Sunday February 3, 2013
Diversity in historic town
Heartland Voices by SHAHANAAZ HABIB
MALACCA is a hotch-potch of expressive voices with fewer but more personal axes to grind.
AGE is just a number. It’s all in the mind,” says Gerald Wambeck, who is in his 50s.
Wambeck is having tea (or coffee) with his two younger friends, Darren Joseph de Mello, 22 and Michael de Souza, a 40-something-year-old.
“We are coffeeshop-holics. We meet very often and share stories. We talk about things like going on holiday to places like Thailand. And Uncle Gerald here usually gives us a riddle to solve which makes us crack our heads and really think,” says de Mello. He then gets Uncle Gerald to test me on one of his mind-boggling riddles, which, hard as I tried, I couldn’t figure out.
Uncle Gerald is a Eurasian married to a Portuguese-Eurasian, de Mello and de Souza are both Portuguese-Eurasians and all three live in the Portuguese settlement in Malacca.
Over the years, the state government has been reclaiming tracts of land for roads and development in the city as well as surrounding areas, including the Portuguese settlement where they fish, and this has been affecting their catch.
“Ten years ago, it was easy to get RM40 to RM50 each day (in earnings) but now, there are days when you catch nothing and can’t even recover the money spent on fuel for the boat,” says de Mello, who estimates an 80% drop in catch.
The fishermen have been paid compensation for their loss of income but the RM9,000 they got, he says, “is not enough to last our lifetime”.
De Mello was only seven when he first went out to sea to fish with his fisherman dad. Since then, he has been fishing on weekends and four years ago, he started doing it full time.
He says that when they complain to the Fisheries Department about the sea pollution from “all that digging here and there and land taken from elsewhere and chucked into the sea”, they are asked to show proof.
“Next time if we bring videos, they’ll turn around and accuse us of doing it ourselves,” says de Mello, who obviously is not a fan of the state Fisheries Department.
But the older and more optimistic de Souza sees a possible silver lining.
“We hope it (reclamation) will give us a better view, good jobs and a better life for our children,” says the single father of four, who evidently doesn’t like trouble or picking a fight with the authorities.
“The government is not so bad. They are helping us. In other countries like Indonesia for example, their governments don’t help the fishermen.
“And our government is polite. Whenever I have a problem and go to talk to them, they are polite,” he says.
Due to the drop in catch, de Souza has now taken to selling fish and crab at the pasar malam four times a week to supplement his income.
Instead of being angry at having to work harder, he says, the situation has helped him, a fisherman, to delve into business.
The Portuguese-Eurasians are a unique group because of the country’s history. They are mostly descendants of the Portuguese who came to Malaysia as early as 1511 and inter-married with the locals. So they are quite rojak-looking.
In the early 1980s, they were accorded semi-bumiputera status, giving them the right to invest in Amanah Saham Nasional and Amanah Saham Bumiputra, a right reserved for bumiputeras. But they don’t get bumiputera discounts on housing or easier entry into public universities.
Of the 20,000 or so Portuguese Eurasians in the country, about 12,000 live in Malacca.
Despite the decreasing catch at sea, Malacca has somehow been able to keep its food prices impressively low.
In ordinary makan places (outside the touristy areas), a plate of rice with fish or meat costs about RM3.50; with chicken it’s about RM4 to RM4.50 – a fact that people here do appreciate.
“There’s a restaurant in Alor Gajah which even sells mixed rice for RM2. There are still places in Malacca where you can get roti canai and a cup of coffee for 50 sen each,” says Din at his warung in Durian Tunggal where he sells nasi ayam for RM4.
(On my way back to KL late one night, I did try to find that RM2 restaurant in Alor Gajah but ended up somewhere else instead.)
At a Chinese coffeeshop in Malacca town, Lee says his life is “okay with no real problems”.
He enjoys living in Malacca because the food is cheap, the roads are very clean, there are lots of greenery around and no real traffic jams.
“Once when I was in KL, it started raining and what was supposed to be a 30-minute ride from Shah Alam to KL took two hours. That is stressful,” he says, wanting none of it.
But beside him, his friend Leong looks stressed.
Leong has been retrenched twice because the factories he worked in as a supervisor moved to China and Vietnam for cheaper labour. He now works for his rich contractor brother.
