An illegal night market and the art of passing the buck


A night view of the illegal night market in downtown Kuching.

There has been an illegal night market which has been around for more than three years right smack in the middle of downtown Kuching, surrounded by a long established residential area, an exclusive private members club and one of Kuching’s most iconic building.

It has managed to make use of an entire car park which was completely converted for outdoor sports and athletics use for more than 20 years.

It has also meant that joggers and locals going for walking exercises and other sports using its facilities had to content with left over rubbish, foul smelling clogged drains and festering rats and other pests who scour the area for leftover food and other remnants left by the vendors and customers.

This illegal night market was started more than 3 years ago by someone who had used his connection to a political party whose DUN member had happened to be from that constituency and the council in charge had conveniently abrogated its responsibility by “passing the buck” to other parties involved.

Let me take you back to how in this day and age it’s still possible to get away with setting up an illegal operation like this one. I will put myself in the shoes of the guy who had thought up this idea and what follows is my hypothetical account of what might have happened, and did in fact actually transpire.

Having worked some years at a middle management position in servicing a block of private apartments downtown, with no really great prospects I had an Eureka moment.

What if I were to turn a huge public car park, now mainly unused at night, into a ‘Night Market Bazaar’ in the name of tourism and Bumiputera enterprise? Just for two nights a week on Fridays and Saturdays; between the hours of 9pm to 3am.

Let’s see what’s in it for me? The site can take up to 250 small stalls, requiring just tents and portable gensets for lighting. If I charge around rm250 per stall for a month (8 nights) I could gross a neat RM62,500 per month. What expenses were there? Rental? Nope, it’s free and there’s no one to pay it to, as no authority has come forward to claim ‘ownership’. But to be on the safe side I’d have to do three things.

Firstly I need a letter from the local council, in this case DBKU, to say that they have no objection to me setting up such an operation within their area of responsibility.

Secondly I need strong political support from one or two politicos, just invite them to come walk around and have photo ops with them and ask the newspapers to print them; thereby establishing political support and backing.

Third and lastly, I must ensure that the authorities and especially the police and traffic police do not enforce the No Parking rules along the vicinity of the site, as that would throw a spanner in the works and my customers will not be able to find any parking (as already the carpark itself is fully occupied by my market place!)

I must also ensure that the Ministry of Tourism is aware and in the know and it is seen as a ‘Tourism Product’ which will attract visitors and be an added value to the efforts of the ministry. (To be truthful I have never seen a single tourist here!)

Most important, if and when (and I am sure that this would happen) there will be some hue and cry from the residents around this residential area; I must ensure that this entire scheme is seen as an enterprise to promote and increase the awareness of young Bumiputeras getting their exposure to entrepreneurship and learning how to do business. Of course it is just another guise as there’s nothing really much to pitching up a tent in an advertised location to sell some t-shirts, home made cookies and smartphone covers!

But I mustn’t forget about that RM62,500.

What about my expenses?

I would need to pay (donate is the term they use) Rela staff, probably just a handful, to control traffic; I need cleaning up services for the day after; and I need to ensure my fellow cohorts in the ‘authorities’ concerned are happy with me and protect me from all complaints and all that.

So I can safely bet on a nett income of around rm50,000. Not bad eh?

There’s this pesky guy with his small group of ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ residents who have lived safe and quiet lives and weekend nights of no traffic congestions, illegal parking in front of their houses, and dirty littering all along the roadsides. He’s been talking to the authorities and writing to social media and the newspapers to complaint about us – but it has all come to nought.

Apparently all his meetings, briefings with the authorities concerned had turned up zilch because no one single authority had wanted to take responsibility – it’s great that they were all passing the buck, or hinting of ‘political patronage’ or just not bothered about ‘rocking the boat’. My name dropping and all those politicians who walked through the night markets during the early days of the bazaar had done the trick.

So what if I had not stuck to my original promise of not allowing food and drinks to be sold or served? So what if I had reduced the cleaning services contract and just paid the minimum for not really professional cleaners? So what if the traffic congestion gets really bad because my RELA numbers were reduced? So what if those customers coming park their vehicles haphazardly in front of the residents’ homes and often totally block their entrances? I can’t control everything.

I have been asked and told and negotiated over to relocate and to move but they haven’t found me a place where I don’t need to pay a single sen for rental; and I am happy right here where I am right now – after all 50k a month isn’t something to scoff at!