Secrets of a bygone era: Living the simple lifestyle


There are a number of reasons for the higher household debt. One of them is that we have lost the art of living within our means even as our wages have been suppressed.

Old Penang Road junction with Chulia Street

Perhaps one reason we have lost the art of the simple lifestyle is that we have been exposed to a barrage of corporate advertisements showcasing the trappings of the good life, which instil in us the desire to acquire them, even if it means living beyond our means. The other reason is that workers’ wages have not kept pace with the prices of these products, even though employees are pressured at work and work longer hours.

Yet another reason is the neoliberal economic policies introduced under the Mahathir administration, which have widened the gap between the rich and the poor.

Blog visitor tunglang recalls the simple lifestyle of a bygone era. How did we lose that? Is our quality of life better now? Or have we lost something in the process?

My Papa and Mama’s prudent days of earning and spending in the 1920s–1970s:

– Bought everything with hard cash earned with blood, sweat and tears.

– Wouldn’t buy but defer or ‘forget it’ if they did not have enough cash in rusty Milo tins.

“Bing Chooi” was a richie concept for the richie neighbours. No need to pretend or save face if one was not rich to show face. ‘Thick face, prudent heart’ was ego-management of the day.

– Extra cash came from pawned jewellery or ‘tontine’ but for short-term, they exercised extra-cash flow discipline.

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– Extra income came from odd jobs like home cleaning or tailoring.

– Kept many Milo tins ‘banks’ secured beneath heavy wooden legs of beds (like many mini-saving accounts secured) for rainy days.

– Once in a blue moon, Wan Tan Mee hawker food, but mostly home cooked Nyonya and Hakka food.

– Cheap and free night entertainment – watching black and white TV shows from a neighbour’s window or at ‘chai tiam mah’ (sundry shop), Shaw Brothers movies from outdoor standing arena at Great World Park and roadside kungfu display by blinking Cantonese medicine men at Goh Pha Teng.

– Once a month, family recreation at Gurney Drive beach or Botanic Garden (either one, cannot have both).

– Cheap Rediffusion radio entertainment and anticipated 4-Ekor news.

– Brewed own Kopi-O kau kau dipped with Bengali roti for breakfast.

– Bred own chickens and ducks with discarded prawn shreds (from Hokkien Mee recipe) and cheap feeds.

– Sewed own clothing. Laundry, drying and ironing duties shared among siblings.

– Floor-sweeping tidier than modern day vacuuming at tunglang’s pleasure (foreign maid was an unaffordable alien concept).

– Cold-water bath, even on freezing rainy days. Hot bath luxury only for sick, fever days.

– Cycling was compulsory, either you walk or cycle; motorbikes were ‘luxuries’.

– Bus travel was only for more distant destinations like Sungai Ara or Air Itam; we knew which buses and the schedules at the finger tips.

– Siblings’ personal savings came from daily 10 cents pocket money.

– No expensive toys or else it was the ‘rotan’ on the way if we caused tantrums. Home-made toys from discarded wood or Straits Times newspaper.

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– Games were social interactions, face-to-face social-skilled experiences without the ‘delete’ button.

– No overseas or local university/college funds – either you dreamed it for a while after HSC or worked to self finance your own part-time night course.

– Overseas or outstation holidays? Dare-To-Dream-It on 4-Ekor announcement days over evening Reddifusion.

Cheers Kopi-O kau kau without breaking my coin pouch for occasional street hawker food.

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  1. Our former Tourist Minister Ng Yen Yen spent RM4.04 million in 38 overseas trip in 4 years with rakyat’s money and now she is rewarded as Tourism Malaysia chairman to spend more. Not surprise as she once told tourist that RM150 for a dinner in Malaysia is a norm.

    So spending lavishly is a norm in Malaysia? No worry about debt?

  2. Life was simple and safer then.

    KK convenience stores in Klang Valley were robbed 11 times in 10 days.
    And Zahid can continue to say Malaysia is still the safest country in the world?

    Now my housing estate has to hire security guards to provide protection.
    Additional cost to a pensioner like me, so I have to cut back on my entertainment expenses, although I still do not watch anything on RTM.

    • We have no choice but to hire security guards, fence up our area and pray for the best.
      When the elected government can’t protect you, you have to take things into your own hands, as our police force are more interested in figures rather than actually fighting crime.

  3. Remember the days when there was only RTM TV and no VCR or VCD/DVD?
    Young people today can get video-on-demand on Astro or via internet besides DVD & Blu-ray discs.

