Headlights approach in the distance as a pack of two-wheelers hurtle closer at speed. There are no loud exhausts or roaring engines, only soft whirring. Lacking aural presence, the pack instead makes themselves known with loud music blaring from portable speakers. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition of pounding beats, abrasive synths and sappy power ballad vocals.
They whiz past. It’s not a biker gang — just a bunch of teenagers on their e-scooters cruising on a night out.
In Singapore, e-scooters are treated much like full-fledged personal vehicles and less like quirky rental devices. Popular models like the Fiido and the Dyu more closely resemble miniature motorcycles than disposable toys, and another popular and powerful model, the Dualtron, might be what you get if there were a Need for Speed version of a Razor kick scooter.
In a country notorious for its exorbitant car and motorcycle prices, e-scooters are also far more affordable than conventional motor vehicles — a brand-new e-scooter, at roughly SGD$500 (USD$362) to SGD$1,700 (USD$1,230) costs barely a fraction of the Toyota Corolla’s SGD$97,000 (USD$70,190) asking price.
Unsurprisingly, e-scooters have become incredibly popular in Singapore. More than 85,000 have been registered with the Land Transport Authority (LTA) since it mandated compulsory registration earlier this year.
With this growing trend, however, has come stricter government regulations. Registration was implemented alongside fire safety requirements and restrictions on weight and speed, after a rash of battery fires and a series of fatal pedestrian accidents sparked public outrage and intense media attention.
Still, an unknown number of e-scooters in the country remain deliberately unregistered by their owners, despite the increasing presence of LTA enforcement officers who stake out street corners with speed guns and weighing scales, ready to seize speeding, overweight, unregistered or otherwise non-compliant e-scooters.
Enter a subculture of customisation, performance modifications, late-night cruises, and the occasional top-speed run. Like hot rods and Harleys, zh'nged ("pimped") e-scooters appeal to young men as outward statements of individuality, independence and machismo. Others, meanwhile, have found in them an avenue for community, charity and leisure — or the simple joy of building, tweaking and tinkering.
The typical zh’nged look can best be described as café racer meets fixie meets The Fast and The Furious circa 2001. Think lowered handlebars, cut frames, custom fairings, blindingly bright LED lights, and obnoxiously loud Bluetooth speakers often blasting a tacky Mandarin eurodance genre known as Manyao. Those are the showy bits — and then we get to the juicy stuff.
Beefy battery packs power uprated motors that are up to 10 times or more their original strength, resulting in top speeds of up to 150km/h, or 6 times higher than the legal limit. These, along with custom bodywork, can add up to prices totalling in the thousands.
Although demand has been high, some dealers and builders have been trying to keep overpowered scooters out of irresponsible hands.
“I can do modifications, but not just for anyone. I always ask people what they need the mods for first. If you want me to mod a scooter for your 16 year-old son, please, don’t waste your time,” Faizal Khalid, 41, owner of e-scooter dealership and workshop Skoot Ezy, told VICE.
Faizal chalks the high-speed mischief up to a mix of peer pressure and an LTA steeped in an authoritative culture that neither understands nor accommodates emerging vehicle trends.
“There are responsible riders, of course, but also irresponsible ones. To them it’s all about peer pressure — nobody is forcing them to copy the speed runs they see on Facebook,” he said.
“LTA doesn’t provide enough grassroots education or guidance for riders, or even any infrastructure. In Malaysia they already have race circuits. Here, we hardly even have bike lanes.”
Perhaps e-scooter technology and culture evolved too quickly for the authorities to keep up with. Despite the advent of seated models with larger wheels, suspension systems and higher motor power, the LTA still restricts e-scooters to footpaths and leisure pathways in parks with 10 km/h and 25 km/h speed limits respectively. E-scooters are banned from travelling on roads.
“It’s a whole new type of vehicle, and people and the government don’t know how to deal with them,” Faizal said.
Near a 24-hour McDonald’s, a group of teenage riders gathered on a Wednesday night. The group was initially reluctant to speak, cautious of possible plainclothes LTA officers.
None of the group’s scooters bore the required registration plates, and they sported high-capacity external battery packs, high-power motors and a mix of miscellaneous cosmetic parts inspired by the fixed gear bicycle, cafe racer and mountain bike scenes.
Koby*, 17, one of the group’s members, said that he and the group time their cruises from roughly 11pm until 5 or 6am in the morning. They ride late at night to avoid LTA officers.
“We like our scooters because we can go anywhere with them. But when we go out and ride our scooters, we get judged and scolded by older people. It’s not even just the older generation, actually. People our own age are judging us, they think we’re 'young punks'. We ride too fast, we’re dangerous,” said Charlie*, 17, another member of the group.
Koby claimed that a friend of the group was “chased by 6 police cars, they even went against the flow of traffic to catch him” on a cruise two nights before. They insisted that they ride safely and responsibly, but it’s hard to ignore the scars and scrapes on another member’s knees.
“If the government bans e-scooters, we wouldn’t know what to do anymore, it’s been our hobby for nearly 5 years now,” said Koby.
“We can’t ride on void decks [common areas in housing estates], pavements or roads. So where can we ride?”
Meanwhile, other riders are doing their best to sweeten the e-scooter community’s unsavoury image.
The Brotherhood Scooterz (TBS), a collective of e-scooter enthusiasts, regularly organises large charity cruises, distributing food and daily necessities to the needy. The collective also organises community events. On a Saturday night, they are gathered for their third anniversary over a family-friendly cookout.
Shah Ahmad, 35, TBS’ leader, has participated in discussions with the LTA over safe riding guidelines and the feasibility of a mandatory scooter inspection scheme. While Shah agrees with the principle of such a scheme, he doubts that it would do much to deter illegal modding.
“Certain people have spent big money, up to $20,000 (USD$14,470) on mods. They won’t just want to give those scooters up,” he said.
Many of TBS’s members also use their modified scooters for food delivery jobs. Shah said that the authorities’ crackdown on performance modifications has made life harder for delivery riders, who rely on them to work longer shifts and make quicker deliveries. Nevertheless, there isn’t much that the group can do but accept the crackdown.
“Almost all of my members’ scooters are non-compliant. Whatever we have now, we’ll want to keep, but we’re not going to use them here in Singapore. We’ll take them overseas, where we can enjoy them,” Shah said.
The group, along with many others, often take their scooters across the border to Malaysia, where they can cruise freely on deserted highways. There, they are unhindered by speed and weight limits.
Whether in responsible hands or not, the future looks bleak for zh’nged scooters in Singapore. Mandatory registration, stricter fire safety standards and a new biannual inspection scheme all look set to drive the short-lived subculture further underground, or out of the country altogether. Janil Puthucheary, the Senior Minister of State for Transport, has even announced recently that a total ban on e-scooters might be imposed, “if the behaviour of riders does not improve.”
No matter the outcome, riders and retailers remain hopeful that the market will adapt and safety standards will improve.
“We don’t like it but I guess it’s a good thing. There will be less cheap shitty scooters catching fire,” said Koby.
Faizal is also optimistic for the future of the e-scooter industry.
“I think it will just be a reboot for the industry. Some things might change but the e-scooter scene will live on for sure.”
*Names have been changed for their protection