Comment - How nasi lemak taught me about money

EVERY morning, I think about breakfast. I mentally scan the options in my fridge, on my dining table or along the drive to my destination, eliminate them one by one whether by craving or cost, and come to a decision.

On weekdays, such a difficult decision can be made with ease. One of the best things about my workplace is that there is a hidden gem in the stationery shop nearby – a small pyramid of coconut rice dotted with ikan bilis and kacang, topped with a dollop of sambal and finished with a neatly-squared fried omelette. I have eaten that nasi lemak too many times to count. It is my kind of breakfast.

But on Monday, something went wrong.

As I unfolded the familiar brown paper and leaf, I gazed at my nasi lemak and knew my breakfast was incomplete. I grabbed my spoon and jabbed at the rice mercilessly, reducing the glorious pyramid to fluffy ruins. The ikan bilis and kacang were nowhere to be seen.

I felt a strange emotion somewhere between annoyance and anger, followed by the grumbling of my stomach. Angry thoughts made a beeline for the chefs whose hands had made my favourite breakfast. How they could remove the essential anchovies and peanuts, salted and cooked to perfection, was beyond me.

But I caught myself before falling further into the tunnel of despair, and remembered recent news reports.

Supermarkets are closing down, the Malaysian Employers' Federation has warned of more retrenchments, people are tightening their belts and counting their pennies.

Of course, the family making my tasty nasi lemak may be facing the same concerns too. It is highly likely that they have schoolgoing children, loans to upkeep and bills to pay.

With food prices on the rise, their profit margin per nasi lemak packet may have been painfully reduced, forcing them to compromise on quality by removing the condiments.

I'm sure they take pride in their food, and eliminating the anchovies and peanuts may have hurt them as much as it frustrated me.

Are we hitting a slump? The cost of living in Malaysia is steadily rising even as incomes remain stagnant. A Global Survey of Consumer Confidence and Spending showed that at end-2016, consumers were not optimistic about the future.

Worries about the economy and food, utility and fuel costs ranked high among the respondents.

I had always known the value of the ringgit was decreasing; all I had to do was look at the red electronic numbers on the money changers' walls. But now, as I looked down at my nasi lemak, I saw how all of this was affecting me.

Even though I have been working just as hard and saving just as much, the value of my money is decreasing. The thought can be quite scary. As a working adult, I thought I was floating above the troubling woes of financial strain simply by saving well and spending responsibly.

I was wrong. In the face of a greying economy, we now have no choice but to find ways to grow our income. But opening my financial statements, I felt overwhelmed. I was drowning in technical terms and long words I didn't quite comprehend.

It's time to snuff out the complacency and invest our time and energy in financial literacy. If we're going to survive in this rickety, unpredictable economy, we're going to need more than just indignation at a stripped-down nasi lemak.