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Small business casualties mount under prolonged lockdown

Many are running out of money while others have shut down or are on the brink of closure.

Nur Shazreena Ali and Farhira Farudin
4 minute read
Miah Seman at her small grocery store in Kampung Sri Kandong, outside the Kuching city centre, where she helps Iban women traders sell their wares as well.
Miah Seman at her small grocery store in Kampung Sri Kandong, outside the Kuching city centre, where she helps Iban women traders sell their wares as well.

When the latest lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 was enforced throughout the country on June 1, hairstylist Thelma Mukit knew her business would be in for a tough time.

Before the pandemic hit Malaysia early last year, she had six workers at her salon in Kuching, Sarawak. Now, she can only afford to keep two.

Like thousands of other small businesses in the state, hers is not considered an essential service. Each time a lockdown is declared, the shutters must come down again.

This has had a devastating impact on her finances.

Even before the lockdown, customers had been few and far in between. These days, Thelma struggles to pay the rent, digging deeper each week into the cash she had held in reserve.

“We are not like the large companies that can afford to pay their monthly costs,” she told MalaysiaNow. “As a small business owner, I am not able to flush out enough money to continue paying salaries.”

This is a particular sorrow for her as her salon had over the years employed workers from the rural areas, helping them earn an income.

Some 1,000km away in Melaka, Syahir Naser had to close down his catering business which took a hit after social events were banned.

Once, he had made up to RM120 on a good day, organising food and canopies for events and renting out his PA system. But by the middle of the third movement control order, his landlord had told him to pack up.

“Otherwise, I would still be earning some money,” he said. “Even RM70 a day would be enough for me.”

Now, Syahir does what he can to get by, working several jobs and renting his PA system to restaurants. He is also a food deliveryman, a lawn care service provider and a part-time lorry driver.

“I am not sure that I have the confidence to start my catering business again,” he said. “But I have also forked out a lot of money for it, so I have to.

“My wife offered to help with the business but honestly, I don’t even know when we can start again,” he added.

Essential but still slow

Back in Sarawak, some 30km away from the Kuching city centre, Miah Seman has been able to stay open for business as she runs a small grocery store.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow in Kampung Sri Kandong, though, she said the movement restrictions had taken a toll on small traders, especially those who operate roadside stalls.

“I don’t even know when we can start again.”

“I felt sorry when the Iban women traders from the next village told me that they could not open for business as usual,” she said.

“So I asked them to put their goods such as their woven mats and baskets at my grocery store. After all, only my shop is allowed to operate at this time, and it is the closest to their village.”

But while Miah can still run her store, business has suffered badly due to Covid-19. The lockdown restrictions on travel, in particular, have left their mark.

Normally Miah’s village, located by the road leading to the Rambungan ferry to Lundu, receives many visitors, especially since the completion of the Telok Melano-Sematan highway.

“Anyone who wants to go to the Jentayu Strawberry Farm, or Matang Wildlife, or who wants to watch the Rafflesia flower bloom at Gunung Gading National Park in Lundu will pass through this village.

“This area has received many visitors, especially during weekends and holidays. Because of this, I was able to earn at least RM800 per month. But now, with the travel restriction in place, my sales have dropped to RM200,” she said.

Yesterday, the government announced another round of financial assistance under the RM150 billion Pemulih plan, including a six-month automatic moratorium on the repayment of bank and study loans, discounts on electricity bills and cash and food aid.

This came in the wake of another announcement that the lockdown under the movement control order, scheduled to end on June 28 after having been extended once before, would continue until several key threshold indicators for the country’s progress in terms of the pandemic are met.

While some are struggling to survive, Chua Yong Seng has had to throw in the towel, at least for now.

“Our lives these days are so unpredictable, I don’t dare take the risk anymore.”

He used to rent a ground-floor shop lot which provided more space for his printing machines. Now, he has been forced to downsize as he can no longer afford the RM4,000 rental for the bigger space.

“We still had to pay rent even when we couldn’t operate during the lockdown,” he said.

“After three months we decided to move out because we couldn’t afford it anymore.”

But he disagrees with those who say printing shops should be allowed to open during the lockdown period.

“Most of our customers are businesses as well. So if our customers’ business is halted during the lockdown, it means they won’t be needing our services.”

Like Syahir, he is hesitant about looking too far ahead during such turbulent times.

“Our lives these days are so unpredictable, I don’t dare take the risk anymore,” he said.

“How much more do I have to spend just so that this business can be saved? How much more do I have to lose?”