For a while after finishing school, I worked as a customer assistant at a popular healthcare chain store. I loathed the job with every fibre of my being. I had to wake up way too early in the morning, and I was groggy during the car ride there and ended up sleeping in the office while doing documentation, just to get scolded for it.
My job consisted of running around the store, making sure every product display was in place and having customers ruin my immaculate tidying in the end. There was a certain anger within me at everyone I could associate with the job, but the blame can only be laid on me because of my childish fantasy of earning my own money as a teenager and being perceived as a productive boy.
The job also entailed stories of past workers and bosses, some of whom the mere mention of their names was enough to make the hair stand at the back of the neck. But I have forgotten all of them except for the tale of Abang Ehsan. The legendary Abang Ehsan, the patron saint of retail work, the supreme deity of patience, the symbol of stoicism and the model for retail assistants everywhere.
Abang Ehsan was just a customer assistant. He did the same retail work at which I toiled and was berated by the same manager and customers as I was. But his patience knew no limits.
There was one incident in which a hostile customer disrespected him to the point that it could have caused an altercation. But all Abang Ehsan gave in return for the dignity that was robbed of him was his signature smile. He continued his work that day as if there had been not even a hint of hostility in the air.
I knew of him even before I started working at the store. My mother taught him as a student at some school in Kajang, and following her to the store as a child would often see me witnessing the awkward small talk between a student and his former teacher as he handled her personal items.
But even then, I noticed that Abang Ehsan was mild-mannered enough to construct a procedural routine in handling customers. It was as if he had been born to be a customer assistant, to handle precarious situations like an automated machine programmed to keep people satisfied.
And there is nothing more disheartening than the knowledge that a man was made to be a dispensable figure when his value for his virtue is worth much more than he was ever paid.
There is a saying that is trotted out to explain the abuse of retail workers: the customer is always right. No matter how wrong someone is, no matter how vile or odious, if that person is a customer, that is the ultimate defence. I even had a customer say that to my face, and there is nothing that can be said in return once the slogan has been uttered.
We are used to devaluing a person once we know that they are behind a counter or wiping our table, or sweeping around our feet or guarding our residence. Their patience is often taken for granted.
It is way too easy for us to become blind to the essential yet meek individuals in our lives beyond the service which they provide.
Once a transaction looms with the knowledge that the person on the other end is the one who must come up with a way to satisfy our needs, our moral compass is thrown out the window. They become our play thing, an expendable entity, a commodity the value of which we do not need to find.
In our daily transactions, whether unconsciously or not, we may have dehumanised them.
But this ultimate motto is in truth incomplete – the customer is always right, but only in good taste. Like the saying itself, the way we behave and the thoughts we have of them are unfinished. Our transaction should be fulfilled only if satisfaction is achieved for both parties.
Just as the customer assistant, the maid, the cleaner, the guard and the driver have worked their best to complete the transaction in the best way possible, it is our duty to ensure that we do the same.
In the midst of this pandemic, there is no denying that these individuals are the most affected. They are composed mainly of those from the underprivileged community, with no excess wealth that will allow them to look forward to the next day with ease in their hearts.
There is no message that can be said other than to be mindful of the way we carry ourselves in our social and economic transactions. These are the individuals that we would look for when we do not see anyone behind the counter, or notice when the dirt piles up, or when a residence goes unguarded. There is no amount of patience that deserves to be tested and there is no personal moral compass that should be ignored once anonymity is part of the transaction.
This is a reminder to be kind to others as we are with ourselves.