'We have to ration our meals': Malaysians share their struggles after COVID-19 left them jobless
CNA spoke to five Malaysians who were left unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a daunting experience having no income to make mortgage and loan payments, but they are determined to soldier on.
KUALA LUMPUR: Over the last two months, Firdaus Feeq’s life has been turned upside down.
At the beginning of March, the 31-year-old was the owner of a photography studio rental company which he helped build over the last decade. He was living the dream – a young hotshot boss who was raking in a healthy monthly income from his start-up, WS Studio Rental.
However, after the COVID-19 pandemic grabbed hold of Malaysia, Firdaus was forced to let go of his employees and “put the company to sleep”.
The coronavirus had dissipated all remaining sources of income for the firm. The movement control order (MCO) announced by the Malaysia government on Mar 18 to curb the spread of COVID-19 meant that there would be no photo shoots, weddings or corporate video projects – the company’s sources of income.
To make matters worse, his studio had been broken into just two days before the MCO, and the thieves got away with RM70,000 (US$16,080) worth of high-end camera equipment.
Compounded with the prospect of not being able to make any money over the next few months, Firdaus and the other owners decided to dismiss their workers and close shop.
To pay off their debts, Firdaus had to sell off the company car and also hawk items like the recently purchased television and kitchen furniture at a small fraction of their cost.
“We were desperate for some cash so we sold them cheap. We bought a TV for RM4,000 but sold for around RM1,000. We bought an IKEA kitchen set for RM15,000 but sold it for around RM3,000, because during a pandemic there is no demand for these things,” said Firdaus.
The Ramadan and Hari Raya period is typically a busy month for Firdaus and his team, as they usually make three or four times more than other months. However, this year, he stayed at home and sometimes freelanced by offering essential photography services when the MCO restrictions were eased.
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Firdaus and his former business partners are among the hundreds of thousands of Malaysians who are jobless across the country.
In figures released on May 8, Malaysia’s Department of Statistics announced that the country’s unemployment rate for March was at 3.9 per cent, or 600,000 people, the highest in almost a decade.
The department noted that the high unemployment rate was due to the “negative impact of the MCO” on the labour market.
HAVE TO RATION MEALS LIKE "WAR TIME": PHOTOGRAPHER WHO CLOSED STUDIO
For those left without work, many aspects of their lives have been impacted. For people like Firdaus, his current situation has exerted financial pressure on his family.
“It’s a difficult time for me now because we have to cut down on our grocery expenses,” said Firdaus, who is married with a young child. “We have to ration our meals like it’s war time.”
His family also has to be thrifty in their Hari Raya spending. The usual practice of shopping for new clothes, kueh and furniture could not continue.
“It doesn’t feel like Hari Raya. We have to save up this money because after Hari Raya ends we have to carry on living,” said Firdaus.
“It’s not going to feel festive for us, but hopefully next year will be different,” he added.
Firdaus is hoping to reopen his company once the COVID-19 pandemic eases and he has regained some money from his freelance work.
FORMER AGODA EXECUTIVE FORCED TO DELAY WEDDING PLANS
Besides Firdaus, another Malaysian who has also lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic is customer service executive Fadhli Hakim Saharun.
The 27-year-old was employed by online travel agency Agoda until Monday (May 18) when the company announced that it was letting go 1,500 of its employees in Asia.
With the tourism industry at a standstill due to COVID-19, Fadhli Hakim said that he was not surprised that there were layoffs, but admitted that he has had difficulty sleeping due to anxiety about how his job loss would affect his loved ones.
“I have someone special and we were planning to go on to the next stage of our relationship soon, either by getting engaged or getting married straight away. But we have to delay that now,” he said.
He also noted how not getting a paycheck every month would have a “multiplier effect” on his family.
“I was renting with my younger sibling in the city, but when I was laid off, I moved back to our hometown so he now has to fork out the full rent by himself. This will stress him out,” said Fadhli Hakim.
He added that he typically gives his parents “a few hundred ringgit” every month, but he has to stop that now temporarily.
He is also anxious about the monthly expenses he needs to cover, such as car loan, mobile phone bill and student loan.
Fadhli Hakim said he received severance package from Agoda and aims to get another job before the compensation money dries up.
MORE GOVERNMENT AID NEEDED FOR SINGLES: FORMER EDITOR
In March, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a RM250 billion stimulus package to support businesses and individuals through the COVID-19 pandemic.
This included one-off cash handouts to the middle and lower income groups. Mr Muhyiddin said that households earning less than RM4,000 per month would receive RM1,600 in total while households that earn between RM4,000 and RM8,000 a month would receive RM1,000.
Meanwhile, single individuals who earn less than RM2,000 a month would get RM800.
Voon Wei, a former fashion editor for magazine CLEO Malaysia, told CNA that single individuals like him have fallen through the cracks.
Voon was among the hundreds of employees who lost their jobs after Malaysian publishing house Blu Inc Media shut down on Apr 30.
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The 35-year-old said that he has not received any cash handouts as he is single and he was still earning an income slightly above RM4,000 when the package was announced.
“The way the government carves out eligibility for who qualifies for the cash handouts needs to be relooked,” said Voon.
“I am unemployed and I live alone but I don’t qualify. My former colleague, who comes from a wealthy family, qualifies because she is a divorcee with a child. It just doesn’t make any sense,” he added.
Voon said that he has tried appealing to receive the cash handouts but failed.
Blue Inc Media’s closure did not surprise its employees as the company had been struggling to stay afloat in a dying print industry.
Yet, Voon is thankful that he has a part-time job as a university lecturer to fall back on as he looks for a full-time gig.
However, some of his former colleagues are less lucky as they do not have an alternative source of income.
Aizat Aidid, former fashion editor with Glam Malaysia magazine, also lost his job on Apr 30. Unlike Voon, Aizat has no income at the moment. To be able to pay his mortgages, he urgently needs to find a job.
“I’m super worried about my financial status. I have to pay my car loan and credit card bills,” said the 33-year-old.
Aizat said he would take this setback as an opportunity to leave the publishing industry and join the digital world.
“I want to join a digital agency, to specialise in digital content. I don’t believe in freelancing because I need a paycheck each month to be comfortable,” said Aizat.
ENGINEER SACKED A MONTH INTO HIS DREAM JOB
While Aizat sees this as an opportunity to chase his dream, engineer Muhammad Shazwan Isa has had his hopes dashed when he was dismissed at the end of April.
The 28-year-old was hired by an oil and gas company on Apr 1. He was elated as he was selected to fill "his desired position at his dream company”. Furthermore, his wife was six months pregnant, and the job would be able to support the young family.
He reported to work during the MCO because his job was categorised under essential services.
However, on Apr 24, he received a call from his company informing him that he had been let go. He was told that the oil and gas industry was impacted by COVID-19 globally and the company needed to reduce its costs.
He asked the company to reconsider but they held firm.
This sudden twist of fate dramatically changed the fortunes for his family.
“We decided to move out of our rented house and back into my parents’ house,” said Muhammad Shazwan. “For the time being, this is the best for my small family because we have to also consider that we have car loans to pay,” he added.
He said while the situation made him feel gloomy inside, his wife has been his source of motivation.
“This is our fight, and we have to face it together. Every time I feel down, she supports me and constantly reminds me of our future child,” he added.