Symbols or caricatures?

JUNE 7 — It is hard to dispute that the creation of Makcik Kiah to personify the recipient of the Prihatin Rakyat Economic Stimulus Package is a stroke of genius.

 A pisang goreng seller who lives at a people's housing project (PPR) with her pensioner husband who is now a Grab driver, and a child who just graduated; Makcik Kiah is somebody Malaysians are familiar with.

Makcik Kiah serves as a symbol of this administration's narrative and focus on the Malays.

But just like how the much-touted RM225 billion stimulus package only involved RM25 billion in fiscal injection — a mere one-tenth effort while the rest is arguably borne by the public itself — so is Makcik Kiah a front for the systemic failure plaguing B40 households.

Despite drawing a pension, Makcik Kiah's husband still has to continue working, this time in a gig economy that is mostly dominated by youths unable to secure jobs. 

Makcik Kiah, too, is still working and their child, despite a university education, looks set to continue staying in PPR and saddled with study debt.

It is curious how the prime minister's team arrived at "Makcik Kiah."

Just like Tipah, Senah and Minah, the name Kiah carries a certain connotation, veering towards negative especially when uttered by the urban or elite set. It signifies a group of women from the kampung, with a provincial mindset, prone to gossip, and unsophisticated.

Prior to this, the popularity of the name Kiah in Malay popular culture can be attributed to the comedy tele-film Rombongan Cik Kiah Ke Sukan Komanwel directed by Mamat Khalid and shown in 1998 when the country was hosting the Commonwealth Games.

Played by actress Delimawati, the story follows the titular Cik Kiah as she faces many hilarious obstacles organising a trip to bring those from her village to watch the Games.

(Mamat Khalid would direct a sequel 16 years later. This time, Cik Kiah's organising a trip to Kelana Jaya, a reference to the Lembaga Tabung Haji complex that hosts pilgrims prior to their hajj in Mecca. The subtext of this sequel is best left for another conversation.)

The improbable popularity of Cik Kiah led to memes, parodies, and its adoption by other government agencies and ministers to explain their own policies using the character as the audience's surrogate — to varying success.

Maszlee Malik — prior to being booted from Bersatu — had praised Muhyiddin's stimulus package, adding his own too-long list of forgettable characters including Pak Usop teksi, Seman Grab, Ujang pomen, Minah cabai warong, Ah Wong bengkel, Mutu roti pratha, Cikgu Letchumi, Esah karen, Mei Fong kopitiam, Wak Radol satey and Lans Korporal Kanang PDRM.

Meanwhile, Human Resources Minister M. Saravanan in an interview last month said Putrajaya wishes to birth more entrepreneurs like Makcik Kiah — as if a struggling B40 woman is a success story for the government.

And in possibly the worst take, Senior Minister Azmin Ali used Makcik Kiah in his diss against his protegé-turned-rebel Amirudin Shari, after the latter as Selangor mentri besar defied Putrajaya's directive to let restaurants allow dine-ins.

Meanwhile, the prime minister himself decided to milk this for all its worth by introducing more and more characters in his special addresses.

One can argue that this too was calculated brilliance, considering these characters are doing their job in grabbing public attention.

While announcing additional stimulus for small and medium enterprises, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin introduced hair stylist Madam Lee, mee kolok trader Haji Salleh and furniture manufacturer Surjit Kaur.

The second one, in a nod to East Malaysians, is said to be a reference to Sepinang Sari Cafe, a famous restaurant in Kuching where one Haji Salleh sells mee sapi and mee kolok.

Lee and Surjit were belated inclusions, in an attempt to rope in the minorities after accomplishing the objective that the government cares for the Malays.

Pak Salleh would again be mentioned when Muhyiddin talked about the SOPs for reopening restaurants.

On Friday when announcing his economic recovery plan, two more new characters were added: child daycare owner Kak Radziah and businessman Datuk Lim.

These two indicate a shift of focus yet again for Muhyiddin's administration.

Kak Radziah addresses two demographics formerly ignored by Putrajaya: young professionals (note that Kak denotes a woman younger than Makcik) and the urban middle-class.

Just days prior, Putrajaya had also announced the reopening of daycare centres; a common grouse among urban parents who are not only cut off from the family support system due to the inter-state travel ban, but at the same time need to return to work since Putrajaya called for the resumption of economic activities.

And this is where Datuk Lim comes in: representing business owners and the top earning households, whose lobbying ostensibly led to Putrajaya relaxing the partial lockdown way earlier than expected, to scepticism and backlash.

Datuk Lim's description in the speech says it all: benefitting from a tax exemption on house sales and cars, he is now interested in purchasing one more apartment, and even another car for his children — all while working from home on a new laptop he just bought.

All these in this economy. Few of us can relate to this.

Perhaps this was subtle casual racism: painting an image of a wealthy ethnic Chinese putting his feet up, while the Makcik Kiah, Pak Salleh and Kak Radziah of the country are struggling.

Or perhaps this is just how this government works: the elites have little worry, while the common men are hard at work and paying for their bosses' peace of mind.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles