Malaysia’s household income inequality..a truth or myth?

To know the economy, ask the housewives

By Dina Zaman
December 16, 2012

Many are venturing farther and farther from home in search of lower prices. — File pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 16 ― Who knows better than the female half of a couple the ups and downs of the economy?It may be that most husbands are the ones who bear the financial burden but it is the wives and mothers who feel the pinch before their spouses. They deal with school fees, groceries, maid salaries, and know instantly when the price of electricity shoots up.

The Malaysian Insider conducted an informal straw poll among acquaintances and friends whose ages range from 30 to 40, who are educated, and either work from home or have taken a sabbatical from work.

Budgeting is an on-going battle even though some come from upper middle-class families. Some are professionals or freelancers and stay-at-home mothers.

The first thing that came to mind was the quality and cost of education in the country. They all agreed that affordable education meant enrolling their children in government schools, but after-school activities and tuition can burn a hole in the wallet. There is always something to pay, and at what price when many of them feel the education system has slipped tremendously from their schooldays?

The property question

Most agree that property and the rising cost of education, as well as health, are out of control and “illogical.” Property prices are spiralling upwards, but there is a glut of residences and offices spaces all over Klang Valley and Selangor.

Vacant properties are abundant but these are only targeted at those in the higher income bracket.

Sazlin Daud, a one-time practising lawyer who is now a stay-at-home mother of two, commented that “We’re not talking just one to two developers in one to two areas, it’s everywhere, spreading its tentacles all across the Klang Valley!”

“How illogical is it that the only new landed properties available now within the suburbs are superlinks, semi-detached homes and bungalows with prices that start at above RM1.5 million? What happened to plain old terrace homes?

“And what is even more ridiculous is that existing landed properties, even run-down terrace homes in Subang Jaya can sell for RM700,000-800,000, in Bandar Utama for RM800,000-RM1 million and in Mutiara Damansara for RM1.2 million?”

Many agree that even older houses in need of repair are selling at RM700,000-800,000; similar homes in Bandar Utama are almost RM1 million. The current climate is not conducive for young couples with growing families. The question is, where will they be able to move when the children have grown up?

For some, renting property is the way to go. It is more affordable and practical. Yet this route has caused them some stress; renting is still stigmatised by many Asians.

The budget review

One reason why petrol expenses have shot up is because the wives will drive just about anywhere to score a bargain. It no longer makes sense to shop at a certain place “to be seen” because the price fluctuation is too obvious.

A wife whose husband earns a five-figure income watches the family grocery bills like a hawk. What does she think of grocery expenses in the Klang Valley?

“I think it’s schizophrenic. My son’s formula and baby products are cheaper at Ben’s in Publika, and the same ones cost more in Tesco. I don’t know if the ticketer ‘silap tampal’ the price tag!

“People think we have the money but I will not spend unnecessarily. I can tell you ― sometimes the pasar in Keramat is as expensive as the one in TTDI, and I have found reasonably-priced dragon fruit at the Mont Kiara Thursday night market. Selayang is okay… but we don’t eat that much fish or chicken in a week! I don’t know who sets the prices! Our economy is crazy-lah.”

For KP (pseudonym), the interview actually drove her to write down all the expenses her family incurs and she is shocked. A frugal homemaker, it was eye-opening to see what was being spent. Her notes reveal that she and her husband spend over RM1,000 for their three children, and the expenses go to their education and activities.

Her children wear hand-me-downs. She is looking for a Bahasa Malaysia tutor but is intimidated by the fees. Their personal expenses go to medication, sports and range about RM1,000. Because they have a 90-year-old relative living with them, they have had to invest in a properly-trained maid whose salary is RM1,000 a month.

It is an on-going battle among the two spouses, trying to cope with the costs of a growing family, medical expenses and also some treats in between. Both of them rarely indulge in personal luxuries, and their children are not treated lavishly.

Still, she wonders if there will be a limit to all this. Medication for her husband’s ailment is increasing; actually, everything is becoming more expensive. How long can they be frugal and deny themselves some luxuries?

The one constant battle she and her husband has is where they shop for groceries. She would rather go all the way to Tesco Puchong because there is more variety and it is cheaper. However, her husband would rather shop at Village Grocer, Bangsar Village, because it’s more convenient.

Let’s trade

So how do the mothers cut corners and yet enjoy some? Angelia Ong barters.

“For example, in exchange for your garden produce, whatever I make from it, I send it over or sell the excess. That works in terms of skills and teaching options too. Teach my kids Bahasa twice a week, I exchange for bread, babysitting, whatever. I find that the idea of community (not necessarily living in the exact same location) is coming back.”

And, yes, bartering groups have cropped up on Facebook and is not just a more affordable way of living, but has become a social activity. The Barter Exchange Group Malaysia is one.

The banter among the members reminds one of a country farm with neighbours popping by for a chat. It may sound strange to a consumerist society, but it makes sense to the members. And the members in the group range from professionals, stay-at-home parents, educators, to name a few.

Women hankering for branded goods at affordable prices also turn to informal Facebook groups, which have lead members based in the US or Europe, who buy their goods during sales and then ship them back to Malaysia.

The difference is significant ― this cuts out the middleman and store overheads. These groups are also fashion savvy ― the customer will get the original and the latest trend if she so wants.

What do they think of the current economic climate?

They are very leery.

“The cost of living has skyrocketed but our incomes have not changed. Not good,” one working wife commented.


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