‘Nothing (can be done), because our opinion or needs don’t matter much until the next election comes around’
Four hours prior, we had departed the small mosque of Tanjung Agas, Port Dickson. It was our plan to travel on our bicycles to Tanjung Agas, Muar — the two places with the same names adding poetry and symmetry to our cycling journey of just over 100km.
While the sun laser-beamed its rays on our back, our motley group pushed on to cover the last few kilometres to the royal town of Muar.
It was with a mixture of relief that we were forced to rest yet again when a sudden thunderstorm interrupted our ride somewhere between Tun Teja’s grave and Umbai, Melaka. We sheltered at a roadside shop selling the best lai chee kang I’ve ever tasted. The shop was located among paddy fields so vast that you wonder how was it that we are currently in a local rice shortage.
“The short answer is that this is what happens when we misallocate resources. In fact, as these things go, there is never a short answer,” one of our numbers, who rides a Marin Muirwood, suggested.
From what I gathered by osmosis from newsreels and gossip, the current shortage of white local rice surfaced when consumers who had been content to eat imported rice, which remains the largest source of rice in Malaysia, suddenly found that local rice is palatable.
Coincidently, this new-found preference for local rice came about when imported rice became more expensive. This is true for most of us except for people in Kelantan, who have the luxury of access to smuggled rice from Thailand.
So, the result of more people wanting local rice is a local shortage.
“Why can’t we be like Thailand? It seems that every time we are short of something — chicken, eggs, masseuses, rice — we turn to Thailand,” said Marin guy.
“The problem with us as a nation is that we are smart enough to work out the long-term solutions, but we don’t have the long-term commitment to see them through.”
We have a national rice company, which has been given the national responsibility of ensuring the uninterrupted supply of rice. In Malaysia, where much local rice is produced by smallholders, that is a hard task.
The national rice company could easily turn what rice-producing land that we have being farmed by smallholdings into a single coop and implement large-scale production practices. Countries like Vietnam have gone this route and now have the largest production per hectare of rice in our part of the world.
“But this hasn’t happened in Malaysia because…,” Marin’s voice trailed into silence.
“That is one thing that gets my goat,” said yet another member of our group. He rides a 30-year-old vintage bike of indeterminate origin.
“There are some of us who are in limbo, we voted for this government but its recent actions have left us somewhat embarrassed.”
Vintage said there are many voters like him, those who are disillusioned by the seeming about-turn of the present administration in reforms and fighting graft, but at the same time still hope that it will redeem itself soon, or barring that, an alternative will emerge.
“So, what can you do about it?” asked Marin.
“Nothing, because our opinion or needs don’t matter much until the next election comes around,” said Vintage.
“But we take notes and remember. We are the same rebels that toppled the 60-year government in 2018, but at the moment we don’t see anyone to lead us. We wait.”
It was a pleasant 30-minute break from the saddle but as these things often go, the thunderstorm passed as suddenly as it had descended.
With the easing of the rain, it was time to mount up again. We tightened our straps and checked our equipment, pleasantly enveloped by the familiar and soothing after-rain smell.
Scientists call it petrichor, the result of water reacting with the enzymes and other earth chemicals that had been dormant, just so the rain can wake them up.
We know it as the warm smell of parched earth after rain, immersive and overpowering enough to remind us of our primordial link to the ground. It is the sharp odour of natural chemicals mingling with green vegetation.
With that we re-mounted our bicycles and trundled south towards Muar, hoping to see the minaret of the Masjid Jamek Sultan Ibrahim framed against the sunset before long.
- ZB Othman is an editor at The Malaysian Reserve.
- This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition