This was what happened to me last Thursday. I left home for work earlier to beat the rush-hour traffic, and made a detour to the petrol station. I came out of my car with the doorsunlocked when a man in a motorcycle came close behind me.
“Some money for me to fill petrol,” he murmured. His tanned skin made his coarse hands obvious, holding onto a motorcycle that was unchanged since its first purchase. The yellowed helmet couldn’t hide his frightened eyes, like he wasn’t sure how to beg for money.
I took out my wallet and started looking for some change.
“Any amount will do. If you have RM5 that would be good, or if you don’t, that’s okay too…” he continued.
I found a RM5 note trapped between a few RM1s and RM20s, so I pulled the RM5 and gave it to him.
His feet started moving away from me, and his hands were firmly in grip of the motorcycle handles.
“I can’t believe you trusted me. I could be lying to you and cheating your RM5 but you trusted me… I can’t believe I could still meet someone like you.”
“It’s okay, take the RM5, I still have money. Take it this time,” I said.
“No, no!” he said, in a voice that grew louder. He was now two meters from me, and I looked around to make sure he didn’t cause a scene. “Nobody believed me! All the businesses have closed down, I lost my job, no income, and I haven’t eaten a full meal for months… this pandemic killed me. When I told people that I had no money to eat, no money for petrol, and had to sleep on a mat by the streets, nobody believed me!”
I saw that his motorcycle was indeed stuffed with a straw mat and a few clothes in plastic bags.
“I don’t need your money!” he shouted, tears flowing rapidly on his cheeks. “Just by seeing that you believed what I said was enough. That’s happier than winning the lottery, happier than eating a full meal.”
“Just take it, please,” I said as I moved closer to him. But he moved further away.
“I lost everything, and I can’t believe I could still see someone who believed in me…”
On my journey to the office, I couldn’t stop thinking about the man on the motorcycle. I don’t know his full story nor will I know if this was part of his routine to extract money from unassuming crowds like me. But it was plausible that he was one of the thousand untold stories: Devastated by the pandemic-economy, lost everything from food to shelter, fellbetween the cracks of the system.
Ironically, on the same day, the Department of Statistics Malaysia released a report that celebrated a recovering economy, as our country’s unemployment rate dipped below 4% for the first time since the pandemic. “Economic activities continued to flourish,” it said. The report lauded a series of government programs, including the PRIHATIN packages, that sustained the economy.
Two weeks before, Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul shared similar optimism. He said that Malaysia’s economy was on the right track, and April’s inflation rate of 2.2% was “still good.”
Why is there a contrast between what the official numbers show and what the people feel? What would happen if I just told the motorcycle man that he couldn’t be unemployed because our unemployment rate is only 3.9%? I believed him because I, too, saw many mainstay businesses shut down as recently as the last month because of the compounding economic effects of Covid-19. An economic downturn kills you fast; an economic recovery benefits you slow.
The unemployment rate captures only a snapshot of the economy. It considers anyone who worked at least one hour for pay or profit “employed”. It does not take into accountpeople who are underpaid or temporarily employed. If all the top overseas graduates now work as cashiers at McDonald’s, they would still be considered “employed” in the rosy index. The unemployment rate certainly does not take into accountpeople like the motorcycle man, who tried really hard to find a job and lost hope entirely and are now sleeping on the streets. They are just eliminated from the system.
Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming wrote about how the inflation index could mask true increases in prices because of how it measures. Peering through, he found that 3kg of cooking oil increased 37.2% in April, Grade A eggs at 22.7%, 500g sweetened creamer by 18.9% and 1kg chicken by 10.7% — all significantly higher than the reported 4%. Mimicking the Big Mac index, The Vibes also came up with the Roti Canai and Teh Tarik Index recently to better capture price increases the way it was felt on the ground.
The reality remains. The economy is still bad, and it has a disproportionate impact on certain groups more than the others. Wealthy people are unlikely to be unemployed, and while everyone fears the worst about the economy, poor people do not have a safety net to cushion the shock – they just sink and sleep on the streets.
In the back-and-forth with the motorcycle man, I made a pathetic attempt to console him. When he said there are no good people, I told him there will be many. When he said nobody will believe him, I told him some would. When he said his life was over, I told him it will be better. His voice was louder than mine, and as I spoke, my voice got softer as I no longer believed what I said.
I walked closer to him and held out my RM5. But he took a couple of steps back and eventually drove off, mumbling how dreadful his life was. The green paper note is still in my pocket.
(Revised edition found here: https://m.malaysiakini.com/news/624361)