About the writer: Zam Yahaya was a Banking and Capital Market professional by training and a graduate in Accounting, Business & Islamic Finance

By Zam Yahaya

Just like a lot of other Malaysians after the MCO was relaxed, I got myself prepared for the worst to come when the economy is expected to slow down.

I set up a small food business to add another source to my family’s existing income. My wife’s income has been reduced by 30% by the third month of MCO and she was anticipating even up to a 50% pay cut. She still considers herself lucky since the hotel that she works at had laid down about half of its workforce. Me, on the other hand must be prepared in case she loses her job.

Most people took up new jobs or created new source of income by utilising their existing skills and knowledge. Certain new jobs such as e-hailing drivers or food delivery riders don’t require much skills or knowledge except for a driving licence.

For me, my existing skills and academic qualifications are not much of a use to create daily income during an economic slowdown and I have to acquire new skills to start a business that suits my age, my daily lifestyle, commitments and of course with minimum capital.

Taking all of that into consideration, I re-learnt how to cook some of my late mother’s special recipes from my sisters. After a few tries and quality checks from them, within two weeks – on August 1 – I had put up a stall right in front of my office, just a bit of a distance from my home.

Doing it right the first day was one thing, but getting feedbacks and learning new things almost everyday was very interesting. It really lightens up my days, even though it drains my energy by the end of the day since I did it all by myself from selecting items at the market, preparation, setting up the stall in late afternoon as well as delivering for lunch orders.

During the second weekend of my “one man show” operation, I received eight packs lunch delivery order from a friend who is an accomplished cook herself. It was a challenge since the food was for her family and two neighbours living in the same condominium complex. Another friend in TTDI ordered two packs.

Too Salty

I was supposed to have delivered the orders by 12.30 and by 11.30 am, she had texted me asking for my account number to pay for the food. At that time, I just finished cooking and tasted the beef rendang and to my disappointment, the beef tasted too salty! Believe me, I was so down till I felt like crying. I told the problem I was facing to my friend and said its going to be FOC if you and your neighbours find it too salty. And I said I also don’t feel like delivering it… To cook again will take almost three hours! I was in a state of panic because not being able to deliver what you promise is a big embarrassment.

She asked me, you know what to do, don’t you? I asked back: What should I do? I have just turned off the fire. Then she calmly said don’t panic dear, you add some water and a bit of brown sugar and continue the slow fire for 10 to 15 minutes. I just did what I was told without much expectation that it could change much because to my little understanding, I screwed up big time and a screwed up dish is still a screw up even if you try to do anything with it. But to my surprise the salty taste was gone! I was relieved, but not that happy because a screw up is a screw up and you cannot expect a screw up job to produce the same quality (Am I repeating myself? It reflects on my feeling of consternation then.)

After I delivered that eight packs to Hartamas, I delivered two more packs to TTDI and watched my friend eat them in front of me and I immediately asked for his comments. He, a food operator himself said, good, marvellous. Are you sure you cooked this by yourself?

Well, I took the compliment with a smile on my face but I thought he was just being polite and giving encouragement. Then I called the first friend to hear it from her and she said open your FB, I already gave a review! It was a very good review but I was still not satisfied until her neighbour commented almost the same.

But how can a screw up job produced better than expected result? So I went home and tasted it myself with rice and brought some to my sister in-law nearby and I received similar feedback. Marvellous.

I quickly concluded something, it must have been the brown sugar! It was a screw up but actually ended up an improvement! Since that day I added brown sugar to my rendang. Later on, when I spoke to a few ladies including the makciks (elderly ladies) at the market whom I used to buy onions and other stuff from, I discovered that adding sugar is a common practice in solving over salty food and there are various types of sugar for various types of dishes. Of course I tried them and it got even better!

When we pay attention to every detail in what we do, we will discover new things. Simple knowledge makes a lot of difference if you have the habit of asking the right person. People cannot teach or pass down to you everything they know and you have to experience it yourself and solve it to acquire certain knowledge.

You see, I was taught by my mother that you must cook with respect, meaning you must treat each ingredient and process it with respect. Never throw the onions into the container, but place them nicely. Do one thing at a time and ensure everything is ready before you start cutting and again everything is in place before you start the fire. I lived with her not only until I got married at the age of 32 but also the last 12 years of her life. I observed certain things, but did not pay much attention to the details. That’s why when she passed away just before the MCO, I have to learn how to cook that special beef rendang from my sister yet again. Should I have taken the initiative to seriously learn it from my mother each time I helped her with it, perhaps now I will be the one teaching my sisters!

I was also taught by my late father to treat those with knowledge and willing to teach you their skills with high respect. Understandably, he was a Minangkabau and their culture requires that every man must leave their parent’s house and their villages when they reach the age of 16 or thereabouts to earn a living elsewhere and they normally don’t come back until they are quite successful. The Minangkabau term for it is “Marantau”.

