For years, rickshaw pullers have been part of the main tourist draw in the historic state of Melaka, ferrying visitors in their brightly lit carts around the capital city.
As polling day in the state draws nearer, their biggest hope is that whoever forms the new government will make more trips to see for themselves their situation on the ground.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, they said rickshaw pullers had been largely overlooked since the end of Mohd Ali Rustam’s administration as chief minister in 2013.
Nixon Sebastion, 51, said it was not so much the assistance and contributions which, according to him, have remained mostly unchanged from what they used to receive from Ali.
The difference, for him, lies in the lack of a personal touch.
He said Ali used to keep tabs on the condition of rickshaw pullers and would often ask how they were doing.
This made them feel appreciated, he said, and they were at ease sharing their problems and challenges with him.
“It’s not just that he did a lot for tourism in the state,” said Sebastion, who has worked as a rickshaw puller in Melaka for 12 years now.
“He would also come and visit us and ask how we were doing. But things are not like that anymore. We very rarely get to meet with the chief minister or representatives.”
Zulkifli Ahmad, 38, has been a rickshaw puller for eight years now. He too voiced hope that whoever wins the upcoming state election will follow Ali’s example in always remembering “those at the bottom”.
“After Idris Haron replaced Ali as chief minister, and then Adly Zahari and Sulaiman Md Ali, the situation for us has been less cheerful.
“It doesn’t matter who wins this election, whether it’s Barisan Nasional, Perikatan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan. We only want a government that cares about our lot as rickshaw pullers,” he said.
Recalling the challenges faced by the group since the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March last year, Zulkifli said many rickshaw pullers had lost their source of income throughout the various iterations of the movement control order.
He said some were forced to find other ways to earn a living during this time.
“Some became Grab drivers, or food delivery riders for foodpanda, and some worked on a contract basis.”
Things only began looking up when Melaka reopened its domestic tourism sector on Oct 1, after transitioning to Phase Three of the National Recovery Plan.
Another rickshaw puller who called himself Jack said the move had given the group some leeway, especially after the state began receiving domestic tourists once more.
These days, they can scrape together RM1,500 to RM2,000 a month as Melaka’s famous tourism sector gradually regains its footing.
But this, too, depends on the situation.
“We don’t earn as much as we did before because there are now more of us and we are in competition with each other,” said Jack.
He estimates that there are about 345 rickshaw pullers in Bandar Melaka registered with the Melaka Historic City Council.
While they are grateful for the one-off assistance of RM600 given by the government, he said rickshaw pullers were also unhappy that many others were given assistance ahead of them.
“When you talk about MCO aid, it’s always the case that others are helped first. Assistance for us always comes later, as though we are of no importance.
“We hope that the government will be more committed to ensuring that rickshaw operations in Melaka can continue as we are part of a tourism legacy that has been around for a long time,” he said.