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Lessons from pasar malam

Posted by mayashanti5282046 于 十一月 22, 2008

Lessons from pasar malam
Sim Kwang Yang | Sep 27, 08 12:21pm

The September sky over Cheras was still overcast by late afternoon, even though there had been a heavy downpour earlier on. I wondered if the new pasar malam in my new neighbourhood was going to be washed out.


We tend to take our hawkers and petty traders for granted, and few realise that they depend on the weather for their livelihood. Even if they all have those huge umbrellas to shelter themselves and their wares from the rain, potential customers would probably prefer to stay indoors.

Fortunately for them that Sunday afternoon, the overcast sky did not rain, and the coolness was good for open air trading.

My neighbourhood pasar malam was, like most other pasar malam of its kind in KL, located on the car park in front of two rows of four-storey shophouses. The uniformed Rela people had closed half the car park to traffic for the petty traders to do their business, while allowing the other half for visitors to park their cars.

Earlier on, the whole car park had been allocated for the pasar malam. It had attracted hundreds of hawkers and business was booming. But then a few shopkeepers complained that they were losing business because of lack of parking space, and hence the new arrangement. The number of stalls had been reduced drastically, and the pasar malam had reverted to its struggling phase again.

They had gone through starts and stops for a long period now. A couple of hawkers were apparently negotiating with the Kajang Municipal Council on their behalf. There were rumours that these few hawkers had collected hundreds and even thousands from those hawkers who were interested in particular spots. Then, the local councillors appointed by the Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor went to the press clarifying that no such payment was necessary, and the whole night market sank into disarray again.

This sort of wayward practice shows two things.Life goes on in spite of politics

For the petty traders, the state government may have changed hands, but they still believed that officials in the local councils had to be bribed for them to do legitimate business.

For them and the local residents in my neighbourhood, Pakatan may have direct control over the Kajang local council, but the local authorities are still as remote and inaccessible as before, when the Barisan Nasional was in power in Selangor.

How nice it would be if those newly minted councillors would descend upon my pasar malam one Sunday evening, set up a service stall, and talk to the hawkers and the residents. How nice if only the Menteri Besar Khalid Ibrahim and his gang could drop by for a cup of coffee!

But people’s lives go on in spite of politics. This is more so for those hawkers and petty traders who ply their trade all over the Klang valley. They will tell you that whoever sits at the helm of government, their life will always be a tough struggle against the element, rampant inflation, and the local authorities.

I watched them start their evening business that day. By 5.30pm, they parked their cars, vans, or lorries behind the spot where they set up their stall. The store consisted of a few collapsible tables, one or two huge umbrellas, some fluorescent lights, and a mandatory generator.

The greatest attraction of any night market is of course its variety and its affordability. There were over 100 mostly Chinese stalls in my neighbourhood pasar malam that Sunday night, selling all manners of hawker food, clothing, pirated DVDs, and all kinds of household knick-knacks. There was even a Korean couple selling home made Kim-chi!

This 63-year-old lady took about 40 minutes to set up her stall of three tables, selling fried chicken and other snacks. She, with a help of a few family members, unloaded the heavy big kuali from her vehicle, set it upon an equally heavy and big gas stove, and with the agility of an 18-year-old, she was doing very brisk business within the hour.

Her neighbour at the next stall was selling fried mee, fried bihun, nasi lemak, and that sort of thing. The woman in her early 40s had her four teenage boys to help her. In developed nations, that would constitute child labour, and a violation of children’s human rights. In Malaysia, children helping parents in hawker trade is a norm. It is in keeping with the Confucian value of fulfilling filial duty.

It’s also about monopoly

It was whispered to me that this particular lady actually was quite rich. Somehow, that enhanced my respect for her. The reason for her to be rich must be hard work and frugality. One of her boys took out a school book and seemed to be studying under the bright light of the fluorescent lamp. They were over staffed. I thought to my self it was better for them to share in the experience of making a few bucks than loitering in the shopping malls.

By 7pm, the adjoining roadside was packed with parked cars. This would be illegal parking, but who cares, in Cheras? The crowd thronged the market. Whole families up to 10 members would parade up and down the make shift pasar malam, sampling the wares, enjoying the food and drinks, and the wide open space suddenly became congested and lively.

A neighbour joined my table and shared with me a little item of news.

There was a stall that was doing extraordinary business selling hot noodle. Watching his production line in action, and witnessing the long queue in front of the stall all evening, I estimated that he must be making at least quite a few hundred ringgits a night. Why, they even brought and placed many tables and chairs, making their stall into a temporary restaurant.

Then, a new comer wanted to move in, selling a similar product at the other end of the market. So the original stall owner sent a few strong arms to warn him off. He understood the advantage of monopoly and how to enforce that monopoly!

Most of these petty traders and hawkers making their living in any pasar malam exhibit this tenacity of will typical of the cowboy mentality. They are fiercely independent in guarding their interest.  They have to be, in the near anarchical world of the night market.

Yet, there is some kind of internal dynamic working among them, so that you seldom see open conflicts, even if their trading in such confined and seemly confused space must have generated a great deal of tension.

In fact, they seem to harbour quite considerable empathy for one another. After all, they are in the same trade, and know one another’s problems well. I see them helping neighbouring traders out, with loan of equipment, vital information, use of generator, and even storage space.

Getting organised

What they need to do is to organise themselves through the formation of a permanent registered association, with general assembly every year to scrutinise and pass reports, audited accounts, and elect new committee members. Unfortunately, the prospect for this to happen remains dim; cowboys and cowgirls simply do not flock easily together.

Watching them in action, weekend after weekend, I have reaffirmed my respect for these small hard working people. They are certainly far more customer-friendly and more efficient than the boys and girls in your neighbourhood 7-Eleven Store or the Parkson Grand Departmental Store.

They know that in the free market of the pasar malam, there is no free lunch. Nobody will bail you out if you fail. The only way to survive and prosper is to be competitive. They can never expect any kind of grant or assistance from government at any level. So they take full responsibility for their own livelihood, and give their best in this primordial practice of trading in an open space by the roadside.  They are a civil society in miniature.

Watching them, I see the real strength of Malaysia, far away from the mumbo-jumbo of corporate board rooms, away from the political rhetoric on the media. Here, people live real lives, with their wit and their toil, despite the hypocrisy and the corruption in public life.

A great portion of our middle-class intellegentia is now turned topsy-turvy over whether Anwar Ibrahim can succeed in his plan of regime change in the near future. I am really not that concerned.  One does need patience to see history work itself out in its torturous meandering route.

What I am certain is this: government may come and go, but our night market will go on forever.


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