It’s a big, big bazaar busi­ness

How do we en­sure that both com­mer­cial con­cerns as well as the mak­cik sell­ing her home­made kuih will con­tinue to pop­u­late Malaysia’s pop­u­lar Ra­madan bazaars?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thes­ Dzof Azmi

AS I’m writ­ing this, the holy month of Ra­madan is rolling into Syawal, and I’m con­sid­er­ing all the feast­ing ahead. Though, ac­tu­ally, it some­times feels like the feast­ing in Syawal cel­e­brates a month of fast­ing that was punc­tu­ated with even more feast­ing – for who can re­sist the temp­ta­tion of the Ra­madan bazaars and their eclec­tic col­lec­tion of over-priced fare, pre­cooked hours be­fore con­sump­tion?

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Ra­madan bazaars are big busi­ness. A re­cent news­pa­per ar­ti­cle high­lighted that al­though the Serem­ban city coun­cil charges traders at most RM500 for a space in one of the city’s Ra­madan bazaars, peo­ple have been re­selling them for up to RM8,000 (­tar-bazaar). This is noth­ing com­pared to two years ago when peo­ple were lit­er­ally punch­ing and kick­ing each other over bazaar plots.

In fact, RM8,000 is at the high end of what traders could make. A quick scour of the In­ter­net shows that most traders make a profit of be­tween RM4,000 and RM7,000 for that month. That’s clean profit af­ter you’ve de­ducted ex­penses such as hired help (about RM1,000 to RM2,000 a month), cost of ba­sic in­gre­di­ents (about 30% to 50% of the sale price) and the cost of rent­ing the space and set­ting it up.

But the profit of a few thou­sand in the month is based on those who sell kuih or air balang (syrup wa­ter). They’re only mak­ing RM2RM3 per cus­tomer.

If you’re sell­ing some­thing like briyani or murtabak, though, you could eas­ily sell RM20 worth of food per cus­tomer. As­sum­ing a hun­dred cus­tomers a day, at a 30% profit, you would end up with about RM20,000 profit in a month. RM8,000 doesn’t seem so much af­ter all to pay to a mid­dle man.

How­ever, city coun­cils are un­happy about peo­ple mak­ing money like this. It’s sim­i­lar to sell­ing mu­sic con­cert tick­ets and then hav­ing scalpers re­sell them at in­flated prices. For ex­am­ple, when Adele went on tour in the United States, a ticket priced at most US$150 (RM644) would be resold by scalpers at prices as high as US$5,000 (RM2,000).

Both con­cert ticket and Ra­madan bazaar plot scalpers are more ef­fi­cient at buy­ing than the gen­eral public be­cause they know the sys­tem so well. Iron­i­cally, the var­i­ous bu­reau­cra­cies and checks put in place ac­tu­ally make it harder for le­git­i­mate buy­ers.

Var­i­ous meth­ods have been pro­posed to counter th­ese prof­i­teers. The most ob­vi­ous is to raise the price of the com­mod­ity be­ing sup­plied so it meets the de­mand. Sell con­cert tick­ets for a thou­sand dol­lars, or bazaar plots for ten thou­sand ring­git.

But this hits a snag be­cause al­though most fans ac­cept they have to pay over the odds to a mid­dle man, they get up­set if they think their idols (or the gov­ern­ment) are tak­ing ad­van­tage of them.

For ex­am­ple, when Kedah charged up to RM13,000 for a plot in their bazaar, the re­sponse from one trader was, “They are deny­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to the small busi­ness owner, while the rich mil­lion­aires who stay silent can af­ford to ne­go­ti­ate with the au­thor­i­ties” (tinyurl. com/Star2-bazaar).

He has a point. Such high prices mean the small trader will be priced out of con­tention.

An­other way is to en­sure that there is more sup­ply than de­mand. Amer­i­can singer Kid Rock rents out con­cert venues that he knows is too large for the num­ber of fans he at­tracts. Scalpers who try to buy too many tick­ets to ar­ti­fi­cially cre­ate de­mand will end up with tick­ets that they can­not sell.

Un­for­tu­nately, lim­ited space at pop­u­lar Ra­madan bazaar lo­ca­tions make this im­prac­ti­cal – this year in KL about 5,000 traders were vy­ing for only 400 lots in the city. It’s tough to see where one could place an ad­di­tional 4,600 stalls in a safe and hygienic way.

Fi­nally, there is the idea that a lot­tery should even things out. US singer Billy Joel does this with his con­certs by not mak­ing the first few rows avail­able for sale, and then giv­ing out the tick­ets to seats at ran­dom to peo­ple sit­ting in the cheap seats. (The fact that many of the lucky ones cho­sen hap­pen to be young and pretty is a co­in­ci­dence, I’m sure .... )

A lot­tery is ex­actly what will be done in Serem­ban next year, ac­cord­ing to Chief Min­is­ter Datuk Seri Mo­hamad Hasan. Though he didn’t men­tion that two years ago, a fight broke out while traders were draw­ing lots for spa­ces in the year’s Ra­madan bazaar (tinyurl. com/Star2-fight). Maybe hard­work­ing traders feel that while they have been tak­ing the same spot year af­ter year, lotteries give some un­de­serv­ing few a chance to get lucky.

Any­way, as long as the de­mand is there, there will still be the temp­ta­tion to re­sell the spa­ces. A small trader who only stands to make RM4,000 in the month wouldn’t give up the chance to make dou­ble that with less ef­fort. It’s just good busi­ness. And it’s not nec­es­sar­ily il­le­gal, if the new peo­ple man­ning the stall are tech­ni­cally his “em­ploy­ees”.

In the end, I think city coun­cils are in a bit of a catch-22 sit­u­a­tion. Ei­ther they ac­cept that the sys­tem al­lows scalpers to prof­i­teer on the side or they raise the price to meet de­mand and shut out the small in­di­vid­ual seller.

I would re­ally like to see the coun­cils try for one year an open auc­tion for bazaar lots. It would be a way of see­ing what the mar­ket will bear. Al­ter­na­tively, start the pric­ing at RM20,000 and drop it grad­u­ally un­til all the lots sell out.

Per­son­ally, I don’t want Ra­madan bazaars to be “gen­tri­fied”, if that is the cor­rect use of the term. I don’t want the mak­cik with her home­made kuih to be pushed out by a slick, com­mer­cial ven­ture with assem­bly line food. Ide­ally, there should be room for both.

For­tu­nately, the cur­rent sys­tem still al­lows dif­fer­ent types of sell­ers to trade side by side. We know this is true be­cause it’s what we see hap­pen­ing now. But re­gard­less of the type of trader, hav­ing bazaar plots on the ex­pen­sive side is prob­a­bly fairer for all.

Logic is the an­tithe­sis of emo­tion but math­e­ma­ti­cian-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s the­ory is that peo­ple need both to make sense of life’s va­garies and con­tra­dic­tions.

I don’t want the mak­cik with her home­made kuih to be pushed out by a slick, com­mer­cial ven­ture with assem­bly line food

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