The sweltering heat under the zinc roofing of our favourite ‘mee goreng’ stall was even more oppressive than the recession that swept the country at the time. It was 1997 and the economic downturn – almost at its peak – had spawned more prophets of doom and gloom than there were people who were actually unemployed. Almost overnight, anyone who thought they had even half a brain, had hunkered down and fashioned themselves as either a world-class economics expert or a know-it-all political critic – and in some cases, even both.
Curiously, however, despite the extraordinarily large talent pool of verbally vitriolic, albeit self-proclaimed ideological warriors, there was precious little that was on offer other than the usual angry call to assassinate George Soros. It was either that or the all too predictable petty fault-finding assault directed at the Government. Sadly it was a time when criticism – almost always of the non-constructive variety – had become wildly more fashionable than trying to find workable solutions. Like the old saying goes, “When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.”
Our scalding hot, sickly sweet ‘teh tarik’ tasted refreshingly good; strange considering the weather was so hot that the shirts on our backs were soaked in perspiration. I turned to Azman, who oddly enough, appeared unperturbed by the recession even though he had just been retrenched about two months earlier. His unruffled composure was all the more infuriating when I thought of his wife and four school-going children. Didn’t he care at all? How could he take things so easy?
What was even harder to comprehend was why he had never told his family about losing his job. Did he imagine his problems would all go away if he closed his eyes and pretended it never happened?
“I know what you’re thinking.” Azman declared. He was looking directly at our mate, Osman. I was relieved; I was off the hook.
“Huh?” Osman was caught unawares.
“You’re wondering why in God’s name I’ve not told my family that I am now jobless, right?” Though he was talking to Osman, I had no doubt that whatever explanation he was about to give was intended purely for my benefit.
“I was thinking no such thing!” Osman protested.
“It’s OK, mate. But let me tell you its nothing to do with pride or anything as petty as that.”
Unable to contain my curiosity, I interjected, “OK, tell us why then!”
Azman took another sip of his scalding ‘teh tarik’, and carefully considered his reply. He didn’t speak for a long time. I began sweating even more profusely – and it wasn’t just because of the heat. In my heart, I wanted so badly to understand. He could have come up with the lamest excuse and I would have still believed him.
“That’s all right, Man. You don’t owe us – or anybody for that matter – an explanation.” Osman tried to change the subject.
“I know. But I’ve got to get it off my chest. Its been eating me up so bad that at times I don’t even know if what I’m doing is right or wrong.” Azman took another sip of tea. “I have not told them what happened because…” his voice began to trail.
Not known for my emotional intelligence, I blurted, “Why, man! Why?”
Azman looked at me with eyes soft as a daughter’s goodnight kiss and said, “Because they are my responsibility…” It was barely a whisper.
“You keep them in the dark, pretend to go off to work every morning knowing full well you haven’t got a job to go to, and lead them to believe that everything is hunky dory – and you call that being responsible? Isn’t that a lot like cheating? Isn’t that too much like running away from reality? What’s wrong with you, Man?” By the time I realised I had uttered those words, it was too late.
“Get off his back, Bangkai! Can’t you see he’s going through a tough time already?” Osman reprimanded me – and rightfully, too.
“Look, I am doing this precisely because they are my responsibility. With or without this bleeding recession, life still has to go on. With or without a job, it is still my responsibility to provide for them. What good would it do them if they knew I didn’t have a job anymore? Would it help them any if they knew how bad things really are for me right now? They are my responsibility – I am not theirs.” Azman explained.
I was beginning to see his point of view. I was beginning to appreciate that mine was not necessarily the only valid way of looking at things. But must of all, I was beginning to be ashamed of myself. Insulated by the comfort of a life that had been relatively unaffected by the recession, I had been too quick to judge others by my own narrow standards. In a last ditch attempt to understand, or was it to justify my fast flagging conviction – I can no longer be sure – I asked: “But if they knew the real situation, don’t you think they’d be able to understand and maybe even help you?”
Azman thought about this for a while and said, “You simply don’t get it, do you? It’s my job to make things right for them – not the other way round! I’ll go on pretending that I’m going to work even if there is no job to go to. But as long as I’m busting my ass out there looking for work, it’s alright – I’m not cheating. Sooner or later, by the will of God, I’ll get a job. But in the meantime, I will not give them any reason to think that our lives could soon be crumbling like a house of cards. Why do I have to put them through all that? So that I could feel less pressured?”
“So, you’re putting blinkers on them?” I asked.
“Oh! Shut up, Bangkai! Deep down, you know he’s right” Osman interrupted, rather rudely
Before we parted, Osman went to his car, got the two bags of groceries we had bought for Azman and handed them to him; along with an envelope containing some cash had we put together to help tied him over. “These are for the kids,” said Osman. “And they don’t need to know where these came from, OK?” he added with a wink. As we drove off, I thought about my remark about blinkers: They put blinkers on horses for good reason.
Not too long after that Azman got a job as a teacher at a tuition centre, and then as a manager of petrol station. Now he is back where he belongs, running the Agency Department of a major insurance company. And till today, his family doesn’t know that he was once without a job for nine painful months.
With the spectre of a recession looming over 2009, I often think back to that ‘teh tarik’ session I had with Azman all those years ago. Far more important than quibbling about inflation rates and how bad the recession will actually be, or pointing our fingers at others who are supposedly screwing it up royally for the rest of us, we’d fare much better if each and every one of us pulled together, hunkered down and gave it our best collective shot. The recession is coming and no amount of pseudo-intellectualising is going to make it go away.
But with hard work, solidarity and determination – and a little bit of mutual trust – we will make it through this: Just like we did in 1997