Wednesday February 5, 2014
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Erna Mahyuni

Erna tweets too much on @ernamh. Angry Sabah native, slave to her dog/cat and blogs at ernamahyuni.com

FEB 5 — A friend of mine was in Sabah for the CNY holidays and he was shocked. Shocked that food and drinks at local coffee shops cost about the same as a mid-range cafe in KL.

“RM7.50 for an ordinary bowl of beef noodles! RM2.30 for teh ais!”

Welcome to Sabah, a land where beef costs more than anywhere else despite the state producing the most cows. 

If we can produce our own beef and dairy, the costs of those items shouldn’t be much higher than the peninsula, right?

Wrong. Most of that beef is made for export and not local consumption; grain and other imported materials also factor into the cost of meat production. 

Besides seafood and vegetables, everything in Sabah costs much more than in Peninsula Malaysia. 

What is exactly to blame? To be honest, it is difficult to say. Some blame the cabotage policy, which dictates that movement of goods, domestic trade, between any two ports in the country must be served by Malaysian-owned shipping companies.

This means that imported goods usually end up in West Malaysia before being sent over to Sabah and Sarawak. Of course this adds to the sticker price but another argument is that because of the much smaller market, prices are also tweaked to compensate.

Here’s the thing: salaries are much lower in East Malaysia overall and yet prices of goods are more expensive. The argument for lower salaries is higher costs, but if salaries are low, doesn’t that impact the populace’s buying power?

Speaking of salaries, the starting pay for even entry-level executive positions in Sabah hovers around RM1,300 to RM1,500. The job market is also very small, forcing most educated natives to work in Kuala Lumpur. There are simply no jobs for them.

How do Sabahans survive, then, if the average KL-ite is already complaining about tolls, price hikes and the like biting into their wallets?

You make do, I guess. Buying what you can afford and stretching it as far as you can.

I never realised how frugal my mother was with food until I look back on what I ate as a child. I remember mother cooking two packets of Maggi mee to make a meal for five. Grinding up cheap burger meat as a substitute for more expensive minced meat. One can of corn soup with egg and rice proving a simple enough repast for a family.

Or in the villages, you will see poorer families with very plump children. Because to fill them up, they are encouraged to eat more rice and starch. Because rice is cheap, isn’t it?

Now I wonder how the poor are going to stretch whatever they can afford, now that they can afford even less. Will they need to start skimping even on staples like rice? Will the families that are unable to grow their own hill rice be forced to have their kids fill up with water instead?

I wish I had a solution. Or that Sabah’s leaders thought about the people who have very little to eat and will soon be barely able to afford anything. But like West Malaysia’s leaders, they are people who are unable to understand how poor a family must be to never be able to eat a packet of instant noodles each.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online. 

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