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Have PhD, will deliver food: Riders hit the road in pursuit of their dreams

While food delivery riders are often dismissed as an extension of their service, many see their jobs as a stepping stone to bigger things.

Danisyah Dalily
4 minute read
Food delivery riders, a ubiquitous sight in the capital city, wait at a traffic light in Jalan Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur.
Food delivery riders, a ubiquitous sight in the capital city, wait at a traffic light in Jalan Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur.

At first glance, Mohd Akmal Azhar looks like any other food delivery rider as he makes his way through traffic with his customers’ orders tucked safely in the insulated bag behind him.

One among many, he spends his days picking up orders from restaurants around the city and bringing them to his customers’ doorsteps.

Such riders are a common enough sight, especially with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic which triggered a surge in demand for food deliveries during the many lockdown periods when people were unable or reluctant to venture out from their homes.

With Covid-19 restrictions gradually easing and life returning to some semblance of normal, food delivery services, also known as p-hailing services, are still high in demand especially in the city where the frantic pace keeps many too busy to get their meals any other way.

Mohd Akmal Azhar is fresh from his four-year journey to his PhD in pharmaceutical technology.

Yet too often, they are seen as an extension of the service they provide instead of as individuals with hopes and dreams of their own.

Akmal, for example, bucks the trend in at least one significant way: unlike the popular image of food delivery riders as people with only basic education, he possesses a doctorate degree in pharmaceutical technology.

But fresh from his four-year journey to his PhD, Akmal said he now struggles to make ends meet as he needs to provide for his family and finish paying for his studies.

A rider checks his customers’ orders at the restaurant before heading off to deliver them.

“I did my full-time doctoral studies under a fellowship with Universiti Malaysia Pahang where they sponsored my studies for three years,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“During that time, I did some part-time jobs on weekends to earn some more pocket money. As for the remaining year, I had to pay for my studies myself.”

With a wife and five children to feed and clothe, he knew he had to find a full-time job.

But like hundreds of thousands across the country, he found himself mired in the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic.

“Last year, when food delivery services were booming, they called for more riders to fill the gap so I took the chance that I had at the time as I needed money,” he said.

As long as it is honest work, he doesn’t mind. But he also dreams of the day when he can return to the academia and put his degree to work.

“I want to be a lecturer,” he said. And if that fails, he has a backup plan as well, to go into research.

For Abdullah Mohd Zain, becoming a food delivery rider seemed to fit where he was in life.

Now 44, he took up the job three years ago because he enjoyed riding his motorcycle and it would allow him flexibility in work.

“I was a dispatch when I was younger, but then the economy dropped so I had to find another job to provide for my family,” he said.

“Now that I have reached a certain age, there is not much that I can do, and it’s hard to find jobs with a satisfying salary.”

But while he likes the job and is doing well now, he isn’t planning on being a food delivery rider forever, either.

“I am only doing this temporarily until I save up enough money to run my ‘kambing bakar’ business again,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“When we can go out again and the economy is more stable, I plan to focus more on my business.”

Abdullah, who is a familiar face to many p-hailing rivers around the KLCC area, said the majority of them have their reasons for working this job.

“Some work as a rider part-time and some do it full-time, but most do it because they want to save up money for their own future endeavours,” he said.

Mohd Haizad Firdaus puts on his helmet before heading off to deliver his customers’ orders. While this is his job now, he dreams of opening his own restaurant one day.

Such is the case for Mohd Haizad Firdaus, who used to work as a cook at a Thai restaurant before becoming an executive marketer. While he is a food delivery rider now, he knows what he wants to do with his life.

“I don’t want to work with people forever,” he said to MalaysiaNow. “I plan to open up my own restaurant.

“To make that a reality without having to take a loan or borrow money from elsewhere, I need to save up first.

“In the meantime, I want to gain experience and knowledge, and build up my communication skills.”

While delivering food might seem like a step down from being an executive marketer, Haizad was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was in fact making more money as a rider.

“A rider earns his pay by how hard he works,” he said. “The harder I work, the more I get in return.”

And while he works, he has a firm timeline mapped out for the years ahead.

“I will not be a rider forever. I want to open my restaurant before I turn 40.”

At 36, he has four years left to achieve his dream, and he doesn’t intend to waste a single day.