On this week’s episode we’ve all been to our local pasar malam, taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of this vibrant space. But have you ever spoken to the vendors at the Pasar Malam and what can they tell us about the economy? To find out our correspondent, Azmyl Yunor, ventured into some of the local Pasar Malam.
Produced by Handy Jobs (Hear & Now in Malaysia) in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Programme and brought to you by BFM.
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Azmyl Yunor: BFM 89.9 I’m Azmyl Yunor. You’re listening to Hear and Now in Malaysia, a show about change in Malaysia. For this week’s episode, I go down to the most Malaysian retail space, the pasar malam, to learn and observe how they do business, what concerns them and how the pasar malam survives in good times and bad. I go to two pasar malam. One closer to the city in OUG, and one outside the tree line suburb of Klang Valley in Nilai, Negeri Sembilan.
I’ve always been fascinated by the rhythm and the energy you feel at the pasar malam. From the chant like mantra of the fruit traders, to he droning comfort of the diesel generators, they’re embedded into our collective memories as one of the defining feature of Malaysian-ness, and to a greater extent, the Asia continent. With this in mind, I talked to several pasar malam traders to get a feel on how business is during these rather uncertain economic times, and to feel the assertion that pasar malam is the economic pulse of the nation since they are in fact the most Malaysian of retail spaces.
What can we learn from the pasar malam traders? What does this local space teach us about doing business? I went down to the pasar malam in OUG on a Thursday night and in Nilai, Negeri Sembilan on a Friday, to find out more or perhaps learn a thing or you.
The first trader that I met is 30 year old Ken and his wife, Connie, from Puchong. They have been selling fried chicken and snacks for the past two years and a half, having dabble in other food before settling on this, their most successful venture yet.
They said the price increases and the bad weather had affected their business.
Ken: With the price increase and the flood, it had been difficult, it isn’t as easy for us to simply raise the price of our goods as we sell in small quantities.
Azmyl Yunor: Since his family sells what he describes as “shiok”, or comfort food, meaning fried chicken, fried chicken skin and bishop’s nose as amongst others, he cant increase prices despite the rising costs of his raw supplies.
Ken: The prices cannot be increased. If it is increased, the customers will complain. We have already set the maximum price, if we increase it more, people are better off eating rice and chicken instead of just chicken. These are just snacks, for comfort consumption.
Azmyl Yunor: Connie said 2011 was their most challenging year just yet, noting the recent unpredictable weather, something pasar malams are at the mercy of.
Connie: Its getting worse this year. Its raining terribly. If it doesn’t rain, then its alright. Sometimes the wind is so strong, our umbrellas are flown off.
Azmyl Yunor: I sensed a bleakness in his tone as something symptomatic as all urban and city dweller, on over emphasized sense of doom that may not be as dramatic as it seems.
Ken: Now, everyone is unemployed so they come to the pasar malam. They can choose to trade or just to walk about. There are too many people trading and doing business as compared to the consumers. If you want to survive, then its alright, but if you want to make profit, it can be difficult.
Azmyl Yunor: Right after talking to him, it started to drizzle and he jokingly wondered if I brought the rain with me. Oh boy. Anyway, few stalls down, we ran into a handphone and handphone accessories stall run by 30 year old JY who has been trading in the same line for the past 10 years. He began early, having ended his school at 14 and having to earn a living early on. Unlike the rest, he ventured further out than Greater KL, going as far as Tanjung Malim and Nilai. So, I asked him if he is feeling the pinch.
JY: The customers’ have been purchasing lesser these years. This had go on for 3-4 years now, and 2011 is so far the worst. And with the increase of supply, sales are not as good as before. There are also a lot more new models and we cant afford to bring in newer models. Trend is changing quick, and we cant afford to catch up. Supply has increased while demand has decreased.
Azmyl Yunor: Ahh, the classic Malaysia trait of following the herd. 7-10 stalls selling the same product, in this case, handphone covers. The ability to adapt and target new opportunities are distinctive trade of an enterprising trader. I began to realize that adaptability and resilience are common traits in the pasar malam.
JY: People like to sell women clothings. Women are big consumers, and they are willing to spend unlike the men. So, we try to appeal to the female market as well.
