Malaysia Now and Then: 'How did things get this bad?', rubber tapper asks

9 May 2019 / Karim Raslan

Sweating under the scorching sun in Kuala Kangsar, chased by hordes of mosquitoes (one clap of the hands can kill up to five!), 57-year-old Ah Seng teaches Team Ceritalah how to tap rubber.

“It has to be one steady motion, if the cut is jagged, the milk will not flow.”

He tells us that he started learning how to tap rubber when he was seven. His parents were tappers as well.

Once Ah Seng is satisfied with our tapping technique, we decide to get away from his 2.43ha of rubber (not to mention the mosquitoes) and sit at a warung to talk about the state of things.

“We can’t even afford to eat until we are full.”

Ah Seng’s income has decreased significantly as latex prices have hovered around the RM2.40/kg mark. Back in 2008, latex was over RM7.

Nowadays, he earns on average some RM1,600 per month. When times are good his income can reach RM2,000.

Last year, prices dropped below RM2 levels and Ah Seng isn’t confident that they’ll recover this year.

“We can only hope. We cannot control the weather.

“In a month, we may only have 10-11 harvesting days due to rain.

“With prices around RM2, an old couple like my wife and I can barely survive. What about families that have young children?”

Ah Seng and his wife have five children, all of whom work abroad.

When queried if they would consider coming back to Malaysia, Ah Seng laughs.

“I am not brave enough to ask them to do that. It is as if there is no hope for this country.”

Compounding this feeling of hopelessness is the rising cost of living.

“What hasn’t increased? Prices can only go up, not down – just like our age.

“But it seems as though the SST (Sales and Service Tax) is worse than the GST (Goods and Services Tax).”

The warung erupts into laughter. Still, it’s clear that behind the jovial façade, frustrations are growing.

Tapping rubber isn’t exactly cheap these days. A bag of urea fertiliser now costs RM85 and 200 litres of herbicide costs RM220 – a 10% price increase from last year for both.

Ah Seng also has to employ foreign workers to tend to his plantation due to his old age , paying a total of RM240 per worker every three months.

“Who else can I employ? The locals want to work in offices, those that want to do farm work are old like me.”

Subsidies have also decreased this year.

Previously, Ah Seng would get 18 bags of fertiliser and RM600 in allowances per year. Now, his applications keep getting rejected due to him being “disqualified” or “not providing enough information”.

However, Ah Seng reiterates that he doesn’t care about not receiving subsidies. All he wants is for latex prices to increase to at least RM5/kg.

This would boost not only his earnings, but also his spirits.

“When prices are RM2, I don’t even want to go down to work. I might as well stay in bed.

“With low prices, even when you eat, you will not be full. Every day, you get tired for nothing. Your soul is troubled.”

He argues that, when all is said and done, nobody will care who’s in power or what ideology they have. As long as the economy and the people are taken care of, that’s all that matters.

It’s Ah Seng’s turn to now question us: “How did things get this bad?”

Silence.