Could you live on minimum wage in Malaysia?

Clarissa Say, The Star

What is it like to live off Malaysia’s minimum wage? Unless I lost my job any time soon, I didn’t think I’d have to find out. Until one day, when R.AGE editor Ian Yee asked if I would.

In what felt like an irretrievable lack of forethought, I said, “Yeah, sure”.

It was for a project Asia News Network (ANN) was doing with newsrooms throughout the region, to shed light on each country’s minimum wage and the people living off them. Each news agency was to submit two videos: One of their journalist attempting to live off the minimum wage, and another of an actual minimum wage earner.

The minimum wage in Malaysia is RM1,000, but for families like Rajeswary Sahayam’s that translates into just above RM800 after EPF and SOCSO deductions.

And this is only after the Minimum Wages Order 2016 came into effect on July 1 last year. Before that, the minimum wage for all employers in the private sector were paid RM900 for a 48-hour work week.

At first, I thought my experiment was going to be a snap. If Rajeswary’s family could do it on so much less, there was no reason why I – a single woman with no dependants – couldn’t. After deducting RM100 and RM12 for rent and petrol respectively, I was left with a cool RM140 for the week.

I spent a day with Rajeswary for the project. Her home is a rented double story house in Kapar, Klang where she and her three children live. However, they only occupy the ground floor where there is a ceiling fan to keep cool.

“We sleep in the living room,” said her youngest daughter Komala, 11. She’s a pixie of a girl with a bright smile and zero camera shyness.

“The bed is for my mother, my sister and I sleep on the mattress, and my brother sleeps on the couch,” she added.

In case it wasn’t clear before, their father is no longer in the picture.

“I don’t know what happened to him,” said Rajeswary, “After marriage, he started going out with his friends and binge drinking. He’d take whatever he could from home to sell. Things like the rice cooker, standing fans, cushion covers. Anything.”

According to Joanna Mageson, 23, who helps her father run Kapar Caring Center, a community centre offering assistance to 65 families including Rajeswary’s, this isn’t very uncommon.

“Almost half of the families we provide assistance to either have problems with their male figurehead, or don’t have one,” she said.

To put their earnings and my new budget into perspective, an average meal near my office costs around RM10. So I planned my meals around pre-cooked dishes I brought from home. A pot of chunky mushroom soup cost me RM3 to make. The only problem was, I found out later, it was nowhere near enough to keep me full. It also took some time to make.

“A month’s worth of groceries costs about RM50,” said Rajeswary, who’s a pro at stretching every ringgit. She starts cooking curry and thosai at six in the morning, before heading for work.

“My children have it for breakfast and lunch. If there’s anything leftover, they have it for dinner.”

Minimum wage, minimum activity

It soon became clear that while I could easily feed myself with just RM20 a day, there wasn’t enough to do anything else. I passed on lunches with my colleagues and stayed at home every night. Being poor, it seems, is boring.

Which is why Kapar Caring Center tries to organise activities to keep the children under them from filling in their time with other, possibly more wayward activities.

“We hold activities such as camps and classes during the school holiday,” said Joanna. Although they don’t have any exact figures, the centre says that of the families receiving assistance from them, most of the family figureheads no longer play a role in the upbringing of their children.

“Because their mothers are too busy working to look after their children, a few of them of them will go play football and that’s okay, but the older boys might loiter or race on their motorbikes.”

This is something Rajeswary worries might happen to her eldest son, Vignesh.

“Of course I worry about him,” she said, “I worry that he’ll become like his father.”

But that isn’t to say she isn’t trying her hardest to keep her children on the right path. Rajeswary was an avid reader as a child and that’s something she’s passing on to her children.

“When I have time, I read in front of them, then they’ll start picking up their own books,” she said. “Back then, it was okay if you weren’t educated, but now you have to study. All I want is for them to go to university.”