By Behonce Beh
A call to rally for electoral reforms in the form of Bersih 2.0 resulted in a lock down Kuala Lumpur coming to a standstill. SME businesses and traders were caught in the middle and forced to shut their businesses on two of the busiest days of the week.
On Saturday July 9, about 50,000 people thronged the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Under normal circumstances, this would be an ideal figure for traders and retailers as such a crowd would be inclined to spend money during the weekend. This weekend however, was really quite different. The 50,000 people were there as protestors, all calling for electoral reforms under the umbrella of Bersih 2.0. Fear surged through the business community of Kuala Lumpur as reports in the mass media overflowed with information on stringent roadblocks, massive traffic. Chaos outside the city and arrests of people wearing yellow t-shirts. Traders resorted to closing their shop for the day, for fears of being looted or attacked by an angry mob.
Businesses that were open were subdued. Trade took a nose-dive, with few patrons milling around as almost 90% of the shops were closed. A check on traders surrounding the city centre on Saturday morning proved that a once bustling city was reduced to an eerie silence. Initial checks on Petaling Street at 10am showed that most shops were closed and the many push carts that usually dominated the street were unseen. Foreign tourists that were spotted in the area looked baffled as many famous eateries were closed for the day.
The odd one out which remained open was Kiat Loong Stationery Supplier along the popular Petaling Street. “We decided to remain open as we hoped for some business from the police or those attending the rally,” said the octogenarian pair operating the store, who both wished to remain anonymous. “When the May 13 riots broke out years ago in 1969, we remained open until they declared an emergency.” Traders around the Jalan Hang Lekir market looked bored as many were seen chatting with each other, lamenting the lack of buyers and shoppers. A tofu seller who goes by the name of Choo was busy packing up unsold tofu and giving it to fellow traders due to the lack of shoppers. Other stalls around the market were closed or in the midst of closing; their wares of poultry or fresh vegetables unsold. “If they want to protest, they should do it like how it was done in Thailand. Their way of protest is by sitting down at a specific location without much movement. That way, the damage to businesses is minimal,” said Choo.
Moving towards the Pasar Seni LRT station at noon, many people were seen loitering around the station. They were obviously protestors, armed with backpacks and towels, waiting for the right time to start moving. Other major business districts in the city such as Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (TAR) and Jalan Masjid India were steeped in silence as police barricades had been set up in front of Sogo, blocking traffic from entering the street. Big brands along Jalan TAR such as Princess, GS Gill, Coliseum, Sharafali, and SSF remained closed. The only crowds seen at Masjid Jamek consisted mainly of photographers and journalists, waiting for the protest to start. The first sign of any ruckus in that area started at 12.30pm, when an unknown protestor marched onto the street and started shouting. A restaurant that was previously open immediately rolled down its shutters.
The crowd which was earlier seen loitering around the station, swiftly moved into formation, surging towards the police barricades.A taxi driver lamented the lack of people in the city, having only one passenger prior to our ride from KLCC to Bukit Bintang. “Getting into town wasn’t a problem for me as I know which alternative roads to take in order to avoid the roadblocks.I had no choice but to look for passengers today as I still have my overhead costs to look after,” he said. Upon reaching Bukit Bintang, it was already 1pm. Shutters at the entrance of BB Plaza were half closed, but the mall was still open to the public. Tourists were seen thronging the mall, but not many were shopping. Most shops in Sungai Wang Plazawere closed with jewellers, cellphone retailers and money changers taking precautions to avoid any unnecessary looting.
At 2.15pm, news had already broken that the protest was closing in around Jalan Bukit Bintang. Existing traders in Sungai Wang Plaza responded by closing their shops and calling it a day. For traders who insisted on operating their business, it was obvious that their cash registers were not ringing as they should. Madras Jeweller manager M.Vasudevan of Jalan TAR said that his outlet suffered losses amounting to almost RM100,000 as a result of not being able to operate on Saturday due to the demonstrations. “Some of the business owners wanted to take the risk and open their shops but were advised not to by the police.
“I hope this will not happen again as it is just costly for us if we are not able to operate our businesses,” he said. Meanwhile, the Association of BumiputeraTravel and Tour Agents (Bumitra) president Mohd Ayub Hassan said that the closure of several major roads in the city to thwart the demonstrators had jeopardised several tour activities and affected the income of agents. The association, which has more than 300 members, said in keeping with a directive from the Tourism Ministry, had given preference to the safety of tourist and kept them away from the “sensitive” spots during the demonstration.
Pertubuhan Usahawan Kecil dan Sederhana Malaysia (Ikhlas) president Mohd Ridzuan Abdullah issued a statement estimating losses for small traders in Kuala Lumpur to be about RM100 million. “The rally has made life difficult for the 5,000 traders and their families as they were not able to operate on Saturday,” he said in a press conference. Malaysian Retailer-Chains Association (MRCA) secretary-general Valerie Choo told MALAYSIA SME™ that its members had been greatly impacted by the rally. “Most of our member’s retail outlets were forced to close. Those that remained open were without customers as most roads leading to the city were blocked,” she highlighted.
When asked on an estimated figure of losses, she was quoted saying “at least a few million ringgit.” The question remains as to why the rally was taken to the streets, when a less disruptive alternative to businesses was offered. The police on Friday proposed for Bersih 2.0 to be held in Stadium Melawati Shah Alam. Attempts to contact Bersih 2.0 chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan for comment were futile. Regardless of what took place on July 9, there are no winners but plenty of losers. The losers are the business community, small traders, and retailers that were caught in the political crossfire, and could not do anything about it.