a cashback of $120 - $10 every month in the coming year - if I choose to break my contract with my current telco and switch to their service.

But a nagging feeling at the back of my mind stops me from responding to these overtures, as irrational as this may seem - what if such business models somehow become unsustainable, and I can't get my money back?

The cynic in me wants to reject these new digital entrants altogether and mourn the passing of an analogue way of life that is less fraught with uncertainty when it comes to the question of whether a new service or product will be here to stay for good.

And don't get me started on data privacy too - my Facebook account has already been compromised once last year, which has also made me more conscious of how much personal data I have to hand to a company that I do not know if I can trust each time I sign up for a new app.

Feeling cheated and jaded after their experiences with ofo, some of my friends on Facebook have been sharing a quote from ofo's acting general manager, who was reported in Today as telling staff in an internal memo to "appreciate" the start-up experience amid the company's financial struggles. To them, it seemed like the manager was being unsympathetic about the plight of employees who had been left in the lurch.

However, I found his comment to be a sobering reminder of the uncertainty for both consumers and employees in today's sharing economy.

In March last year, I had made plans to catch up with an old friend from university on a Saturday. The night before, however, he asked for a rain check, saying that something had cropped up.

When I opened the newspaper pages the following Monday, I found out - indirectly - what had happened. His employer, Uber, had been acquired by rival Grab and he would be losing his job. He had probably been busy commiserating with his team, taking in the news and preparing to move out of the office.

Far from being bitter or resentful, my friend took the upheaval in his stride. After taking a short break, he found a new role at another tech start-up and seems upbeat about his future in the new company.

Compared with my friend, who lost his job because of this acquisition, or Singapore's ofo employees, who have been reportedly owed thousands of dollars in unpaid claims, I should be thankful that I do not have to worry about next month's pay cheque or the prospect of my company suddenly going under.

Rather than rejecting innovative services, I should be learning how to be a more discerning consumer to better protect myself. As an employee in a disrupted sector,
I should also learn how to go with the flow as we experiment with new ways of working in the office.

Thinking about my friend's experience also reminded me that while change and disruption come with risks, they can also lead to growth and opportunities.

On balance, services offered by other companies that have a more financially sustainable model, and which have proven to have a strong track record over the last few years, have greatly enriched my life as a consumer.

The rise of low-cost airlines and apartment-renting company Airbnb has made travel much more affordable. Once, I lost my wallet in a Grab car but managed to get it back from the driver, thanks to the app which keeps records of your past rides.

And streaming service Netflix has been continually innovating and coming up with impressive offerings, from Singapore-born film-maker Sandi Tan's Oscar-shortlisted documentary Shirkers to a sophisticated choose-your-own-adventure interactive movie called Bandersnatch.

Rather than rejecting innovative services, I should be learning how to be a more discerning consumer to better protect myself. As an employee in a disrupted sector, I should also learn how to go with the flow as we experiment with new ways of working in the office.

I probably won't get on another shared bike again in the near future, but I recently saw some new e-scooter services sprouting up near Marina Bay Sands that I am very much tempted to try. And guess what? They are deposit-free.


 • #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.