Thats why having certain skills, even such as cooking or making songkok, make a lot of Minangkabau people more successful than most local Malays. It is simply because most Minangkabaus, or any other immigrants who came to Malaya, have already acquired some essential skills before they arrived, or quickly learnt something from other Minangkabaus here as soon as they arrived.

As much as I can remember, my father possessed a few skills such as sewing, making songkok, handicraft and making traditional Malay herbs. He even know how to play seruling or bamboo flute and I saw him make his own flute from bamboo with the cow horn at the end for better sound! He can cook and even know how to make keropok (crackers) from fish. I have seen him make keropok (crackers) from the beginning till the end when I was barely six years old. One of the things he did that inspired me was when he enrolled at Ming Institute at the age of around 60 to learn English and was so proud to show us that he can read The New Straits Times less than a year later!

Hungry For Knowledge

Just like any other son, I picked some of his attitude when I started working at the age of 19 at Malayan Banking. Not being able to secure a place for higher education, I was naturally hungry for knowledge and when your mind is “empty”, your level of absorption is high.

I was not shy to ask and learnt from anybody, be it the office boy. After the third month, I was transferred to the International Banking Department because of my ability of communicating in English was slightly better than my peers. My first job there was as a telex operator. If you have never heard of it, perhaps you can Google it or you can view one at the Telekom Museum! Just like typewriter, nobody uses such machines anymore since the middle of the 90’s or after the invention of Personal Computers and the Internet. In brief, that was my typing school for six months! But that was not the only thing I learnt during those months.

The telex room was next to the Money Market & Foreign Exchange Trading Room of the biggest bank in Malaysia where trades involving hundreds of millions of ringgit, as well as in other currencies, were concluded daily and only the cream of the bank’s staff were selected for the job.

Our ex-Bank Negara governor Tan Sri Ahmad Don was once the head of that department and spends a lot of time in that room that had 16 trading seats. And my telex room was just separated by a glass wall with an adjoining door with that room which was strictly out of bounds for others, except for the dealers and the two telex operators.

The writer in the Money Market Dealing room in 1987 and today, his son, Nick Ali, has followed his path into the same trading room! – Photo Credit: Zam Yahaya

The dealing room only conclude trades in the KL interbank market that links to other financial centres around the world. The dealers lifestyle and their equipments really amazed me! The trading language they use among them and with other market participants is something that I don’t understand at all let alone what they do! And they were quite flamboyant compared to other bank executives and don’t really mix with other bank staffs let alone people like me, a 19-year old rookie clerk.

But with determination, attitude, thick skin and of course having the advantage of being the bank’s outstanding sportsman, I found my way to get close to the chief dealer, and eventually the rest, learnt a lot of things of which most of the time I had to ask over and over again because I have yet to acquire the basic knowledge to understand things they were explaining. Even words such as Assets or Liabilities were so unfamiliar to me because I was a pure science student and never studied commerce.

I did not really have a big ambition then, besides trying hard to be a top class badminton player, but suddenly I had a dream to be like them although I knew that to even get promoted to a second class bank officer will take me around five years and perhaps another five years to be a first class officer and only then would I have a slim chance to apply to be a trainee money market dealer. The minimum entry level for such a job then was a 1st Class Degree! My dreams of becoming a top badminton player faded away slowly.

But within 12 years, I became the Chief Dealer and the Head of the Money Market Department of another financial institution with a daily trading limit of about 200 million, investment portfolio of a few hundred million and managing and monitoring the assets & liability of a financial institution with a size of a few billions. How did I achieve that without a university degree?

Well, that will be another story of a long winding journey for me to tell another day but all I can say today is your surroundings are also your “university” and the people around you are your teachers and there is more to learn from your surroundings and the people around you if you have the attitude for learning and are always hungry for knowledge. It’s different from learning things from the lecture theatre in the university and or from professor Google, although it makes things easier compared to the days before the invention of Internet. I got teachers who are captains of the industry giving me personal tuition almost everywhere, could it be in a fine restaurant, hotel lounge or even at the side of a badminton court. I will ask how all kinds of things in the financial system works all the time from anyone who is willing to explain and most of them love to because they see the difference on how much respect I give to even a small piece of knowledge.

I never told this story, even to my son, but coincidently, after he graduated, he got a job at one of the Money Market Broking Firms and when he told me about it, I told him that I used to work there before. Later on he mentioned that to his boss and found out more about my younger days and suddenly discovered that almost every senior executive of the financial market players happen to know me at the mention of my name. He asked me how come everyone seems to know and remember you instantly even though you left the market almost 20 years ago? My reply was they were either one of my teachers or one of my students or both!

Wise Men Say: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. – New Malaysia Herald.

About the writer: Zam Yahaya was a Banking and Capital Market professional by training and a graduate in Accounting, Business & Islamic Finance

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