Azmyl Yunor: JY also trade at the Nilai pasar malam and noted that fresh produce or items that we have to touch like fruits, vegetables and fish have steadier sales as locals and foreign workers prefer to cook and eat at home now.
JY: Business doing touchable goods will always have steady stream. People prefer to eat at home now. And foreign workers also follow lead.
Azmyl Yunor: Pasar Malam gives those living out of town access to goods that would otherwise only be available to those living in urban economic jungle. So the next night, I drove down south to the Nilai pasar malam in Taman Cempaka to see how things are there. I spoke first to Cee Li Cheng, age 31, from Labu Sembilan. She specializes in women’s clothings and is married with children. She trades part time. Only 3 times a week, while running her kindergarten with her sister. While she agrees with JY that women products sell better, she still feel the fact that women customers being more frugal with their spending.
Cee Li Cheng : its true that there is a market but recently, housewives have been more careful with their spending. They would have preferred to buy bundled clothes as opposed to new clothes, due to the difference in price. The youths would prefer purchasing new clothes instead as opposed to the elder generation.
Azmyl Yunor: I told her of the grim outlook and experiences of the traders in OUG and asked her whats her take on lack of sales in those part.
Cee Li Cheng: Maybe in KL, consumers would prefer to go to specific parts of KL like in Chow Kit etc as if you purchase in large quantity there, you would have gotten wholesale price instead. So obviously, they would have preferred to go there directly. Also, there are a variety of choices and prices are negotiable.
Azmyl Yunor: Coincidentally, one of the wholesale leeching mansion in Jalan Kenanga is also where Liu got his stock from. So, its possible that some of his customers had resorted to shopping at Jalan Kenanga themselves.
Few stalls down the line is Nordin, a 49 year old trader from Bandar Baru Salak Tinggi who sells assorted goods, with children CDs and religious CDs as his best sellers. A grandfather, he trades by himself, 7 days a week, mainly at the Sepang district. He also does the Salak Tinggi Pasar Pagi where he can sell up to RM1000 worth of malay newspaper and tabloid in just several hours. The choice of products he trade are based on his keen observation of customer demand. Business 101 from Nodin, get to know your market, find a good location, and understand your customers’ needs.
Nordin: When a lot of customers are looking for a particular product, there is a market.
Azmyl Yunor: He disagrees that KL is a bad market.
Nordin: I don’t think so, a lot of my friends are in KL and they’re also taking the same product and location as me. And they are better off than me! So, I don’t think so that trading in KL is poor, I think it is a matter of knowing your market and your market’s need and your competition.
Azmyl Yunor: Places in Nilai is rapidly itself developing, and I wonder whether the recent opening of a Tesco open mart, the presence of a giant hyper mart has any effect on his trade.
Nordin: There is some effect but not to some great extent. The sales aren’t as thoroughly affected by the mart as compared to bad weather.
Azmyl Yunor: For 21 year old Eddy of Kajang, he has been actively helping out since he was 5 and got right into it full time after finishing high school and had never looked back.
Eddy: The worst year had to be 1997. I was still small then, in primary school. But I noticed, even then.
Azmyl Yunor: Well, petrol prices had gone up but Eddy tends to keep prices steady to keep customers happy.
Eddy: You can’t just increase the price at your will. Customers will not be happy. But if the raw materials’ price increase, I will have to increase. But if they maintain, Ill maintain as well.
Azyml Yunor: When the hyper mart initially opened, their business was affected but not for long since customers remain confident with the freshness of the produce found in the pasar malam.
Eddy: When Tesco just opened, we were affected. But here in the pasar malam, we bring in new stock everyday. People are confident with the freshness of produce in the pasar malam, our fish and vegetables are always fresh.
Azmyl Yunor: Since its already dinner time, I went to a kebab stall run by 30 year old Aman, a former factory worker, he has been selling kebaba exclusively at pasar malam for the past 8 years. He stumbled into it by chance after tagging along with some friends to help open a stall part time. He concurred with the early opinions that selling food is a steadier business.
Aman: With food, even though it rains, people still buy a lot of food. With food, sales are usually very steady.
Azmyl Yunor: Like Nordin, he agrees that the success of the business depends more on the location instead of the state of the economy.
Aman : Like the economy, it depends on the location of the pasar malam. If you were to go to where the factories are, where population is scarce, the economy would be equally poor. It also depend on the occupation of the consumers.
