Back in March I went to Malaysia for 2 weeks, ostensibly for my cousin's wedding but in actuality to eat ridiculous amounts of delicious Malaysian cuisine - Hokkien mee, Soo Kee's beef noodles, Soong Kee's beef noodles, roti canai, "spare parts" noodles, kuih, cendol, mangosteen, jackfruit and durian.
Catching up with relos from all over the world, particularly my cousins & their kids was great. Special thanks to Joo Khim and Hanson for taking us around :)
Every time I visit Malaysia I marvel at the industriousness of the hawkers. Most of them do one thing and do it well. The ecosystem for most hawkers revolves around either a corner lot coffee shop or markets. At the corner lot coffee shop the owner of the coffee shop sells drinks exclusively, and the hawkers will sell food exclusively - each hawker specialising in a small number of dishes.
I've been pondering how this compares to the Australian & American food courts. Essentially they are the same setup - many food vendors centred around shared tables & chairs. But somehow the quality of food found in Malaysian markets & coffee shops is far superior to that found in the typical Westfield food court.
You can feel a certain hunger or drive in Malaysia. Almost every hawker will make it a point to say hi to you, throw you a smile, and say goodbye as you leave. And it's not that plastic hi/goodbye of someone who has been told that it's part of their job description - it's that genuine friendliness you get from your local fruit shop owner, or your local cafe. I wonder if it's possible for an Australian food court to replicate that experience - vendors whose food is so good that people will drive all over town to eat a specific hawker's Hokkien mee or their "spare parts" porridge. Someone like Gamshara Ramen comes to mind.
There are numerous stories of hawkers becoming multimilionaires by solely selling porridge or chee cheong fun. The economics seem straightforward - sell a bowl of noodles for $5, sell 100 of them in a day, 6 days a week and you've got a $150k/year business. Mostly tax free.
We had a chat to one hawker who had been in the same spot for many years, and he mentioned that he now owns 3 houses and didn't need to work but that he would continue doing it as long as he was physically able. When asked why he didn't try to expand his business he stated that he was satisfied with what he had. It's pretty inspiring to see what one can achieve with a simple cart selling noodles.
In the local paper I discovered that Malaysia introduced a minimum wage only this year. RM900/month (Ringgit =~ 0.33 USD, roughly US$300/month). Crime is a big problem in Malaysia, at least in Kuala Lumpur. Many reports of arbitrary slashings and beatings; modus operandi is to chop your victim first, then take his/her wallet, phone, and jewellery. Locals blame this on the high number of immigrants but it's hard to imagine that this isn't at least partially related to the massive income inequality. That iPhone you're holding is 2 months worth of minimum wages.
Weak law enforcement is another issue. Evidently the police aren't paid very well so you see them doing things like waiting on highway exits for drivers to cross a double line prematurely as they emerge from the exit - easy bribes. A quick Google reveals this:
The biggest gainers will be new inspectors who will get a starting salary of RM2,060 compared to RM1,492 previously. Diploma and STPM holders will also be allowed to join the force directly as sergeants and they will start with a basic salary of RM1,500. A sergeant's basic salary previously was RM890.
Those are monthly salaries. RM1500 is about US$500...
It's made me think about what it takes to have a civil society. Could Australia be an equally dangerous place if we allow our wage and basic living standards to fall sufficiently far?