“The work is easy but the salary is like s***. How to survive like that?” says Leong, who is getting only half of what he used to earn because “that is the market value” here.
Half in jest and half serious, he remarks that a rich father will always look after his own children but not necessarily his own brother.
At 42, Leong says he doesn’t have the stamina and is too old to fight anymore.
“When you kena retrench twice, your heart also melts down,” he adds.
He doesn’t fancy going to Singapore to work for a higher pay because that is “another people, another country, and I don’t know if I can stand it or not.”
Leong split up with his wife some time ago and without money, he says it is hard to find a girlfriend.
“I work hard and can’t be rich, so I am asking God now to help me strike 4-D,” he says.
At another warung teeming with people after work, Faizal Hashim, 38, Nazar Mat Yusop, 35 and Karim Rahim, 42 have come for tea, kuih and a chat before they head home.
All three work in a bank nearby but in different departments, so they don’t get to sit down and talk until after office hours.
They usually discuss football, health, finance, family and politics.
“We have our own opinion when it comes to politics and we’ve had some ‘heated’ verbal exchanges among ourselves. But I think the politics in Malacca looks stable.
“So what is the point of us arguing among ourselves here when at national level, the politicians on both sides only smile and do nothing to stop us when we fight,” quips Faizal.
What he has learnt over the last five years, he says, is that political parties other than Barisan Nasional too can govern.
“Every party is bound by the rule of law. They can’t do as they like in administering the state because there are laws to adhere to and the police to keep them in check.
“People just have to look at states like Selangor and Penang to see that even though Pakatan Rakyat is the government there, they have to follow the country’s laws and they’ve done that,” he says.
Former colleagues Juanita de Silva and Liza Shaari share a lot in common and meet every couple of weeks but they don’t discuss politics.
“I care what happens. I’ve made up my mind who to vote for in the (general) election but I just don’t discuss it,” says de Silva.
Her brother is married to Liza’s sister, so they consider themselves “sort of in-laws”.
Both Liza and de Silva used to work in the same office and both have been blacklisted by banks because they stood as guarantors for car loans and the borrowers failed to pay up.
In her case, says Liza, a single mum, the person who took out the car loan still owes the bank RM7,500.
“I will not pay a single sen because I can’t pay. And it is not my fault, so why do I have to pay? This type of people, even if they have money, they still won’t pay,” says the 41-year-old, who has learnt her lesson the hard way.
But she worries that she can’t be a guarantor for her son in future. “If my son needs money for college and wants to take a student loan, who is going to be a guarantor for him?”
De Silva is still negotiating with the bank to get out of her predicament. There is now an outstanding balance of RM16,000 on the loan which she stood as guarantor.
“If it’s RM7,000, then I’d pay because it’s worth it just to get out of the situation. But I can’t afford RM16k,” she says.
On another side of town is Mike Thein who is of Baba Nyonya descent.
What he is most concerned about these days is that the younger generation, regardless of race, are losing their cultural values and etiquette.
“People have forgotten golden words like ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and ‘sorry’.
“What is the point of development if you lose your morals and culture? Losing your culture is as good as losing your soul.
“If you lose wealth, you lose nothing. If you lose health, you lose something. But if you lose your soul, you lose everything,” says Thein, who can’t bear to see youngsters being so rude and violent.
He comes from a poor family of 11 who lived in a kampung, but today the 51-year-old has a beautiful and thriving seafood restaurant by the sea at Klebang. He is also a boat builder and has gone into the water sports business.
A superbike enthusiast, Thein is considering going to Brazil with friends next year for the World Cup, bringing along their superbikes so that they can go motor-biking around South America after the games.
“Luck doesn’t come to you – you have to create it and enhance it,” he says.
Thein believes bosses should never forget that their staff is their biggest asset.
Hence, he says, employers should be humane and appreciate the fact that foreign workers leave their families for a few years to come and work in Malaysia. They should see these workers as human beings and not just paid labour.
“What’s wrong with sitting down for a cup of tea with them once in a while or tapping them on the shoulder and asking after their family?” says Thein who believes a happier worker will be nicer and more productive.
“The more he earns, the more you earn,” he says.
> Shahanaaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org