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Guerrilla PF and Life Experts – Madam Halimah Mohamed Naton

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

gambar-of-puan.jpg Meet “Puan”, 89, who is the grand matriarch of my wife’s family.   

che-lek-family.jpgThe  mother of 12, (my late mother-in-law was number 2), she has seen our country go through life as a British colony, endure hard times during the Japanese occupation, find some stability as an independent agricultural nation and now as an industrialized country.  

The family photo was taken …circa 1950. Two of the boys passed away when they were young, so they are not in the picture. (My late mother in law is 2nd from right).

She was born in a village in Malacca, the historical state which saw the arrival of the original Dutch and Portuguese settlers and colonials and also the arrival of the Chinese Admiral, Cheng Ho. (My history is a little rusty now.) 

Not so rusty is Puan’s memory. She can vividly remember her younger days.  

She got married at 18, to “Atuk” (our late grandpa. Atuk is the Malay word for grandpa), who was then only 17. She did not go to school. She says that, then, the village wisdom was that if a girl went to school, they would be “spoiled” by the boys. 

Atuk worked as a plantation worker, but his father, had had the foresight to send him to an English school. They lived in a simple wooden kampong (village) house. There was no electricity or piped water. 

Atuk applied for jobs and finally got selected as a customs “officer”, based in Singapore. (It was then part of Malaysia). Puan attributes this to his “English” education.  

There they lived in the Customs quarters. She always returned back to the village when the time came for the delivery of the children. None of the 12 were born in hospitals, rather all were delivered by the village midwife.   

Atuk would give his entire pay packet to Puan, whose job was to make sure everything was paid for. Food, Atuk’s motorbike’s running expenses, clothes, savings, etc…..was left to the agile financial management of this “unschooled” lady. 

And she did a great job. 

She credits careful comparison of prices, budgeting, (I am not sure when she heard this term for the first time in her life), savings and working hard at growing her own vegetables, raising chickens for eggs and meat etc as the secrets to her success. 

Her budget system was simple. The amount was fixed. There were no credit cards, or loans to fall back on. Either we live within this or we don’t eat or wear new clothes. That was the mantra. My wife’s uncles, quite hunky fellows, would have eaten her out of house and home, if given the opportunity. 

She says, one thing that helped a lot, was that Atuk never complained about what ever was put on the table to eat. He would eat anything that she served, so it was pure budgetary constraints that decided on the type of food they ate. 

All her children, except two, grew up in Singapore. For financial reasons, the eldest two were brought up by her sister in Malacca. 

Overtime, Atuk got promoted and his salary increased. Puan just saved more. No cars, no bigger house.  

Her first investment was in a piece of land. Back then, in the village, it was universally accepted that land was the best investment. She bought it because of a dare, she says. Her neighbour, had made a remark about Puan’s poor state, that she did not “even have a piece of land” to call her own.  

This land purchase took off well. She worked the land. All my uncles have stories to tell their children, nephews and nieces about how hard and tiring it was to tap rubber. Puan made sure no one got off. The aunts have stories about how they brought food to their brothers as they worked on the land. 

Income from rubber further added to the family coffers. Then it was buying more land, including a piece of padi land on which padi was grown to eat and to sell.  

When Atuk retired, he returned to the village. The only luxury he gave himself with his retirement gratuity was expanding the wooden house. It was in this house that my wife’s “meminang” (my family asking for my wife’s hand on my behalf) ceremony was held. Atuk presided at the ceremony. 

Puan is also the family’s “advisor of last resort”. If you ask her about family issues and not about trigonometry, you can be sure that Puan will have a logical and suitable answer to your questions.  

Our first two children were born in hospitals. But the post natal care was in the “house” under the eagle eyes of Puan.  My wife was treated to the finest folk remedies, age old wisdom could offer. 

How to treat or bring up children? No problem!  

The child has jaundice, no problem, just sun her. My eldest girl, Along, was sunned no end. 

How do we punish a child? No problem, you make sure that this is done when the “convicted child” is beside the dining table. Then you cane him. Ten loud and hard whacks on the chair legs and one slight tap on his legs. The intensity of the whole incident should be punishment enough. 

Now almost all her children are grandparents themselves.  

She is a sterling example of what careful budgeting and spending within your means can do. She is also a reservoir of folk remedies, which are used even today by her grandchildren. 

Puan’s story may not be in our school history books. But my wife’s family’s history is made greatly richer by her. 

Thank you, Puan.   

Guerrilla PF and Life Experts – Meet Mr. Kumar

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Kumar (not his real name), dropped out of school at 12 and by 14, he had bought 40 acres of land. 

