Lessons from the Vegetable Seller

Lessons from the Vegetable Seller

My mom has a favourite vegetable seller in the local market. The stall owner is a gregarious lady who is friend to almost everyone in the neighbourhood. More importantly, she’s well known to throw in goodies when you buy from her – usually cheaper items such as spring onion or a small slice of garlic if you buy a kilo of more expensive greens. She speaks passable Malay, several Chinese dialects and even some choice phrases of Tamil. So she’s equally at ease with the Chinese as she is with the Malays and Indians. She gives some even as she takes some.

With the current spate of extremism and ethnic tension – I often wonder why life can’t be as simple as that in the market. Perhaps we need more such stall owners in our daily lives – people who are not just colour-blind to races and differences, but who practice the spirit of give and take on a daily basis.

Any potential foreign investor considering investing in our economy would certainly be very concerned with all the racially- and religiously-charged headlines hitting our news. Many of us are naturally concerned over the many statements made by politicians and quasi-NGOs/extremists in Malaysia. But as most Malaysians (and most people anywhere, really) know, you can’t take politicians and hate groups seriously.

These people, elected or otherwise, do not necessarily represent you and me. As such, we must not allow our own beliefs to be coloured by extremism. Malaysians, like you and I, are generally tolerant, peace loving people.

As entrepreneurs, we need to lead the way in propagating this concept of tolerance and give-and-take. Extremism simply doesn’t work.

Consider our own relationship with our employees, for example. On one hand you have employees who expect a raise every few months or so, and to do less work for more money. On the other, you have financial responsibilities that go far beyond paying salaries – and paying more for less productivity just doesn’t make sense. If both parties go to the extreme and will not give in, both parties lose. Yes, you can tell the demanding staff member to leave and find himself a job elsewhere, but the recruitment and training costs that follow, plus the potential loss of business, may not make any more sense than giving in a little.

The same is true with clients. We sometimes refuse to bend backward to accommodate even our best clients – and in that process, lose that client to our competitor. There are many academics and self-styled management gurus who will advise against discounting or throwing freebies, lest they become a habit and affect our margin and profitability. True to some extent, but even great brands like Apple and Porsche give discounts. They simply call it ‘new pricing’, ‘clearance’ or ‘festive promotions’. In a relationship-centric society like ours, give and take is not just a cultural norm – it’s a business necessity. Stand firm on your principles, and you better pray hard these principles will feed you and your family.

There’s no such thing as the right or wrong thing to do. Everything is a matter of perspective. There’s no doubt that many policies are skewed, but aren’t all policies everywhere skewed? Insisting on our absolute rights and not giving in an inch may be the right thing to do, but not necessarily the best. It’s like two cars trying to get into one lane, with neither giving way. The result is wasted time and frustration for both drivers, and inconvenience for everyone behind them.

There’s a reason that vegetable seller is the most popular in her market. And it’s certainly not by being an extremist.

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