    During the 70’s when RTM monopolised the TV scene, we only get to watch one Chinese and one Tamil movie each week in black and white. RTM has never improve since then and has acquired the name ‘Rehat Tunggu Mati’.

    So the people nowadays get all sorts of home entertainment. Many poor people chose not to pay their condo maintenance fee but are willing to pay Astro for the TV shows, again because RTM has continued to fail us.

    • And don’t forget those movies on ‘Channel 8’ used to be interrupted by a couple of fairly long news bulletins.

    • I do not watch TV shows on RTM because it has the habit of inserting commercials at its own whim and fancy and not the appropriate points as set by the TV shows.

      As for NTV7 and 8TV, most shows are cut short (especially the kissing scene) to make way for the dreaded commercials. 8TV promotes syok sendiri culture in its Quickie programmes.

      I really cannot local celebrities speaking English the rojak way by mixing with Malay words. They think in malay then translate to English. Very pathetic! somehow this is very evident in ‘Oh My English!’ shows which is actually promoting Manglish.

  4. Nope.Since the virus came i don’t ever read unknown emails using phone.All my contact wipe out including yours.I only use this laptop.

    rajraman.I notice whenever the icon change – there is a message to kill your website or exit . ( serious ) .I see this message i exit from your website.I want to cut and paste to you but it’s doesn’t allows to be cut and paste.

  5. And i am wondering as why i still have 2 icons and as i wonder Pro Pakatan people’s can’t accept criticism that Pakatan also have many weakness .

    rajraman.If we continues to see Pakatan as Golden Government, we going to create another Barisan the next time.

    • Really don’t know why that’s happening, rajraman.

      Are you signing in differently using different devices – mobile/tablet and laptop/desktop PC?

  6. Anil,
    You also must compare what’s is done by opposition to reduce the burden of people’s.
    I give you an example since I stay in Selangor.
    1. PKNS is state own company but most of their houses is JV with private developer.Their price reach millions.,
    Selangor is rich with reserve over 2.8 billion, they can use the money to reduce PKNS housing price but they are also selling at beyond reach price for the current generation.They have plenty of land bank.

    2. The 2,8 billion can do wonders but most of our roads are patch.My housing area leading to my house patch almost 50 places ( 1.5km ). What’s this?

    3.Rubbish not collected and garden waste not collected.They don’t ever sweep the roads as use to be.

    4. 2.8 billions can provide shuttle bus to nearest LRT or KTM to less the burden with minimal charges and still can make $.Make it frequent, so the taxi driver don’t fleece them.

    Most commenter are pro Pakatan (and i one of them) but remember any elected government must do their job. Don’t keep the $ and said i save billions under the pillows.

    rajraman.I don’t know about Penang much but I believe they also cash rich.Finally tell Pakatan the next election lets Sabah and Sarawak choose their own home base candidate under Pakatan Umbrella and don’t kill PSM because their logo is FIST.

  7. Simple lifestyle is NOT AS SIMPLE if you refuse to check out the details.

    Lots of above simple

    t seems 1st world European country with low wealth inequality, is living part of those “simple lifestyle ” as mentioned, minus the high pollution, noisy and dirty improvise lifestyle as ours.

    There is tons of SIMPLE lifestyle that Bolehland(TM) still practice, something that I hate :

    1. Sub-urban and rural folks just BURN the rubbish, to escape, so they don’t need “dump services”. Live next to river? big drains? Throw rubbish directly into the river. Malays? Chinese? India? Just name it. Now even the aliens worker is joining the “culture practice”.

    2. Most kopitiam,mamak, food stall , just dump oily waste water into sewage without treatment.
    And something call indah water just burning hundred thousand on ads to ask people to “pay”, but it failed to ask people to stop doing things that clog the drains. Typical umno malaysia boleh mindset?

    3. Food seller continue to waste foods, most rather throw away tons of foods, e.g. raw vege, cans,etc, rather than selling it in discount before those food perish. Bolehland Pasar still fail to enact the “PAY AS YOU THROW” rules/laws. And families

    Yes, all this will cost everyone money, the air pollution make you sick; the rubbish throwing clog the drains; without “pay as you throw” create huge waste dump which resemble part of 30% organic contents.
    Now come to some sensible part.

