A Day in the Life of a RM1.50 Nasi Lemak Vendor
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A Day in the Life of a RM1.50 Nasi Lemak Vendor

Words and images: Asyraf Naqiuddin

I found my favourite nasi lemak place during my 50-kilometre commute from Kuala Lumpur to klia2 in Sepang. My daily breakfast fix (not healthy, but everything’s expensive at the airport) costs a mere RM1.50 served by 71-year-old Othman Abd Hamid and his youngest daughter Siti Rozmazura, 35, who would catch small talks that always put a smile on my face before getting on the grind.

Osman’s nasi lemak looks exactly the same as it did in the 70s.

I knew if we could sit down together, they would have an amazing story to tell. But because of the morning rush, the short conversations remained a luxury. When I moved office near the heart of Kuala Lumpur recently, I dreaded the thought of having to find a different stall (braving through the capital’s morning traffic is a whole other story).

The Klang Valley has been seeing a rise in street food where there have been stories of small businesses making big bucks. So when my team raised the question “How much does a nasi lemak seller make?”, I knew that was my excuse to have a proper conversation with the duo. I reached their stall in front of Bandar Tasik Selatan LRT station, an interchange station for intercity rails including from the airport like KLIA Transit and KTM Komuter, as well as a bus terminal.

Traditionally nasi lemak comprises rice cooked in coconut milk, golden-fried anchovies and peanuts, cucumber slices, wedges of hard boiled egg and chili relish called ‘sambal’. The dish today comes with plenty of side dishes like fried chicken and ‘rendang’. Image: Getty.

“Haven’t seen you in a while, where have you been?” Othman asked after exchanging a military salute as soon as he saw me (my habit of greeting people).

After explaining about moving office and the reason behind my visit, he pulled a chair behind his stall and handed me a packet of nasi lemak, saying: “It’s on me. Eat first, then we’ll talk.”

This is his story:

Osman at his nasi lemak stall in front of Bandar Tasik Selatan LRT station in Kuala Lumpur.

When asked how long ago Othman started selling the breakfast staple and why, the Taiping native took me back to the 60s before he left for Kuala Lumpur in search of greener pastures.

“In 1965, at age 20, I started working at an oil palm estate near my village, Kampung Tengah in Temelok. Malaysia may have gained Independence then, but my village still had to observe a 6pm-6am curfew because of movements by the Malayan Communist Party. Other than food rationing, tank convoys by the Australian army, children going to school on military trucks, life was normal. The only problem I had working at the plantation was the estate manager – an Englishman, who treated us like slaves. We would work from 6am till 2pm, carrying palm fruits upwards of 100 kilogrammes with a shoulder carrier. If we were to talk about strength, I could even carry two calves.

Over time, however, it took a toll on my shoulders. I earned RM3.10 a day but after three years, I’d had enough of the scream fest by the manager. I told him his attitude won’t take him anywhere and three years later, Felda (Federal Land Development Authority) took over the land and he was shipped out. It wasn’t all that bad as I did get to pick up basic English from three teachers – the estate manager, the village chief’s child and a postman.”

Settling in the Muddy Confluence

“I married the love of my life Jamaliah Osman from a nearby village in 1969 and after a couple of years, we decided to move to Kuala Lumpur in hope of better opportunities. We stayed with my brother’s family at a settlement in Kampung Kerinchi and I got a job at a construction site in Brickfields. The pay was RM9 a day. Things were cheaper then where roti canai only cost 20 sen and teh tarik 15 sen. So, RM9 was more than enough to feed my wife and our firstborn. I only worked for about three months but it was enough time to BUILD my own home.

There was plenty of space at the Kampung Kerinchi settlement, so I would pay the guards at the construction site – about RM20-RM30 – and they would throw plywood over the fence, enough for me to build a 100 square foot home, which was comfy for the three of us. I would extend the house every four months.

My friends and I then continued looking for work and we found vacancies at a car manufacturing plant (Associated Motor Industries) in Shah Alam. Most cars in the 70s were European and thanks to my basic grasp on the English language, I was posted at the Paint Department, spraying primer coat to cars like Morris Minors, Mini Coopers, Austin Minis and Ford Escorts. Each shift, which involved painting 40 cars, earned me RM6 – again, enough to feed the family and travel expenses chasing the #51 bus from Old Klang Road as early as 5am. This lasted for three years till 1974.

By god’s grace, a friend of mine from the village asked me to go for an interview at (National Broadcast Department) RTM. A few simple questions later, I was hired to build props for shoots at the network’s four studios. The work wasn’t as laborious as the previous ones. Since we worked in shifts, whenever I reported to work, most stages only needed finishing touches. With a salary of RM580 a month, it was more than I could’ve asked for.”

Three Jobs a Day

“My wife had already set up a food stall in Kampung Kerinchi selling laksa. She ran her own show and cleaned the stall by midnight while I helped get ingredients from the market. Since the workload at RTM was not as demanding, I would leave an hour earlier from my 7am-3pm shift to drive the iconic Bas Mini

I didn’t have a licence to drive a bus, but the opportunity was offered by the tauke (boss) who had already made prior arrangements with the authorities. The only advice I got was avoid getting into an accident.

