The Humble Kangkong

Where in the world could a commonplace vegetable gain such notoriety (or fame) other than in Malaysia? Kangkung (water spinach), long the vegetable of the poor masses, especially Malays in the kampongs and Chinese in the fenced-up new villages, has suddenly found a niche in popular culture. The song, “Lenggang Kangkong” is being hummed by Malaysians of all ages, my wife included. So what has a humble creeper to do with price hikes and Year 2014?

This staple food of the poor, the underprivileged and the undernourished comes in two varieties. The one found in ponds, paddy fields and marshy lands is the wild variety from which the more benign looking variety originates. Wild kangkong is distinguishable by its black stalks and roundish leaves while the “urban” variety by its green stalks and leaner leaves.

I don’t know whether its nutritious value differs but, having eaten both, I find the wild one crunchier, tastier and more resilient to bug attacks. Back in my formative days growing up in the kampong, we identified the wild kangkong as ‘kangkong sawah’ and its urban cousin, ‘kangkong cina’, as it was grown by Chinese market-gardeners.

But that was the 50s and 60s when the country was embroiled in a Communist-inspired insurgency warfare, of which I was inadvertently drawn in at a later stage of my life.

As the plant is readily available in the paddy fields behind our sturdy attap-roofed house on stilts, plucking it was never a problem. That was why in the good old days, Malays in the kampongs had no difficulty sourcing for food, as there were plenty around their houses – fish in the ponds, coconuts from the nearby trees, chickens from the coops and, the all-consuming and humble kangkong, from the paddy fields.

It costs next to nothing to eat wild kangkong then and now. The urban variety, however, comes with a price. Today, a kilogramme of ‘kangkong cina’ costs anything between RM2 to RM3 at the wet and night markets in Ipoh. ‘Kangkong belacan’ a favourite dish in Chinese restaurants and Malay warongs can put you back by as much as RM10 to RM15 a plate. It is definitely not cheap by any gastronomical standards.

Well, nothing is cheap today. Not after the government’s slashing of subsidies for sugar and petrol, and the increment of electricity tariffs. Soon highway tolls will also be hiked. With a fast shrinking ringgit the end is well within sight, accelerated by the soon-to-be implemented Goods and Services Tax (GST) looming ominously in the horizon.

So for Prime Minister Najib to equate price hikes with the rise and fall of the price of kangkong is definitely in poor taste. This simplistic comparison has riled many Malaysians and it is little wonder why the song “Lenggang Kangkong” has garnered much interest of late.

Stung by growing criticism that the government was out of touch with the rakyat’s problems, the Prime Minister announced, at the end of December 2013, that Putrajaya would undertake measures to reduce public sector expenditure beginning January 1. And that includes the 10 per cent reduction of entertainment allowances for ministers and senior civil servants. Measures considered as highly inadequate to placate public’s dissatisfactions.

In an attempt to stop the groundswell of anger over rising costs the government will dish out cash to the rakyat beginning February 1. Bantuan Rakyat 1Malaysia (BR1M) will benefit nearly 8 million Malaysians who earn less than RM4000 a month. Will a one-off payment of between RM650 to RM300 enough to address the problem? Far from it. It will, in all probability, create a temporary feel-good feeling that will dissipate over time, as the stark reality is too huge a threat to evade.

I blame the administration’s mismanagement and ill-conceived fiscal policies for our troubles. It is all about the ‘robbing Paul to pay Peter’ adage, as the similarity is so evident.

When you remove subsidies of sugar and petrol, prices of essentials will automatically rise. Is there a necessity to hike electricity tariffs when Tenaga Nasional Berhad made a profit in excess of RM1 billion last year? The gains should be shared by the rakyat rather than some cronies and some diehard supporters of the Establishment.

Price control, which the government is seriously considering, will only result in market distortions. And what about the artificially high ceiling price for rice? Is this not a simplistic way of buying support from rice farmers? In the end it is always the welfare of the privileged few that matters not the poor rakyat. This is a recipe for disaster.

On a related matter, I have observed that the traffic police in Ipoh have been on overdrive the weeks leading to Chinese New Year. They are found all over the city, especially along the busy Jalan Raja Nazrin Shah and Jalan Raja DiHilir. On reflection, I realise that the season for “giving” is in full swing. Can’t blame them as price hikes affect everyone, the police included. Need I say more?

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