By Fathol Zaman Bukhari
The Janaki kacang puteh episode would have been a mere footnote in Ipoh City Council’s annals had it not been for social media. The attempt by one youngster at publicising what he perceived as the Council’s high-handed treatment of illegal traders went viral and got more than what the youth thought possible.
The response by Ipoh City Council was swift considering past reactions to similar infringements, which I term as knee-jerk. This time around, it caught the attention of newly-minted mayor, Dato’ Zamri Man and Council Secretary, Zakuan Zakaria, as they were placed in a very awkward situation.
A media conference was arranged three days after the incident took place and was held within the premise of Ipoh’s General Hospital. The “misadventure” happened on Friday, 7 while the media conference was called on Monday, August 10.
The intervening period, although an eternity by all reckonings, was swift by Ipoh City Council’s standards. Had it been a simple illegal-trader-caught-trading incident, no one would have bothered. The snapshot of Janaki clutching on “for dear life” to a bag of crackers, with enforcement officers looking on menacingly, had the whole nation crying for Ipoh City Council’s blood. It was an epitome of the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. And that one snapshot sent the council into overdrive.
This is what I gathered of the protagonist. Selvajanaki Subramaniam, 41, like many other Ipohites in her mold, is a single mother. She lives in Taman Impian, Menglembu and ekes out a living selling kacang puteh to feed her family of three kids aged between 6 to 14 years old. Her husband, an Indian national, left her when the going got tough – a classic case of abandonment so prevalent among many unfortunate Malaysian women who fell for the charms of foreigners in PM Najib’s “Land of Endless Possibilities”.
Janaki has no other ways of getting food to the table other than resorting to the back-breaking business closely associated with her community – selling kacang puteh. Well, there is no shame in selling these crunchy and tasty nuts, a highly sought-after item by aficionados, especially those who want something to go with their drinks and food. I am no exception. Royal Ipoh Club’s longtime barman, M. Thanasegaran (Segar) will vouch for me.
Her encounters with the Council’s enforcement officers were numerous. Each time her peanuts, snacks and motor cycle would be confiscated and she had to pay a fine to retrieve them. She had enough. On that fateful day she was raring for a fight should the officers come to seize her prized possessions. The officers came and a tug-of-war ensued – she on one end of her motorcycle and the officers on the other end. In the melee, her nuts and snacks got strewn on to the road. The action was recorded by the youngster who happened to be there. And the rest is history.
The episode is just the tip of the iceberg. Illegal trading is as old as Ipoh itself. The late Ismail Shah Bodin, when he was mayor, found a practical solution by locating them in designated areas. Ismail would go around town incognito to see things for himself. The problem of unlicensed hawkers was resolved but over time it resurfaced with much vengeance.
Public places, where access to the public is easy, will be overwhelmed by illegal traders in no time. The much-sought-after locations are the Ipoh Railway Station, General Hospital, Polo Ground and the Medan Kidd bus terminal. However, ever since Janaki’s “tragedy”, the General Hospital is now hawker-free. Surprisingly, Ipoh Railway Station is also devoid of illegal traders following Ipoh Echo’s headline, “Gateway to Ipoh or Obstacle Course?” The Council has found it prudent to station enforcement officers at the station.
Getting a permit to trade is not difficult but the conditions attached deter many from applying. They have to be mobile and the most restrictive is the area they are assigned to. A licensed kacang puteh seller at the railway station is assigned to Taman Botani. She refuses to budge. The old-timer at Ipoh central post office has been in the business for over 15 years and has no intention of moving out, come what may.
The problem is getting out of hand but is a solution insight? I will not bet on one. No, not at this juncture when the country’s economy is nose-diving, exacerbated by a free-falling ringgit. Poor perception of the nation’s leadership is one major cause.