I WAS asked if Malays are lazy. Kai, my barber asked me this question a few days ago. It came out of the blue. Kai was always talking about Kuala Lumpur City Hall, but this question caught me off guard somehow.
Kai has been a barber for many years, operating from Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. He operates from a small, air-conditioned cubicle along a small lane opposite the Coliseum cinema. This lane has small shoplots selling traditional attire, sandals and songkok, besides cakes and pastries.
You could see that they are manned and owned by hardworking Malay entrepreneurs. Far from being lazy, actually. They are innovative and determined. Good qualities to have to be a successful entrepreneur, you’ll agree.
In Kai’s case, he has included teaching as another of his task. He teaches young men to be barbers, with a few becoming his apprentices in their spare time. “I do this because I don’t want the art of cutting hair to die,” Kai often said to me.
For many years since the 1960s, many Malay barbers had operated from Jalan Melayu off Jalan Tun Perak, or what was then known as Jalan Mountbatten. Using only the big rain tree as shade, these barbers carry out their task equipped only with a wooden or rattan chair, scissors and a small mirror. I remember this well because that’s where I had my haircut as a child.
Kai came from a line of these traditional barbers. But he has improved on his services. Firstly, he invested in a small air-conditioned unit and a fixed telephone line. His regular patrons would call in and fix an appointment to have their hair cut.
Kai is far from lazy. He’s innovative, has good customer relations and runs a tight ship. His shop is small but clean. In fact, City Hall should help these traditional barbers with better facilities and space. They can be tourist attractions too.
On the flip side, there are Malay entrepreneurs who are lazy with no visible signs of improving their lot. I’m sure you would have encountered them too. I give you a few examples. Look at foodcourts. Go sit down for a coffee or a meal.
First thing you have to do is to locate a waiter, or the operator. The person could probably be watching the television or fiddling with his mobile phone. Once you locate the person, he or she would then instruct someone else to serve you.
Okay, so you place your order of teh o kurang manis and a plate of mee goreng with one egg, fried sunny side up. If you’re lucky, thefood will come within 10 minutes. If you’re not, you probably have to go to the counter and ask what happened to your food! If it’s not your lucky day, you will find your teh o is sweet and the egg over fried. You see, the worker is not trained to listen carefully. There is no notepad, there is no smile and there is no urgency. Somewhere in between is the lazy part.
Let me take you to a slightly bigger shop, more like a restaurant offering a big variety of food, including ikan bakar (grilled fish) and many types of juices. Place your order. After attracting a waiter’s attention, you then make a polite request for him to clean the mess on the table — spilled drinks, fish bones, used tissue and whatever else left by the previous customer.
It doesn’t look like it’s a standard operating procedure to have the table cleaned for the next customer. But the waiter has a notebook! This is good. So you place your order and wait. In the meanwhile, you can watch the television going full blast amidst all the din of people talking and motorbikes roaring past. Your food arrives. You get chicken tom yam instead of seafood tom yam, your ayam goreng kunyit has more onions than chicken, the rice is cold, the fried egg is so oily, and the baby kailan is overcooked.
As you glanced at the kitchen, you spot the cook frying something with a cigarette between his lips! You call the restaurant owner but he’s fiddling with his mobile phone. So you see, there are lazy Malays and hardworking Malays. When Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad speaks of the lazy Malays, he must be referring to the likes of the restaurant operators, and more.
I wouldn’t say they are outright lazy. They are just indifferent. They take on a job without any real interest in doing it well. Some restaurant owners also take the easy way out and pay little attention to the quality of their products and service.
Many Malays in the service industry are like that, though there are exceptions, of course. A car mechanic shortchanged the owner by using imitation goods. There are countless cases like this. When they care little for their patrons, it is no wonder why they close shop after a few years. They take no trouble to improve their knowledge of the business, they use their restaurant money to pay for their personal expenses and they blame others when they fail.
Many Malays have gone far in the world of business and commerce. There’s no denying that. Many have risen to become captains of industries, giving back to society what they can. It is time for the rest to change their attitude, or be forever sidelined.
The writer is chairman of Yayasan Salam Malaysia