Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Forgotten People

Sim Kwang Yang, a columnist for Malaysiakini wrote the following article – it’s a wee long but it’s worth a read, especially the last section, as it tells us about a part of Malaysian society that we haven’t heard or talk much about, unlike the very marginalised Indians or the privileged UMNOputras and their BN cohorts. But like the Indians they too fall between the cracks, though not so badly because they keep striving.


The young boy’s story

I was enjoying my late evening bubbly beverage at a neighbourhood coffee shop when this scrawny none-too-prosperous-looking Chinese boy tried to push me some illegal CDs.

Then he sat down at the next table drinking a glass of cold Chinese tea, which at 40 cents, was the cheapest item on the menu. He also looked hungry. So I ordered some fried rice for him. He acknowledged my gesture and wolfed down the meal like a ravenous beast.

I started to get him talking about himself by asking some strategic questions in my broken Cantonese. He was 16, he said, still studying in a Chinese junior secondary school. But he could not study well because his family could not afford expensive tuition classes.

His parents were hawkers selling food at a local market. They had to get up at four or five in the morning, and would not be back until two in the afternoon. They would spend the entire evening preparing for the next day's business. Yet, they did not make enough money to make ends meet.

Without his parents' knowledge, this new found young friend of mine began selling illegal CDs and DVDs, starting at six in the evening until one in the morning. He made about RM2 for each article sold, less if the customer insisted on a discount. On a good day, he could take home RM10 for his expenses. A syndicate - represented by a young lady with a large shoulder bag standing not far away - took care of him, his transport, inventory, stock list and accounting.

By the time he got home to sleep, it would be about 2am. He did this six days a week. He did not have much sleep, and his study was slipping. But at least, he had not been arrested by the enforcement officers. He agreed with me he should stop doing this dubious trade, but there seemed to be few other options.

I looked at his innocent young face and shuddered at the kind of future awaiting him in years to come.

I understand there are quite a few young Chinese kids who suffer a similar fate. Apparently, the drop-out rate is about one third in our Chinese school system.

They end up doing all kinds of odd jobs, anything to scrap out a living. The temptations of living in a huge city are great. Often, they find that they can make easy money doing things which are illegal, selling pirated CDs, collecting debt for loan-sharks, repossessing cars, running errands for various crime syndicates. It is a matter of time when they graduate to become syndicate luminaries themselves. Very few could extricate themselves from a life-long web of crime and violence.

The woman's story

Then there is the old lady running the coffee shop where I have my late evening bubbly beverage.

I watched one day when the health officers from our local council came to her shop for the usual inspection. When they left, the old lady whispered to me it took only RM30 to get rid of them. "They said my toilets are dirty. Where got my toilets dirty? They are looking for Duit Raya only."

Over the next few months, she would sometimes sit down at my table to catch her breath, and told me her story.

By now she is 61, and her husband is 73. They both run the coffee shop business. Every morning, she would be at the shop at 6.30 to open the door and light the fire. Then, she is off to the market for the day's purchase of various ingredients. The next few hours would be devoted to non-stop washing, peeling, cutting, and cooking, so that all the dishes would be ready for the lunch crowd at around 10.

When the crowd does turn up, she would be serving, trouble-shooting, supervising, collecting payment and running around until two in the afternoon. Cleaning up will take another hour or so. She would then catch a short nap, in the small space under the staircase.

At six, the action starts again. Her son the chef will turn the shop into a Chinese restaurant. The old lady and her husband still have to be there, to sell their chicken wings roasted over a charcoal fire and to serve the drinks. By the time they pack up for the evening, it would be well past two. She probably goes to bed at three in the morning.

They rest for one day every two weeks, and she complains that she never gets enough sleep.

She has done this for half a century, she told me one day. They started at a shack along Jalan Bukit Bintang at a time when the famed street was just like any haphazard road in China Town. Her brisk business did close for a week in the duration of the May 13 incident.

At her age, most old ladies would have retired long ago to a life of ease and comfort. Unfortunately, she made a bad investment opening a huge food court, and borrowing money from a loan shark. The unwise loan had to be repaid by selling off two houses, one van and three cars. That is why they are still rebuilding another business during her sunset years.

I asked her if she had ever sought help from the any government schemes and cheap loans that I read about. She laughed heartily and said she has the wrong colour skin for all that benefits.

The young boy and the old lady above are not well-schooled. But they are street-wise, having been exposed to the cruel working of the world from a young age. They may not know the sort of nation building policies and grand statistics that Big-Shot People bandy about in air-conditioned conference rooms and government meeting halls. But they know the worst of the system in place because they are the victims.

Nevertheless, I have not heard them whine about the lack of assistance from any quarters. They understood instinctively the capitalist dictum that "there is no free lunch in this world" more than your most educated professionals.

Many Chinese professionals and business people do not like playing against the loaded dice, so they have sought more level playing field across the oceans. In one study presented to a meeting of the Chinese Assembly hall in Kuala Lumpur, it was estimated that about one million of the most qualified Chinese people have migrated overseas in the period between 1957 and 1900. That is what I call an exodus. Of course, it is a massive loss of blood from our body politics in more ways than one!

But my friends the young boy and the old lady will never immigrate anywhere. They do not have the paper qualification, and they do not have the money. The very idea probably has not crossed their mind, since their family and friends are all here anyway. Malaysia is their homeland, even though they are denied this sense of belonging by the dominant political movement of the land.

Lumped together statistically

Of course the young boy and the old lady will never dream of buying shares and trading on the stock market. The corporate world is another universe to them, though they will have to buy the goods and services provided by our corporate giants.

They probably know about the legendary wealth of the very rich Chinese people in Malaysia. Perhaps they will gossip enviously about the good Karma of the most famous Chinese tycoons, those who can still retain a foothold in the world of commerce and finance despite the onslaught of unfriendly government policies.

What they - and millions like them - do not realise always is that they are lumped together statistically with the tycoons as a single ethnic group, to entrench the prejudice that all Chinese are rich, and so should be "marginalised" in a strange twist to the idea of positive discrimination.

They will probably not care much about this raging controversy on how much equity shares are held by the Malays. The only ASLI they know is Orang Asli (photo). Perhaps they do not believe in any government statistics anyway, being just average Malaysians at heart, and therefore very distant from government business, except when paying taxes or bribing "little Napoleons".

Whatever the Big-Shot People may say, the young boy and the old lady still has to get on with their daily struggle for survival in their separate ways. They are small fish in a huge ocean. Only the big fish can enjoy gargantuan and sumptuous free lunch in the name of righting racial wrongs.


  1. ILSA report proves conventional wisdom wrong:
    There has been much argument as to whether the Bumiputra Equity is 45% or 18.5%. Now a private thunk tank, ILSA has figured out the truth. Conventional wisdom that 18.5% is not the same as 45% has been disproved. It is one and the same. Both ASLI & EPU are right!

    conventional wisdom :
    18.5 % = not 45%
    not 18.5% = 45%

    lets add the 2 equations:

    18.5% + not18.5 %= 45% + not45%

    and rearranging:

    18.5% ( 1 + not) = 45% (1 +not)

    and cancelling the common items, voila:
    18.5% = 45%


  2. Sad but true. My Dad said the same thing along the lines of the old lady when she was given the idea for applying for government help. It was a different topic and so was the reaction, but the gist was all the same. Most people don't really care about government policies when you ask them, so long as they're taken care of and being justly treated.