When the prices of petrol was raised before the 308 election, essential food prices went up. The reason was fuel hike sent the food prices higher. Today, the fuel prices has dropped dramatically almost the same as before the hike. However, food prices for vegetable, fruits, and hawker’s foods have not gone down, in fact it has gone up.
When it comes to controlling prices of common food items, the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affair is a toothless tiger that can only make noise and virtually impotent to deal with rising food prices, even at the hawker’s level. For controlled food item, there is no problem but this is only a very small item in the total food basket.
It is the basic necessity that is causing a pinch among the consumers and the relentless rice of food even at hawker’s stall shows that consumer are at the mercies of the traders. Even within the country, the prices of basic necessities like vegetables and fruits can varies from one another.
When I was the chairman of domestic trade and consumer affair council in Johor in the early 90s, I found that 70% of the basic food items in Johor Bahru are even higher than that of Kuala Lumpur. This was due to the demand factor from Singapore. Johor Bahru caters to a consumer- base not just confined to JB but also Singapore with population of 4 million, while JB has only a population of 1.2 million.
In Sabah and Sarawak, some of the essential items are more expensive than KL and they blame transportation cost for the price differential.
If we want to bring down prices of essential food items, then we have to look into the distribution system. Today, this system is often controlled by middleman. A good example is fruit and vegetable. You can plant a lot of foods and vegetables but because of inefficient distribution system that is controlled by a few people, there may be a glut of supply but the prices remain the same.
In the mid-90s, I did a simple study of the ex-farm price like kailan and choy sum, it fluctuates from RM0.30 to RM1.00. But what was surprising is that the retail price of these two common vegetables at the market never goes below RM1.00 per kg, even when there was a glut and the ex-farm price was only RM0.30 per kg. In other words, there is a big markup, both at the middleman and the retail level. Farmer is equally impotent to break this cartel of middleman controlling the distribution system.
One should not talk about enforcement since a lot of these food items are not controlled items. At the end, it is the rakyat as consumer that have to take charge. If everybody uses his vacant land within their compound to plant foods and vegetables, then I am sure we will manage to bring prices down more effectively. If you go to North Vietnam or a large part of China and even part of Indonesia, what strike us is that every inch of arable land is planted with vegetables and fruits. Even the roundabouts are not spared.
I had the opportunity to travel from Cheng Du to Chong Ching in China, a distance of about 300km (if I am not mistaken). Besides trees for landscaping, what was noticeable was fruit trees, vegetables and integrated farming been practiced extensively. In these 2 cities, invariably during lunch and dinner, you find varieties of vegetables and I am given to understand that it is inexpensive.
In the same way if you go to North Vietnam, vegetables are planted everywhere and an inexpensive food item. The government started the green revolution many years ago but they have not been very successful. Somehow most Malaysians have no interest in gardening. If they do, they are more interested in planting flowers rather than vegetables and fruits.
In my house in Batu Pahat, I planted a lot of choy sum and lettuce, two trees of dragon fruits, two trees of passion fruits and two papaya trees. You will be surprised that there seems to be continuous supply of papaya and vegetables. These were all planted in front of the house and beside the house in between my neighbours. I should include the photographs of all this in this posting. Imagine if every Malaysian starts growing fruit and vegetables in every available piece of land and I am sure that it will bring down the prices of these two essential food items. There is no need to do a lot of researches about the supply and distribution chain.
Certain popular hawker food can be pricey in strategic location within KL. To ask for a total boycott is not feasible. We may just learn to be discerning about eating out. The time has come maybe for Malaysians to talk about morning breakfast and lunch with packed fruits from home. This habit of packing bread and sandwiches for breakfast and light lunch should be encouraged. Contact YB Chua Tee Yong for information on how he develops this habit since he started work in KL five year ago. I am not trying to promote ‘kedekut’ or being miser. You don’t pay for something that is not value for money.