Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Poverty Planning

Poverty Planning

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, writes about being poor, from his first-hand experience living penniless in the slums of Paris:

And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

Most of us would have, at one time or another, fantasized what it would be like if we were rich. But what I find even more intriguing is to imagine what it would be like if we were poor:

What is the minimum amount of money that I would need to be able to survive? What kind of lowly jobs would I be willing to do, if my professional skills are no longer in demand?

It's a fun exercise to play in your mind and has its practical value too, like a mock disaster recovery drill. It could happen anytime you see--what if you lose your job or have your income drastically cut?

I always try to use my student days as a benchmark: can I still survive like how I did as a student? When I was studying at a local university, I was able to survive on 300 ringgit a month. A third of that went to lodging--a small rented room which I shared with a friend--leaving only 200 for food and transportation. (But that's still above the poverty line for Malaysia--which is around 500 ringgit for a family of five)

I tried to limit my daily spending to five ringgit. It wasn't that difficult then because there were cheap food stalls and restaurants that catered for students--each meal costing merely 1.30, with drinks thrown in. Breakfast was even cheaper if you eat at the faculty canteen--fried noodles and tea for 70 cents.

Newspapers at 50 cents then was a bit of a luxury, reserved only for weekends; magazines were out of the question. But I was never short of reading materials because I had all the wonderful books in the university library at my disposal.

If one is prudent enough, one could even save a little bit for a movie during weekends. Life wasn't too bad: there were lots of friends for company in our student house, even though ten of us had to share one toilet. Kind of like living in a cheap rumah kos in Jakarta.

But that was two decades ago. If I factor in inflation, what is the minimum now that I can survive on? I don't know, but I'll be quite happy if I can successfully survive on a three-figure budget.

I've acquired a lot of "bad habits" over the years--I need a car to drive around in KL, I'm used to sleeping with air-conditioning, I need broadband Internet access and I'm accustomed to having my own personal bathroom. Can all this "damage" be undone?

It's going to be tough but somehow I feel it's probably easier for me than for many of my friends--one of the advantages of leading a single and nomadic life. For years I've managed my life in such a way that I am never addicted to luxuries. You see, I have this extremely perverse attitude of considering luxuries a "handicap". Well, I have nothing against luxuries; as a matter of fact I do enjoy a fair amount of it whenever I'm travelling on business, but my point is, one should be able to give them up easily when need be.

I love wine but can easily do without it; I won't mind taking trains and buses to get around and if I need to access the Internet, I can always sneak into any Starbucks outlet and use the free Timezone wireless broadband service (without buying their exorbitantly priced coffee of course). There are always workarounds.

I have other strange habits too: I can live without a TV--a habit I acquired during my student days for I didn't have access to one then. But it's no big deal, one can easily watch TV anywhere these days, especially in mamak stalls. Books? I think I already have enough in my personal library to last me a lifetime of reading. Worst come to worst, I'll read all the volumes of my Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.

When it comes to good food, I'm a philistine, so a simple diet of Maggi Mee, nasi lemak and roti canai is perfectly fine with me. In Jakarta, I'd probably join the taxi drivers and labourers, eating at the cheap wartegs (warung tegal). It's probably not very healthy, but what's the difference--rich people eat themselves to death anyway.

I think with some luck, I should be able to survive. Wouldn't call it poverty, but spartan living nonetheless. And knowing that one can take it--like what Orwell said--is indeed a feeling of great relief and comfort, almost a luxury.

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