Some months ago, I heard about the grouses of school bus operators whose livelihoods have been crippled by the Covid-19-triggered movement control order. When kids don’t go to school, parents won’t pay. Even those parents who are still getting their full pay.
This issue is very close to my heart as I am the child of a school bus driver. My late Abah sent people’s kids to and from school in his van for 20-odd years.
In my possession are my Abah’s income/expense ledgers from the 1970s and 1980s. I revisit them now and then, and I cry over how hard life was back then and how he was without an income for much of November and all of December for most of those 20 years. There were, of course, people like Che’ Faridah and Arwah Hamid Rahmat, Arwah Datuk Kadir and Datuk Jalil who sympathised with my Abah’s struggles and were always exceptionally generous to him.
Those who "makan gaji" (earned a salary) usually had more disposable income (minus the RM8 my Abah charged per child) but it was not the same for us. Yearend was when Abah was extra stringent about money. He had to be smart with his cash flow to ensure enough was put aside monthly to allow us to survive when income was absent.
I know he had cash savings in banks, an Amanah Saham investment and his RM10 monthly compulsory Tabung Haji savings (his lifelong dream of going on the Haj never materialised, though). But there were also a number of people who would “kapur” the RM8 monthly fee by paying/not paying it as they saw fit. All the evidence is there in his ledgers. In the end, Abah would ferry their kids for free.
My hot-headed and strong-willed Hakka Mak would quarrel with Abah because he refused to confront people about money. He would say there wasn’t any extra expense as most of the kids lived along the same route and went to the same schools. Besides, he was sure that those who didn’t pay had their own financial issues too.
What Abah meant as kindness, Mak took as weakness. Two of my siblings had just left home to study abroad and Mak was in withdrawal from them.
It was a stressful time for many people, not just our family, and not just in Malaysia but all around the world. In the mid 1970s, the global economy was in dire straits and facing stagflation caused by the Opec oil embargo, the Vietnam War and the Iran-Iraq conflict. Oil prices sky- rocketed due to shortages. Being in the transportation business, Abah’s livelihood depended on diesel. I remember being in our van, queuing with hundreds of cars at the petrol station only for the “Minyak habis” (petrol finished) sign to go up just as it was our turn. I saw Abah’s disappointment and worry. No diesel meant no income for us.
I don’t know how he did it but he eventually managed to stockpile diesel and kept it under the stairs in our house, a place we called “kolong”. It was the coolest and darkest area, and I was not allowed anywhere near it. Every other afternoon, Abah would get me to help steady the makeshift metal funnel as he poured the diesel into the van's tank. I can almost smell it even now.
Abah made watching the news a family affair, and I always sat on his lap to watch it. I recall hearing “Presiden Carter berkata” (President Carter says – which became something of a family joke), Watergate, Iran, Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini, Kemboja (Cambodia), Vietnam.... I heard the words but never realised the implications until I went to university and studied politics. That was when all the pieces fell into place.
The phrases “Cuban missile crisis”, “Iran Contra”, “Islamic revolution” that I heard on the news and in sensational Hollywood movies became real to me. I understood how decisions made in an Oval Office thousands of miles away could result in a family having or not having a meal on their table the next day.
As I study my Abah’s ledger now, I feel ashamed – at how comparatively decadent my lifestyle is now, at how much I waste, and the things I take for granted. But I also love how meticulous he was with his records of how much he earned and spent. I feel especially proud of his grammatically perfect English and how he always balanced his income and expenses every month-end. He was responsible and accountable for every sen.
Every now and again I revisit his ledgers just to remind myself of where I come from and to keep myself grounded. I now try to spend less and give more. Despite how tough things were and the 11 mouths he needed to feed, plus the occasional long-term visitor we would house, we never once went hungry.
This was very much thanks to my Mak’s resourcefulness too. Having lived through impoverishment during WWII’s Japanese Occupation of Malaya, she knew how to make do. She kept chickens and planted lime, chilly, cassava, long beans, brinjal and the like all around the house. She could turn the most basic of ingredients into delicious and nutritious meals for us and even made extra so my siblings could share with friends who visited.
As soon as I was old enough, I was tasked with taking kuih (cakes) or lauk (savoury dishes) to the neighbours during the fasting month of Ramadan, keeping up the tail end of the then already dying practice of community food sharing. My parents were always aware that there were people who fared much worse and were grateful that none of their kids succumbed to drug abuse, which was a common social ill at the time.
The movement control order has brought back all these memories. People living in hardship and going without food right now could have been me and my family, not necessarily lazy, stupid losers who deserve to be poor due to the life choices they made – so don’t judge, OK?
As I reminisce about the past, the thing I remember the most was how much I was loved by my family and how much I loved them in return.