Azmyl Yunor: Business for the other traders was good years ago with business starting to slow down in the recent 2-3 years. Customers still shop but they are more thrifty.
Aman : It used to be easier. RM 500 back in the days was easy to obtain, now to get RM500 is tough work, even to reach RM300, it’s a hassle. The difference is obvious, and when compared to previous years, you can feel the effects. Customers begin to know how to save now.
Azmyl Yunor: One way he deals with the slow down is to start a multi-level marketing venture with his wife, which so far has been good. The conversation with Aman gave me some hope as I ate my kebab courtesy of Aman, I begin to reflect on his resilience, something I noticed in all the traders I spoke to, even those that seemed dramatically bleak. Adaptation is a key feature in almost all South East Asian societies. Since we are defined by trade, believe it or not, these traders are the torch bearers of our trading past.
As I finish my kebab on my way out of the Nilai Pasar Malam, I drop by a bundle store run by a 50 year old Asnidah, with her husband Abrah, a house plasterer from Semenyih. For those who don’t know what a bundle store is, a bundle store is basically a shop that sells second hand, imported and local clothes. For her, she sees a cheap and affordable bundle clothes as helping the community and the families in time of economic hardship.
Asnidah: For t-shirts, a piece is RM3, if you take 2, its RM5. I try to help people, I don’t try to exploit the business in anyway. I help the people, and they will help me. If I earn even RM 1 or RM2, I’d be satisfied. I understand people are struggling, and I am too. If we raise the price too high, people would not afford to buy it.
Azmyl Yunor: She also doesn’t see her bundle business as a competitor to stalls selling new clothes.
Asnidah: We are a different sort of business, but we have an interested market. This includes the young and also the old. In the morning market at Semenyih, I have people trying on various outfits as they have various choices. When it’s the festival season, people would purchase more. Imagine if there is a family of 6 children, and they were to buy at retail price, they would have paid a lot more compared to what they pay to me. I also sell clothings for the men, and this include working shirts and such. I set a very reasonable price, and I don’t try to exploit anybody. If we are kind to people, God will sympathize with us.
Azmyl Yunor: The sense of empathy towards the community as a whole is indeed heart warming but also rooted in reality, something I wouldn’t equate with the places of trading. Her business hasn’t really been affected by these difficult times since she sells her clothes cheap anyway. In fact, I felt it is these sort of business that would really flourish in this economic climate. The only drop in business tends to be during the school holidays and bad weather. Other than that, things are alright.
As I rushed off back to a band practice back in KL after talking to her, my mind felt calm and my heart warmed. Theres more that meets the eye at the pasar malam. The human element that we don’t usually get to feel in the comfort of huge airconditioned shopping malls that dot the klang valley.
Aman: I’ve seen my fellow vendor, the one that sells tau fu fa, when its raining, he would just throw it away. I think for us vendors, we don’t feel the impact as big as those who have a fixed salary. This is from my personal experience.
Eddy: Of course we have fixed customers. Sometimes, wherever we go and we meet our customers, that’s the best part, the interaction the business brings you.
Ken: No matter how far it is, if there is business there, we would go.
Connie: Initially, it was our friend that introduced us into this business. Now that we have made it, it would be very nice for us to steal or compete for her business.
JY: Sometimes people wouldn’t mind paying abit more, if they get the quality.
Azmyl Yunor: High street shopping is not the norm here in Malaysia, instead pasar malam or street retail that is the norm. My observation is that pasar malam traders have more than cost based reality to worry about. Weather, location, competition, customer whims and fancies and most of all, having a direct communication the community they serve. These realities make or break our pasar malams.
Walking through the pasar malam gives me the sense of what we need to survive. Proverbially speaking, we don’t really window shop in pasar malam since there is no windows to begin with. But you do get the chance to interact more, and feel, smell,hear and taste the pulse of the nation’s economy and its resilient people on these diesel generated lit street, opened to the mercy of the night sky.
This has been Hear and Now in Malaysia made in collaboration with the Economic Transformation Program. If you have any comments or feedback, please get in touch with us via the twitterfeed @BFMRadio and until next week, I am Azmyl Yunor for Hear and Now in Malaysia on BFM 89.9, the Business station.
* All traders were speaking in Malay throughout the episode. Their parts have been translated for this transcript.