Thirty-nine-year-old Caroline Teoh is armed with a master’s degree in Business Administration and worked as a financial advisor in a multinational company for 10 years.
She loved her job, she said – more than being a mother to three toddlers: three sons aged two, four and six. Her last pregnancy drew many fixed feelings from Teoh, who suffered from bad bouts of morning sickness and was not keen on going through “all of that again”.
She quit working three years ago, in 2015 – she found it too stressful as she had to deal with her crying son every morning as he hated going to childcare. “My husband offered me the idea to quit. I was torn in the decision-making, but in the end I decided to quit,” she says.
I was lucky to have worked in a multinational company that has an open policy and is more trusting of its employees.
Teoh completed her degree at 24, did her master’s part-time at Universiti Sains Malaysia, met her husband at the workplace and got married at 31, had their first son at 33, second at 35 and the last one at 37. She said they had employed the services of her aunt who had also raised her when she was young, and also employed a domestic worker. Yet it was difficult to manage the three boys.
The couple own a terrace house in Bayan Lepas and they were paying the mortgage when they decided to move to a condominium so that they could be closer to her aunt, and to save on transport time. It also meant that her husband, who had by then moved on to set up his own business, could get to work in more ideal traffic conditions every morning. Getting the new place with their childcare service nearby and easy access to supermarkets was very helpful, says Teoh.
Today her husband pays for all the bills: utilities, school fees, medical insurances, vehicle, domestic worker – a total of around RM10,000. Both husband and wife had also set up an education fund for the children and bought health insurances. Whatever savings they had they pooled together to pay off the mortgages on the house and the condo. Her husband gives her money for her own spending. He has also developed an investment for her in his company so that profits will be shared with her.
“I was able to spend my own money as I wished, but I can’t do that anymore. I have to cut back on buying luxury goods – I am doing a quarter of the amount of shopping I used to do,” she says, sharing that she goes out with her friends during her spare time. “I can’t juggle work and the children. I want to go back to work, but I can’t complain. Now I am better at enjoying my children – it is more comfortable.”
Teoh asks that the government offer more through the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) to help women meet their medical costs on critical illnesses. She also wishes to see more flexi-time job arrangements and a mindset of “give-and-take” between employers and employees.
“I was lucky to have worked in a multinational company that has an open policy and is more trusting of its employees,” she says, and believes that more women will remain in the workforce if they can get better workplace arrangements and financial incentives to take care of their families.
Fifty-one-year-old Evelyn Oh was a busy woman. She was in a daily act of working out her home life – managing the routine of her only child, ensuring that the house was in good running order and that her mother, who was growing older, was also well and happy. Then it was off to the stockbroking firm, where she worked for 10 years before calling it quits to start her own business with a friend to run a kindergarten. It was hard work and they were successful. However, she had to stop to become a stay-at-home caregiver and minder for her mother who had fallen severely ill.
Oh’s stockbroking job of 10 years began at RM2,000 a month. She learnt a lot and her hours of work – from 8am to 5pm with some overtime till 7pm – suited her schedule as a young mother. But she felt her own passion dying. With her savings of RM50,000, she invested in the kindergarten business and spent another 10 years of her life running the business. The hours were longer – from 6.30am to 6.30pm – with administrative work that was done all the time; to add to that, her work was multi-faceted as a trainer, supervisor, child-minder, organiser, planner, cleaner, manager, confidante, customer relations officer and gatekeeper.
Profits ranged from year to year. By the time she left her partnership in the business, she had made personal profits of RM100,000.
For many years, much of the housework and child minding was done with her mother giving supervisory support to an Indonesian domestic worker employed since 2004 when the son was two years old. The domestic worker was asked to do all the cleaning and to accompany the son to the classes he was going to. But as the son grew older, they decided to just rely on part-time help for cleaning, and continued with their dining-out habit.
Her husband runs his own business as a car dealer, working long hours each day. In 2018 his business brought in about RM100,000 in profits. Home management costs are shared by both husband and wife – her husband paid for the house and both their names are on the title deeds; Oh picks up the groceries bill; both paid for the car; holiday costs are shared equally; and both of them have individual savings accounts. They live in a three-bedroom terrace house with their son and Oh’s mother.
But all that self-sufficiency evaporated three years ago when her mother fell terribly ill. Her kidney failure meant dialysis three times a week. Then it was a long hospital stay, under intensive care. As costs were escalating, they moved her from a private hospital to a public one. They sold the mother’s apartment to pay for the medical bills. Oh’s savings of RM100,000 had also dwindled over the last three years, as the monthly medical bills are between RM600 and RM700. Her husband gives her RM10,000 monthly for housekeeping and to pay for their son’s music and tuition classes.
She has pulled back on her lifestyle – less new clothes and spas. But for sanity, she meets up with her friends once a month for a chit-chat.
Meanwhile, the stress of looking after her mother and dealing with money constraints continue. She is weighing up options – nursing homes with a better quality of care are costly, at RM2,000 to RM3,000. She worries about everyone’s health, about the long-term money flow, the cost of growing older and savings. “I thought I was an adult and I was taking care of things, but my mother’s illness made me rethink everything. I feel very vulnerable. The government needs to do more for us caregivers and stay-at-home mothers. There are also divorcees, widows – money is not enough.”
I’m surviving with help from friends and my mother. I want to teach my children well. I do not know what to do. Who will look after me if I fall ill? Who will look after the children if anything happens to me?
Madam Rosmah (not her real name), aged 43, is a mother on a daily rollercoaster ride when it comes to balancing the household on very little money.
She has eight children: four sons and four daughters aged 19, 18, 17, 14, 12, 11, eight and seven. There are school and medical expenses: her daughter has a blood pigmentation disorder; a younger son has asthma; the eldest son needs intense eye treatments and is already blind in one eye. He travels to Alor Setar for specialist treatment which costs RM5, but the costs are high for the medication and the travel: each treatment can cost between RM45 and RM100. Rosmah also discovered that she has a low white blood corpuscle count at her last childbirth.
She says that she can manage all the household expenses with the RM1,000 she receives from her husband, who earns RM1,200 per month working in the government sector. Her household bills are: RM110 for rental, RM80 for electricity, RM500 for groceries, RM70 for two months’ worth of water and RM400 for school-related expenses. She is in a deficit every month although she sets her monthly budget for the household at RM400 – there are just too many bills to settle, she says.
She borrows from her mother who is a vegetable-seller, and her sister chips in. Her neighbours and friends also help. She has debts – the Parent-Teacher Association fees for her children, which comes to RM25 per child. She also does some part-time work, earning RM400 helping other women cook for receptions. Her husband refuses to let her work part-time in any place.
“I keep rolling every day. I feel shy asking my mother or my sister for money, but what can I do?” she asks.
She completed her primary school and was working in a factory, earning RM450 per month, when she met her husband. They have been married for 19 years and survived well as fisherfolks for three years. Her husband was not keen on sterilisation until the last pregnancy, when she almost bled to death.
When asked how she was coping, she says, “I cannot take it. Too much stress.” Tears welled up as she narrated how her husband had been duped into taking a bank loan for his friend who ran away without paying him back. She only discovered recently that to repay his loan, the bank was deducting almost RM2,000 every month. The husband keeps RM100 for his expenses and the rest – RM1,100 – is for the household. The husband has only RM900 left in his EPF as he took out the money to give an uncle to buy a computer for the children, which never arrived.
Her children are good children, she says, whispering that physical abuse began when she asked too many questions and began dressing better to make herself feel better.
“I’m surviving with help from friends and my mother. I want to teach my children well. I do not know what to do. Who will look after me if I fall ill? Who will look after the children if anything happens to me? There’s not enough to even eat or feed the children,” she says.
Rosmah has no time to focus on her future, just the present and the now.