    – Microwave oven is a blessing invention, you can prepare small portion of hot drinks without using much energy, as compare to boiling water in kettle. Small families can cook small portion of food compare to gas stove. Especially the timer features will let people cook their food without “watching the fire” (except food with potential of spilling) .

    – The teh tarik in mamak taste like …. Thanks to globalisation, now in city, anyone can buy decent black tea bag or powder and brew their own, with 1000 times better taste and only 1/10 of the cost. Yeah, I know most people go there to watch football, then they shouldn’t complain they has little to spend on those … and the time.

    – There is tons of nutrients knowledge as compare the pass. So it is up to anyone come to their sense : pay RM1.50 for a cone of ice cream that contains no dairy, or get a fried chicken from supermarket hot food section for RM 2.00 that with guarantee of protein. Whether you want to buy a “branded” food that cost twice as much of “home brand” product coming out from the same factory.

    – Lots of non-perishable products are way more cheaper and better than the good old day .

    – I want to get an electric bicycle, which doesn’t pollute the air, nor take up much space compare to motorcycle. But hack, umno has cronies to look after, the duty of quality electrical bicycle is much expensive than a noisy and polluting motorcycle.

    • Our economy now geared towards consumption driven, meaning government will want you to spend, spend and spend. Bank Negara does not help when the interest rates are kept low and this has discouraged savings. With not enough savings for old age, we cold see a potential social problem down the road … a topic for Anil to explore next!

      • Thanks for the suggestion, McMinion. By now, I think most people are worried about their lack of savings for old age and what will happen then.

  8. Difficult for Gen Z boys n girls to see the simplicity of life when they are bombarded with tempting sights on TV and on the streets (it gadgets, fast n furious cars, lifestyle accessories etc) which do not exist int he 70s & 80s.

    • Your kids will feel deprived and out of place among his/her peers if he/she does not have a smartphone to play ‘Temple Run’ or ‘Candy Crush’.

  9. Affordability is now a function of the amount of bank loan you can secure and the credit line provided by the credit card firms. People no longer save up to buy their dream items, but taking up loan or instalment purchase is now a norm.

    Ministry of Education ought to introduce personal financial planning as a course for school children. It should be made a compulsory subject at local universities in place of the other controversial mandatory subject.

  10. How would one define living the simple lifestyle. I believed that the current cost of our life style is not just food. It is paying for accommodation, lifestyle clothes, transportation (cars etc ) & medical treatment.

    Would one like that simple life style of staying in a house of 72 tenants renting a room with 2-3 kids. In those days whatever entertainment is just round the corner with the koh tai or cinema within walking distance. Working usually not quite far and you either walk, by bicycle or by bus. Nowadays you need a car or at least a motorbike to move around or to work. Working, makan, entertainment is no more a short distance away. By bus its too inconvenient. By taxi it will cost you a bomb.

    We have to move forward. Car and motorbike is now a necessity not a luxury anymore. Owing a home whether a simple flat is a must and necessity instead of renting one. And it will be quite a distance from whatever you do.

    Medical treatment is a bomb in private clinic. In govt hospital … The RM1 ringgit outpatient free treatment is a camouflage to deceive all of you by the Najib UMNO govt. Once you are diagnose for specialist treatment like orthopaedic, nose or others, it will be RM5.00 per treatment and further operation and treatment is highly expensive.

    I have said and repeated it before. A friend had a treatment in the General Hospital. The cost of treatment and operation is a few hundred (not so cheap or free as one always digest out) but the medicine he has to buy is 30k. One guy had an accident. His leg was broken. The operation cost a couple of hundred (no more free) but the metal to insert and attach the leg cost 7k which he has to buy from the crony in the hospital. An old woman has a simple eye operation (removing the glaucoma). Operation cost RM200 but has to buy that thing for the eye operation from the crony in the hospital that cost almost 1K.

    So you see even in hospital it is not so free as one thought it is.

    That is why we have to work double hard and double smart to earn more not just for the lifestyle but also the necessity that we need. Its a rat world now ???

  11. Main culprit : a corrupt and incompetent (except for skill at “misappropriation” of public funds)
    federal govt that has been squandering our oil wealth as well as mismanaging our economy.

  12. Not exactly true. It depends on what type of family you come from. I have many relatives and friends whom had maids and drivers to take them to school. The have gardeners at their huge homes, and go for overseas vacation [by ship then]. The children are chauffered to school and consequently send to US or Europe for education.
    It is the same situation currently too, the rich kids live in huge houses bought by the parents and drives luxury cars. They would have returned from after 6 years or more of overseas education.

