PENANG’S SERVICES SECTOR is a shadow of its former self. On top of an already flailing entertainment industry and a row of F&B outlets biting the dust, Copthorne Orchid Hotel Penang became on August 8 the latest casualty in a string of hotel closures since the MCO began. That day, it permanently shuttered.
Things do look bad for many. Penang Monthly speaks to three individuals involved in the services sector on how the pandemic upended their rice bowls, and how having the right attitude is helping them cope.
At 24 years of age, Sherry Tan opened Xiao Gu Dian (The Daily Noodles) on Lorong Hutton, which quickly became a well-frequented lunch spot for office workers nearby. But barely a year in and following the announcement of the MCO, Tan had to make the painful decision to cease operations for good.
Admittedly, low earnings and high costs were already contributing to its unsustainability. “Covid-19 merely exacerbated an already obvious issue, leaving no room for recovery. So the pandemic is not entirely to be blamed,” says Tan.
Tan believes that a successful person is one who is financially independent. She also stresses on the importance of financial literacy in overcoming tough times. Photo: Alexander Fernandez.
An optimist at heart, Tan views this as part of the business learning curve. “What we can do is accept, adapt and improve. The economy will recover in time. Businesses need to adapt to the new normal. The proper first steps, for example, are identifying the right approach and platform, and ensuring sustainability by having sufficient funds. All things considered, I’d say it’s still fine to start a business as long as the conditions are met. To minimise financial risks, try investing in the medical and food and beverage industries which are pertinent in times like this.”
Tan is slowly but surely getting back on her feet. “I’ve been part of the finance and investment field for some years now so I’m currently focusing on that. I’ve also taken on some gigs, as a courier agent and as a translator.” She was relieved to hear the government announce a 6-month moratorium. This eases her financial burden, even if by just a little.
Moving forward, Tan plans to start her own skincare brand in Australia with her family.
She previously dabbled in a variety of professions, as a teacher, model, personal assistant and sales executive, even during her schooling days. “Most students have a fixed perception that dreams should only be chased upon graduation, but that doesn’t need to be the case. The key to learning is to take action, and by doing so, you’ll know what works for you and what doesn’t.”
Tough Times will Pass
In the long run, Haziq hopes to start his own pastry business. Photo: Alexander Fernandez.
Muhamad Haziq Jalaludin works as a pastry chef at a hotel in Penang and is among the lucky few to have been retained, albeit with a 20% pay cut. “I used to be in a team of seven but since the hotel’s reopening, I’m the last one standing. In fact, we are now multi-tasking rather than working in separate kitchens; my work hours have increased to approximately 13-14 hours instead of the usual 9.5 hours.” A silver lining to this though, Haziq says, is that he is able to further enhance his culinary skills.
With zero income flow during the hotel’s three-month shutdown, Haziq had outstanding financial commitments. To manage, he moved back in with his family. “My family has been super supportive of my passion. I’ve yet to tell them of what’s been happening, I don’t want to worry them,” he says.
If, in the worst case scenario, he eventually gets laid off, Haziq says that he would help his mother with her kuih business by expanding its customer base online. “These tough times will pass,” he believes. “Since interstate travel restrictions have been lifted, the hotel has been packed with local tourists. I’m confident the situation will only improve from here on out.”
Moonlighting to Survive
Watersport operators along the Batu Ferringhi beach were not spared the brunt of Covid-19 and the MCO. This includes a family who was not eligible for financial assistance from the government1, and another who only had RM500 under the Bantuan Prihatin Nasional initiative to support a big family.
Soon worries that if the country returns under the MCO, he may have to resort to fishing once more to sustain himself.Photo: Alexander Fernandez.
Twenty-year-old Soon Wei Jun provides daily cruise services to tourists. This had earned him RM1,000-RM2,000 each month. Having been involved in the business since he was 8 years old, Soon decided to devote his time fully to work upon entering secondary school to care for his father.
But the MCO disrupted business, leading Soon to moonlight as a fisherman when restrictions began loosening. “I’d fish from 7am until the evening, and spend the next few hours delivering fishes to my customers’ doorsteps.” He sold his daily catch to friends over WeChat, but daily earnings were a meagre RM30, and after deducting expenditures such as fuel, he was left with only RM10.
As of July, Soon has been back in business. But since his patrons had been predominantly foreigners, and with international travel banned, business has been slow to recover. “I’m only able to make one trip a day.” When asked if this was sufficient, he humbly replies “jangan tamak” or “don’t be greedy”. At present, Soon is unsure of what the future will bring but he feels that he has to merely go with the flow. “I’m also considering working part-time at night, perhaps I’ll continue to earn a living from the sea.”
Alexander Fernandez is a USM graduate. While most people eat to live, he lives to eat instead.
Nursyazana Khidir Neoh is a forestry graduate from the University Malaysia Sabah.