I met Kumar last year. He works as a security guard, not exactly a profession, where you find too many financially independent people. A chance remark by him to a close friend that he had just bought his son a restaurant aroused my curiosity and I asked to interview him.  

Kumar’s story is inspiring. He started with almost nothing 3 times in his life and each time he got up, continued plodding and succeeded.  

Kumar’s father worked in a rubber estate. Having 15 children (Kumar was number 7), he told Kumar to stop schooling and take up a job at a tender age of 12.  Kumar worked 2 shifts a day tapping rubber, a tough job even for   able bodied adults. He earned about Ringgit 2.50 a day. This was in 1956 in Alor Star, a small town in north Malaysia.  

Even then he had cultivated the habit of saving, steadily building up his funds in the Post Office Savings Bank.  

Having seen the financial benefits, the rubber tree owners enjoyed, every chance Kumar got, he would scout for land. And he found them at the then prices of Ringgit 40 per acre. Over 2 – 3 years, he had bought 40 acres. Mind you, these were land, overgrown with secondary jungle, and in the middle of nowhere. Since Kumar was familiar with agriculture and rubber planting, he bought the land for what he could do with the land. 

He worked the land, cleared them and planted them with rubber. Being underage, he could not get his name registered as the owner, so he gave the land to his father.

In 1970, when he got married, he asked for the land back from his father. Kumar does not want to go into details, and he just says that his father told him that there was no land. 

So in 1970, he uprooted his family, and left with his wife and the clothes on their backs and moved to another smallish town in Malaysia, Teluk Intan.  

Here, he started all over, as a weeding contractor, again working in the estates. As a weeder has to work with poisonous herbicides, this was also not exactly a job that many people were eager to do. For 12 years, he slogged at this. Over time, he came up with his own formula for the mixing of the herbicides, and started earning more.  

Though Kumar kept accurate and detailed records of his income and expenditure, all the money was held by the wife. He just grins and says that was to make sure there would be no temptation to “overspend”. 

His interest in land was still strong. He bought 5.5 acres of land which he planted with oil palm.  In 1990 - 1994, oil palm prices were so low that the estate owners were just ignoring their estates. Kumar’s livelihood as an oil palm land smallholding owner and a weeder was sorely threatened.

By then the family had grown, with four school going children.  

Kumar left his family in Teluk Intan, and went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, where he found work as a security guard.  He says that he gave the family a monthly sum of Ringgit 200. His wife worked in a factory, while the children worked in Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets after school. Their earnings brought food to the table, and for other household expenses. So the family was taken care off. 

This 3rd start was the toughest. There were times when his salary was not paid and he had to struggle to feed himself. He had to charge his land to take a loan to finance his son’s education.  

Then his break came, when he was assigned to a company, whose boss noticed his integrity and dependability. This boss took him as part of his own office staff and Kumar has been with him ever since. 

This boss paid well, time and was also generous with tips every now and then. Most of which, Kumar’s inbuilt frugal nature made him save and sock away. 

His children are all graduates now. 3 are married. All of them hold respectable jobs, while his only boy, an engineer, runs the restaurant. (Kumar proudly says that his restaurant workers are probably the best paid workers in the industry in the country.) 

Each one of his children have followed Kumar’s example and have saved enough to own real estate assets of their own. 

Oil palm prices are now on a roll now, and give Kumar a nice tidy sum monthly. 

Kumar no longer has to work for a living. He now works for fun, and to occupy his time. Even now, whilst he may be able to afford a driver and a car, he rides his motorbike to work. 

What can we learn from Kumar? 

First, he worked hard. 

Second, he focused on doing things he knew well, i.e. agriculture, and things which other people were not beating to the door to do. 

Third, he maintained his brand as “a person of integrity”. 

Fourth, he kept accurate records of his income and expenditure. 

Fifth, he saved diligently. 

Sixth, he was disciplined in his spending within his limits. 

Seventh, he accumulated income generating assets. 

Eighth, he compounded his wealth over the long haul. 

It doesn’t look all that difficult, does it?  Well, I felt ashamed listening to his story. Though I have a so called university education, and have been exposed to so many opportunities, Kumar was so far ahead of me.  

Stories of people like Kumar, who has overcome obstacles that may have knocked off many other lesser beings, are really inspiring. 

It is an honour and my pleasure to induct Mr. Kumar as a distinguished member of Fathersez’s Guerilla PF Expert Club. I hope this story will inspire other readers as much it did for me.   

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