Villagers (from left), Mok, Ong, Too and Ramansamy say life for ordinary folk has not improved.
AYER HITAM: Ramansamy Amawasi is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with life these days.
From the falling price of palm oil, rising cost of living, the 67-year-old oil palm smallholder is struggling, especially after his wife, Saraswatti Govindaraju, had a fall recently and is confined at home.
“One kilogramme of ikan kembung is RM16. Eggs and vegetables are also expensive. My wife now also needs medical treatment and my income is so badly affected,” said a visibly upset Ramasamy.
That’s not all that is bothering this father of four grown up children.
“My children are also in the same boat and doing their best to manage.
“They say they are also trying to make ends meet,” he said when asked how life was a year after the 14th general election.
“Life for ordinary folk like me has not improved,” he said at a coffee shop in Kangkar Baru New Village here where he and several elderly villagers sat lamenting about their difficulties and the feeling of helplessness.
The new village is under the Ayer Hitam parliamentary constituency, a predominantly agricultural community where a majority are oil palm smallholders.
Another villager, a 76-year-old known by his surname Too, said he still visits the coffeeshop twice a day but opts for tea and coffee which were cheaper.
A smallholder for the last 40 years, he said the prolonged low palm oil price this time has caused hardship among both the young and old.
“My wife and I can only afford to eat fish twice a month,” said Too of their household expenses which also included paying for utilities and medication for him and his wife.
He said financial constraints had even forced some of his friends to stop visiting their children in Batu Pahat, about 40km from the village.
“You have to spend money when you go out and everything is so expensive nowadays,” he added.
Lee says sales of fertiliser and weedkillers have dropped between 20% and 30% since the oil palm price started dropping at the end of last year.
Business is so slow that even the number of stalls in the village’s wet market is down to three, selling chicken, pork and fish.
There used to be five to six stalls before, Too said.
Fishmonger See Ming Hwa, 73, said business was bad over the last one year, and that many of his regular customers could no longer afford to buy fish.
“I can understand that because fish is expensive,” said See who has been in the business since 1989.
“There were days where there was no business at all,” said See who opens his stall between 6am and noon.
“I am taking things one day at a time and as long as my wife and I do not have to go hungry, it is alright,” said See who has six children.
But Ong Thian Wa, 54, and his wife Teh San San, 39, who have four school-going children and a six-month old baby certainly have more things to worry about.
“We still have to spend money to maintain our oil palm trees but the return is not enough to cover expenses.
“With mouths to feed, life is difficult,” said Ong.
He said the Government had failed to address the problem of low palm oil price and low demand that had dragged on for more than half a year.
He said there had been instances when the millers stopped accepting palm fruits because demand was so low, and that this situation was unprecedented.
Kidney patient Mok Tak Kam said he has to spend RM130 per haemodialysis session and undergoes three sessions a week at the Mawar Haemodialysis Centre in Yong Peng, about 12km from the village.
The 68-year-old former taxi driver, who is also an oil palm smallholder, said he has to spend about RM2,000 for haemodialysis and injections per month.
With no sign of recovery for the palm oil sector in the near future, Mok said he was worried about continuing to maintain his oil palm trees.
The low exchange rate, he said, had pushed up prices of fertiliser and weedkillers.
Some smallholders are replacing fertiliser with chicken manure despite knowing that the cheap alternative would harm the trees.
A businessman in Yong Peng , Lee Kiat Moh, said sale of fertiliser and weedkillers had dropped between 20% and 30% since the drop in palm oil prices at the end of last year.
He said 80% of the people in Ayer Hitam were oil palm smallholders.
The economy has not been good for the past one year and tourist arrivals is also down, Lee said of the overall outlook in the constituency.
Mok who lives with his wife Koo Chai Eng, 60, said Kangkar Baru New village used to be a comfortable place where people worked hard and led a simple and carefree life.
“For the past one year, we have been struggling to make ends meet,” he said.
Businessman Yeo Soon Huat, 75, said the current economic slowdown had affected Yong Peng town badly.
He said restaurant operators were facing slow business, with fewer customers including tourists.
While there was yet any clear sign of recovery for the oil palm sector that saw its prices plunging to as low as RM260 per tonne, Yeo said the price has to reach at least RM400 per tonne for the situation to improve.
Wong Choo Teh, 70, said oil palm smallholders with less than 10 acres were badly affected.
He said he was not making any profit from his 14 acres.
“The people can work hard but the Government must also play its role well,” he said.
Wong and his wife live with their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren here and he said it helped that two of his five children work in Singapore.