So from 3pm till 11am, I captained ‘bus #33’ driving from Overseas Union Garden along the Old Klang Road to Chow Kit. Instead of driving to the destination, I would make a U-turn at Bangkok Bank 1.5 kilometres from Chow Kit. I earned RM12 for driving, a RM4 meal allowance and another RM4 for cigarettes, which was extra money my pocket because I didn’t smoke.

It was all fun but it didn’t take long before I had to learn my lesson for being greedy. I was paid in coins for driving the bus (for younger readers, Bas Mini fares were cheap that you just paid everything in coins), which I kept in a big jar at home. The whole jar was stolen by my nephew who introduced me to the job in the first place. So I left that gig.

Working at RTM, I was offered to rent a government quarters for about RM200 a month. But the space was hardly any bigger than my house in Kampung Kerinchi. Instead in 1981, I was offered to rent a flat on the seventh floor of a People’s Housing Project in Bandar Tun Razak, Cheras. The flat has been my home till today. After years of renting, I managed to buy it for RM32,000 five years ago.”

Separated from Family

“By the time TV programmes were broadcast in colours and outside the confines of the studios in 1985, I was sent to RTM’s Penang office as well as its transmitter station in Sungai Petani, Kedah in charge of general work.

I didn’t mind travelling back and forth to Kuala Lumpur but when my son was sent to the ICU after being hit by a motorcycle, I decided to leave RTM although I was close to retirement. The year was 1997, I had served for 23 years.”

Back in Business

The septuagenarian says he used to juggle three jobs for extra income.

“Jamaliah and I set up our laksa shop called Kak Maliah Kedai Kopi at a place that was once known as Kampung Congo (a settlement in Bandar Tun Razak where Malaysian army personnel who served in the Democratic Republic of Congo under the United Nations in the 1960s were resettled).

Despite the slow economy, business was good that at time and we would run out of ingredients as early as 11am. One day, I learned another lesson that almost cost my life for being greedy. The rain had just stopped and we were still getting a stream of customers. I rushed to Sungai Besi to buy ingredients when I suddenly hit a hole on the road and fell off my motorcycle. My arm was bleeding but I didn’t realise anything until a group of soldiers carried me to the roadside. As it turned out, they were travelling in a big truck behind me. If the truck had been speeding, I might not have been here today. After cleaning the wounds at a nearby clinic, I went back to our shop and told my wife, “Let’s not be greedy, that’s enough for the day.”

There were times we ended in the losing end. Running a small stall, we did get loyal customers. So, if they couldn’t pay for their food for the day, we simply jotted down their name and amount owed (in the iconic ‘Buku 555’) to be paid later. We served a number of students from the nearby Teacher Education Institute, who ended up eating for free till they graduated. They honoured their first few debts, but afterwards, the books just kept accumulating that we ended up losing thousands of ringgit. I even went to see the director to find the students, only to be told most of them had left the institute.

After a while, we got an offer to set up a stall serving Malay cuisine like nasi lemak, fried rice, fried noodles and even roti canai at Methodist Boys’ School in Kuala Lumpur. The school is considered exclusive, perhaps till today, a place where the rich send their children for education.

Othman also used to make ‘roti canai’, another Malaysian breakfast staple. Image: Chew Win Win

Other than the usual servings, we usually got bulk orders from teachers and students who paid in advance. Some parents would even pay me RM300 for a month’s worth of food during recess. The students didn’t even eat as much! We were supposed to operate for eight years till 2005, but my wife’s health was declining, we had to stop with a year left into the contract.

Despite running a small business, I could afford to perform the hajj via Tabung Haji for RM8,000 in 2002. I was supposed to go with Jamaliah, but I ended up going with my two siblings because of her health issues. The pilgrim quota wasn’t as strict as it is today where it would take decades before we get our turn.”

One-Tonne Travel Machine

“Jamaliah and I loved to travel, so much so that we had a bag packed for the entire family in the car. Every school holiday, we would take our four children practically everywhere in the peninsula. As time passed and the children went on to universities, I was 50 when I bought a second-hand lorry for RM7,000 to deliver various items from electrical goods to fancy merchandise from Nike. One of my nephews was familiar with the business, so I got my trips from him. Wherever I went, my wife followed. Since we were years away from navigation apps, I would call my nephew for the best routes.

I didn’t have any issues when it came to uploading and offloading because that was taken care off by the warehouse staff. All I had to do was ensure all items were accounted for according to the list and make sure nothing went missing or damaged. A trip from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru, for instance, was priced at RM750. If it needed to be sent to Singapore, the items would be transferred to another lorry from the other side of the border.

Choosing routes were important then. I was supposed to deliver seven massive home theatre units from Sungai Besar (in Selangor) to Tanjung Malim (in Perak). My nephew suggested a shortcut with little to no traffic because of gravel roads only accessible to big vehicles. I had my doubt, so I used the longer route instead. As it turned out, the driver of another lorry who used the route was stripped, tied and left by robbers, who not only took the goods, but the entire lorry! The vehicle was later found in Kedah.

Our lorry may have seemed worse for wear, but we never found ourselves stranded by the roadside. It served as a great excuse for Jamaliah and I to travel.”

The Humble Nasi Lemak

“My mother gave Jamaliah and I her nasi lemak recipe when we lived in Kampung Kerinchi. Back in the 70s, we would sell the nasi lemak for a ringgit but it came with a bigger portion and even prawns. My nephew would carry baskets-full of nasi lemak and kuih (traditional cakes) and sell them at the Lake Gardens. The culture was more open then and Lake Gardens was full of couples making out under the trees. So, my nephew would approach them to sell the food. It was a good strategy because it was always sold out!

I’ve never changed the recipe or the looks. The nasi lemak I sell today is as same as it was over 30 years ago, minus the prawns. When my wife passed away in February 2006, Siti helped cook the dish. By then, we had moved our stall to the Bandar Tasik Selatan LRT station.

We usually prep in the evening and start cooking at about 2am. Since we have limited space, everything is done at the living room. Three kilogrammes of rice gets us 70 packets. We also take commission selling 600 pieces of kuih made by our neighbours. By 5am, everything is packed and we carry everything down from the seventh floor. Living in a high-density building, there are days where the lifts are broken and since our flat is a mere PPR, the maintenance team usually take their sweet time to fix the issue … like weeks.

Siti had been helping me for years, she did all the cooking. But recently she decided to return to her office job. I had no qualms because I understand her wish to advance her career.

It’s not as bad as it sounds because now things are easier. My nephew, who lives two floors below, has taken over the cooking part. My house is still filled with big pots and pans, but I no longer have to scrub the place daily! All I have to do is wait at my car for him and the neighbours to send the food.

Before this Siti and I would make RM100 a day, but since I’m only working alone, I usually get a daily commission of RM40. I can get more if it isn’t because of a few dishonest customers. I never bother to count the exact number of kuih people take. So, some would take a bulk and mention a smaller number. I know what they’re doing, but at this age, halalkan je (let it slide).”

A Decent Living

“Running a small business like mine won’t get you the world’s luxuries. But having lived here since 1971, I have never found myself skipping any monthly commitments. There are ups and downs in business, so always make it a point to save money. I live frugally and with my savings and help from children, I was able to perform umrah (minor pilgrimage) four months ago.

Some people say I should retire and live the quiet life back in Perak. I love it there. I would spend most of my time fishing at the nearby mangrove forest. But I also love to work and keep myself busy. I prefer to run a stall rather than a restaurant because it saves a lot of headache considering you don’t have enough helping hands nor capital.

Business is an art, even when you have a lot of money to start one, you can’t just spend it all in one place or else you may lose it all in a blink of an eye. You have to think about the good and the bad. Don’t let greed take over like cutting corners on ingredients or selling overpriced food – you won’t get any customers. Always start small. See the demand and expand little by little. You can make a living selling nasi lemak. The boy who runs one of the stalls near mine is getting married in a couple of months and he sells nasi lemak and sandwiches.”

The Ride Back

As soon as the clock struck noon, Othman, affectionately known as Pak Ayub, told me he had to start packing before the City Hall officers arrived and confiscated his tables and chairs. I helped to close the stall and asked if I could hitch a ride since I was parked near his house.

“Of course, get in the car,” he said.

Only then I knew what he meant by living frugally. His old Proton Iswara was missing its front two windscreens and a few interior finishing. The fuel indicator was bouncing close to empty. Curious, I asked again if RM40 a day was enough to make a living.

“Trust me, it’s enough. It’s down to your lifestyle. Again, always make a habit of saving up. You’ll never know when you need it,” Othman said.

When we arrived, his nephew and neighbours were already waiting to collect their profit of the day.

“Pak Ayub is a little too honest that few customers take advantage of him. But in turn, he is blessed with good things,” one of the neighbours said.

“He’s even travelling to Hatyai for a holiday in a few days organised by the residents’ association.”

Since we were close to his home, I asked Othman if I could have a look at any photos of his old stall or lorry – adventures from his past. Unfortunately, he said he didn’t have any to share.

“Since Jamaliah’s passing, I threw away most of the albums because even looking at the photos were too much to bear,” he said.

I thanked him for the time and bade goodbye.

My parents have always reminded me to be grateful for what I have but back in the day, my mother would go to the ends of the earth to provide the best for her children especially when it came to education – fancy tuitions, a library of books, laptops, iPads and DSLR cameras, the list was endless.

The conversation with Othman served as a wake-up call as to what it really meant to be grateful. For an average urban dweller, surviving with RM40 a day is impossible. But Othman is a living proof that even with RM40 we can tackle the high cost of living if we truly live within our means.

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