FEB 27 ― We were hungry that weekend, and wanted to have Thai food in Kampung Baru. The restaurant we wanted was closed, Chinese New Year. Every other decent place was closed too. But we wanted to eat, and drove around we did.
My friend pointed at the many warongs, and restaurants dotting the roadside of Kampung Baru and Chow Kit. What did the number tell us, she asked.
Malaysians are hungry all the time. Malaysians love a variety of foods. The food business is good.
But why were many of these restaurants empty?
It’s Chinese New Year. Even the Malays want to cuti.
“Wrong. It means this: Our economy is tanking. Having a second business nowadays is not a guarantee to a personal pension plan. Entrepreneurship in Malaysia is stagnant.”
The fact that Malaysians pretty much vacuum food into their bodies and are obsessed with it, and yet these voracious appetites cannot support mom-and-pop warongs and restaurants, is an ominous sign.
But this is Kampung Baru. And Chow Kit. These two places teem with life 24 hours a day. How can there be an increasing number of abandoned warongs and cafes?
One time, a friend and I were at the Central Market LRT station, when he pointed out a hotel. That’s one of the biggest whorehouses in KL, he said. I squinted over the tracks.
Do you see those people by the hotel windows?
I think so, I said.
Those are the sex workers, he said. Business is so bad that they now solicit in daylight, and in the open.
“And those are cheap hookers, you know.” He shook his head.
You may disagree with these examples of the country’s economy. “What, how can you equate the sex trade to our GNP! Those warongs? The food is horrible, supply stripped demand, wrong location, the owners tak laku,” you say.
I am not an economist, but those two nuggets piqued my curiosity.
Let’s talk about sex first. These sex workers service a clientele of migrant workers and working-class men. The hotel they operated from was right smack near Central Market, a hub of people coming, going.
The sex trade in Malaysia is not open (like most everywhere else, but in Muslim Malaysia it’s even more hidden). And now the sex workers are brandishing their wares openly in daylight.
If the migrant workers et al aren’t going to them, that means they are not being paid, or paid enough. Now this could be due to two things: employers not paying them at all, or pay has been cut. The fact that they can’t pay for cheap sex is a sign.
The food? It could be a whole host of things.
What I do know is that the feedback I get from friends who are qualified to work in economics, and understand it very well, is that our economy is political, and that it is also a “created” one.
According to a friend, the Malaysian economy in reality does not follow the global financial ups and downs. Look at our property market ― is an apartment in Mont Kiara really worth that much when the workmanship is so-so, even mediocre?
“Good workmanship is those old, steady apartments, like those Selangor Properties apartments in Jalan Bukit Tunku. Have you see the apartments in Damansara Perdana? Terrible!”
High street brands like Zara, Gap for example, are cheaper in their home countries. In Malaysia, a less than stellar cotton shirt from these brands cost about RM200. Yes, yes, exchange rate is high, there’re overheads to think about…
I was also told that we import 70 per cent of our food. If that is true, what is happening to our agricultural industries? Why are we importing food when we have an abundance of land, and also skilled workers? Can someone help clarify?
That night, when we finally had our dinner, we agreed that we would have to create our own pension plans, and that the truth was that Malaysia was not going to support our enterprises. There were more opportunities in the region: Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam. They are robust. We have been mollycoddled for so long that we are complacent.
“So. If the Opposition has greater presence, or takes over Putrajaya, will our economy flourish?” I asked.
“Good question. Different, you know, running a state and at federal level. And remember, our economy is political. But I suppose, one must hope.”
And when everything fails, there’s always Maggi Mee.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist