The Motorbike and Social Change

My Phnom Penh house is close to Diamond Island, the modern name now given to an area formally known as Koh Pich, an island at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Tonle Bassac rivers which leads the city’s development drive with a convention centre, food and entertainment outlets, housing, and a golf driving range with nets at the 220 meter range that stop balls disappearing into the Mekong. It was on a small footbridge from Koh Pich back to the city that over three hundred and fifty people died tragically in 2010, when a stampede broke out during Water Festival activities.

Coming back from the island one night, in a tuktuk, the local variation of a motor cycle-drawn passenger trailer, I noticed that humans again had demonstrated their capacity to adapt. As part of civic development, planners had placed benches every few meters along the roads to encourage communities to enjoy their locales. After dark now, though, each bench was occupied by a young couple, and in front of each bench was parked what really made their assignations possible: a motor cycle.

When Soichiro Honda began selling his first small engined, low-powered motorbikes in Japan soon after the end of World War Two, he cannot have imagined his innovation would turn out to be one of the greatest agents for social change in Southeast Asia in succeeding generations. ( ).  The motorbike revolutionised transport, geographic and social mobility, business practice and gender relations, and became a major consideration in thinking about climate change. And that was just for starters, because the arrival of the motorbike also led to more creative thinking that produced even further change.

Honda bikes began arriving in the region by the late 1950s and took off by the 1960s, as demonstrated by the Loh Boon Siew story in Malaysia. ( ).   Boon Siew, who became known as Mr Honda, was born in China but arrived in Penang in the late 1920s where he used his trained mechanic skills to make a start in the motor industry. During the 1950s he noticed the popularity of Honda motorbikes in Japan, convinced the company to set up an assembly plant in Malaysia with himself as the sole agent in the country. From the first fifty bikes produced, he was on the way to a massive fortune, and it was really Boon Siew who began the phenomenon of the small motorbike in Southeast Asia.

It was so successful that, inevitably, it has led to intellectual property brawls as the Chinese, in particular, began producing knock-off versions at cheaper prices that flooded the market. ( ).  That also had the effect of producing even more competition so a goodish new bike now might cost about $US1,500, a used one for half that or even less.

The reasons for success are easy to find: the bikes were low-powered and low in price, making them far more accessible to the average person. They were beautifully suited to the tight confines of Southeast Asian towns and villages, and to the rudimentary roads that were much tougher on cars. Bikes were adaptable: a family of four or five could be taken aboard (still to the horror of visitors brought up on strict Western health and safety rules). The bike could also carry goods, produce and even livestock. I was once passed on a freeway across from Penang by a couple of men on a motorbike, the pillion passenger hanging onto a wheelbarrow that was zipping along behind at about 130 kilometers per hour.

These bikes have spread amazingly from that start, one of the great marketing successes of the twentieth century, surely. There are now said to be over 10 million motorbikes in Vietnam alone, for example, while there are still fewer than a million cars. Anyone who has visited Vietnam will attest to the ubiquity of the bike and the difficulty of crossing any street because of them. ( ).   In Thailand sales of bikes have increased annually by almost twenty percent for several years. Several streets in Phnom Penh are lined by thousands of new or used bikes as the neighbouring vendors spruik their wares.

What is striking beyond the uptake, however, is the sheer range of uses these bikes have inspired.

Just after I shifted into my house I jumped into a tuktuk (of course), and went off to buy cane furniture. The purchasing was easy and cheap, so the list of items grew beyond that anticipated. That was all very well, but the Western mind kept asking (a) how would these bookcases, settees, chairs and tables get back to the house and, (b) at what cost? The vendor anticipated this and summonsed from across the street a guy with a motorbike and what looked like two rails attached to wheels hooked on the back. The rider/driver of this Heath Robinson archetype then neatly and rapidly stacked all the items aboard, then had them at my house in ten. His asking price was $US3, so he got a $2 tip.

That would not have been possible without Mr. Honda. All over Cambodia deliveries are made by little covered vans, some even refrigerated, drawn by motorbikes. Everyone at my office has a motorbike that gives them easy access to home, their second jobs, and all their social engagements. Those bikes provide revenue for the police. At the traffic lights around the corner, bike-riding police regularly lie in wait to extract funds from riders for not wearing a helmet, speeding, going too slow, or in some cases apparently, for just being there at the wrong time. People carry away chickens and piglets from the markets on the back of bikes. The vendors along the route of my early morning walk bring in all their goods by bike, in long woven baskets strapped to the pillion.

Mobile restaurants are propelled along by motorbikes, fires burning merrily under hotplates so that a trail of smoke other than exhaust fumes trail out behind. Large trailers are attached to other bikes, transporting glass, cement, used tires, gas cylinders, and sometimes even new motorbikes going for sale.

The tuktuk itself has transformed travel, with families or groups of up to ten commonly crammed in and clinging on for dear life. Sometimes a clutch of monks in colourful robes will putter by, passed by those couples who roam about the city freely in a way their forebears could never have done. Young women now travel about as never before, freed up by the motorbike.

Some tourists and even some expats come to hate the tuk and the bike. More precisely, they dislike the owners because of the constant blandishments to take a tuk or a moto. The last is a pure innovation in that almost anyone with a bike can double up as a passenger service provider. Sometimes, it seems as if four out of five bikes are, in fact, motos whose owners will sweep you off to any part of the city, if you are game to brave the traffic without a helmet, on the back of a bike piloted by someone you do not know.

That is where the grim news arises. About ninety percent of road fatalities in Cambodia are bike-related, and there are a lot of them. With a population of fifteen million, Cambodia sees about 2,000 deaths per year on the roads. By comparison, Australia has a population of twenty two million and suffers about1,300 deaths per year.  Per 100,000 citizens, Australia has a road death rate of 5.71, Cambodia 12.1. That differential is sobering enough, but it pales against the figures for other bike-dominated populations: Malaysia 24.1, Thailand 19.6, Vietnam 16.1.  ( ).  There are obviously many factors at work here, but one major one is the state of the roads – Malaysia and Thailand have much more advanced fast-speed roads available and that helps bump up the figures.

The knock-on effect here in health care, productivity and, of course, human emotion is probably incalculable. Vain attempts at road rule reform and safety improvement are made everywhere but, really, mayhem rules on the road. Red lights, for example, are not a cue to stop, merely an indication that someone might be coming from another direction. At pedestrian crossings, never assume a walker has some rights and always look both ways because a bike will almost certainly be coming at you on the wrong side of the road. As greater numbers of bikes crowd onto the roads, the greater the problem becomes.

It is hard now to imagine the region without the bike, but it is worth remembering that this is one of those technological developments, like the printing press, that have had reverberations well beyond the technical.

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