    • Yes, we can work very hard and our kids can study very hard too to get CGPA of 4 yet cannot get admission for the courses of choice in local universities because of the biased policy we all know. I have advised my neighbour son (good STPM results) to ignore IPTAs offer of useless courses and go to Singapore NUS or NTU (that offered him bursary), as he can study in peace without being force to study TITAS as a compulsory subject.

  13. Anil
    The high cost of living (and living beyond means for most younger generation in the trappings) compounded by scary crime scenes (correlated ?) and divide-the-nation politikus racism make us long for earlier era of peace, affordability, freshness of once truly beautiful Malaysia !
    More social conscious bloggers should emulate the spirits of Anil Netto !

    Now we have Ali Cafe and Ah Huat Cafe. Suggest readers to recommend Anil Cafe to bring those lost innocence ?

    Cheers for better future !!!

    • Thanks, simple man, yes, i think we have lost a fair bit. … I am not sure I am cut out for any kind of cafe though…

    • Had we Malaysians not been cursed by the advent of this ultra-racist Kutty Disease from cursed Helang Island, by now we could be standing tall & proud among the Tigers of Asia & withstand better against inflationary lifestyle & may even thrive regardless of skin colours. Much less of a hope when his genetic imprints is continuing his rotten-to-the-bone-marrow legacy up north, starting with a stupefied claim to natural river water.

  14. We have to thank Barang Naik for what we are today. Gap between the rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger. For those youngster who long for a roof and vechicle to move around, a big portion of their earnings goes to settling bid credit items and hoping that their is no untowed incidents happened to them and their family. Only a cream and minority of youngster where they have a successful career or parents who have earned their bucks and soundly invested properties, else it will be a case of forever in debt, 30 years property mortgage and 9 years vehicle mortgage . Is this what we called good lifestyle, it’s rather a slave to necessity.

    For those wage earners, what they earned does not cover the high inflation faced y them. Imagine min pay of Rm900 just started, what can you have so called decent living, one enjoy. Reflecting back, I enjoyed simple lifestyle where in those days Ringgit Malaysia and Singapore Dollars is at par. For few hundred bucks payroll, I would be enjoying a better value of life as compared to now with 20/30 times better income. A simple bowl of Mee have more ingredients and hand cooked by the actual hawker himself , where now I am paying ransom cost but cooked by foreigners and taste like s… We now admired Koreans and Singaporeans where previously at par or worst of than us. Do we have a better in life these days? To me, Malaysia have failed to enhance the well being of their rakyat.

  15. Stagnant + low income (nationwide) is a double edged sword:
    Good as attractive low cost operation factor for employers, local & MNCs.
    Bad for cari-makan employees who have no little lee-way to stretch the ringgit in an inflationary economy in the longer run.

    The way I look at it, many of us will have to hold 2 -3 jobs in order to meet the inflationary expenses & fulfil lifestyles of our choice. But the difficulty of implementing minimum wages will not make life any more easier for the average working adults. Some employers are genuinely concern about the bottom line but there are some who can afford but are miserly for their own private dreams of a slot in the richest & famous list of Forbes magazine. Coupled with foreign workers who can work more for less, where is the bargaining power of locals for better wages to offset inflation?
    Still, the ferris wheel of economic highs & lows makes no advances but remain inertia despite the advancement of global trade & agreements, work smart technology & exchanges of manufacturing hitech & skills.

    The way forward is to enhance/upgrade one’s work skills, empower with IT knowledge, connect with industries & job search portals, or better still be your own boss.

    Even if one can earn 4 figure income, the temptation to live beyond one’s means is an every night ringing in the ears. You may ask: I finally earn my keeps, why shouldn’t I spend now to enjoy life & reward myself? What’s the use of deferred gratification until I reach old age with aching bones & frail health?

    In the 60s & 70s, where life was simpler, the needs & wants of aspirations & dreams were countable with our 10 fingers. There was not much “Bing Chooi” pressure to compete with thy neighbours, no overriding peer pressure at work place, no American consumeristic lifestyle of abundance, neither the cosmopolitan mantras of high societal + annual holiday trips lifestyle echoing in MLM hotel conventions. There was no such thing as “The Apprentice” to fire up one’s competitive ego to be sold by then apprenticing Donald Trump. And rentals were fair for most who couldn’t afford to own a landed house but satisfied to be perpetual tenants for life. At the end of 55, you still have a roof over your head, some cash hidden in Milo tins, grown up kids to support you old folks & plenty of time to still live with joy of simplicity without the stress of upgrading one’s lifestyle influenced or inspired by an ad.

    Now, the environment is a total difference. “Greed is Good” is an over-screamed advocate of all sorts of gurus, temp-work contracts are more commonplace than permanent employment contracts with retirement benefits, physical grooming (stylish & young looking) & connections more desirable than innate work skills (example of ageism at work), transmigration of whole industries more common & demise of menial jobs faster than Chinese opera’s change face. Government regulations & controls (for the social good like housing) give way to corporate influence & malpractices without heavy punity worsen by corruption in broad daylight. Speculations from shares, currencies, metals, food commodities to fuels & now properties without the tangible real demands.

    Given such a scenario, isn’t it proper that one keeps a level headed prudent approach to spending as if there’s only one more last day tomorrow? Despite the nightly ringing in the ears of all sorts of unfulfilled desires (marketing inspired, bank’s ‘ready cash from the sky’ or kia su pressured) that require instant gratification.

    Cheers Kopi-O kau kau to one more last day tomorrow.

  16. The rise of cost of living are due mainly to the rise of property prices – especially shop lots. Can you continue selling chicken rice at RM4 a plate if the rental is high. Or can a barber charge you RM5 when the rental is RM20-30 a square foot per month (Gurney Plaza).
    2ndly, certain food stuff and cars are price controlled or rather monopolised by certain bodies. But personal computers, electrical appliances seems to be cheaper and better as time goes by – because you let people compete in terms of price and quality.
    And you are right, people are bombarded by adverts everyday. The total global expense on ads in 2012 was around USD550B.

    • Yes, you hit the nail on the head about property prices, driven up by speculation, pushing up the cost of living.

  17. It is more that the wages today are not keeping up with inflation and the necessities of today’s world. A new lecturer in the 70s was paid RM1000-1200 but a terrace house during his time cost 20-50 k. Right now the starting pay of a lecturer is RM 2500-RM3500 depending on qualification but a terrace house now costs 800k -1.5 million, depending on location. While the cost of a roof over our head has increased 20-30 times for the new generation, their wages have only doubled or tripled at most. How are they supposed to not be in debt for the rest of their lives? Unless you are a professional earning above 8k without a family to feed, you will be in debt for your entire earning life. In the 60s, we had a per capita income which was almost equal to that of Singapore’s and above that of Korea and Taiwan. Today, Singapore has a per capita income 4 times ours, Korea and Taiwan at least 2-3 times ours. You do the math and see where we went wrong.

  18. That’s lovely life.No $ still plenty of friends and free games.Seldom worries and worries.A roof in our head enough with sometimes miss makan for the day.Nowdays most people’s live beyond their means for hapiness and misery in return.

    rajraman.Most people now days have.millions in the pockets but can’t enjoy the secret of bygone era.HAPPINESS. That happiness partly rob by rotten politician especially by a person claim himself as Malay but his DNA is Indian.

  19. well, we can reminisce of old days and frugal habits. but cost has surely gone way ahead of income.
    both of us are working parents. and my daughter is somewhat a latchkey coz we just don’t have time to look after her during weekdays. she is also complaining about rising cost of food. neighbourhood kopitiam in Bandar Utama now charges RM9.00 for a plate of her favourite fried chicken rice and if she wants an egg, that’s 10 bucks.

    • I remember my childhood days, when a meal outside at a hawker centre (char koay teow and fizzy drink plus a little satay) was a once-a-month treat. We rarely ate out. What happened along the way?

      • its the rat race anil. both of us have to work to make sure there are enough savings in the kitty for the kids education. being middleclass means there is no fall back and nor governmental support.. Also, everything is so expensive these days. from housing to food to tuition fees. we don’t even have a maid for the last three years. we now both have to clean the house weekends and she has to do all the washing and ironing too.. and much as I want to eat at home, it would be most unfair expecting her to cook anymore. Ended eating out almost every weekend. and home cook food is a rarity to be enjoyed and savoured these days.
        that’s life in KL now.

      • Nowadays Extravaganza Buka Puasa Buffet at local hotels can cost as much as RM70++ per head.

        Muslims should practise moderation in the holy month, and not succumbed to the temptations of the juadah buka puasa and burn a hole in their pockets!


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