Sunday, June 13

Calling Sarawak his home

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‘Land of Hornbills’ is where Pakistan-born businessman says he truly belongs

Siraj Munir loves Sarawak with all his heart.

SIRAJ Munir loves Sarawak with all his heart, and is ever ready to defend its sovereignty from any harm’s way.

The 54-year-old left Pakistan nearly four decades ago to seek greener pastures, which he found in this ‘Land of the Hornbills’ and since then, it has become his home.

“This is where I will die and this is where I will be laid to rest,” he said. “And if anyone talks bad about Sarawak, I would defend this beloved land.

“I have this belief that whichever country one lives, he or she must treat it as home and should protect it whenever necessary and in any way possible.”

Having been in Sarawak for 37 years, Siraj has established his roots in Kuching and made tons of friends.

Occasionally he would go back to Pakistan, but his heart and soul would whisper to him, telling him that Sarawak is where he truly belongs.

However, he acknowledges that the unforgettable memories of his birth place, called the Buner District, make him realise that family bond would forever be strong.

“The saying ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is very true because I feel it,” Siraj told thesundaypost, adding that he was always concerned about the well-being of his family whom he had left behind in Pakistan, and even more depressing was thinking about them at a time when their safety was in the balance.

The Taliban Movement

Siraj said in 2009, the Taliban Movement in Pakistan – known as the ‘Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’ (TTP) – seized control over Buner.

They enforced very strict rules including the elimination of video stores and the ban on men cutting off their beards, as well as women being forbidden to appear in public places and also being denied access to education.

Siraj said from what he did remember, the TTP established their movement in Pakistan in 2005 – even then, he was already worried about the movement entering Buner.

Eventually, that happened and Siraj immediately knew that his family was in danger.

His family, however, managed to escape to safety in Islamabad – if they had remained in Buner much longer, there was a real possibility that they might be killed.

“Everyone was very scared. No one wanted to get killed, certainly not in the hands of the Talibans,” he said.

Siraj was in constant touch with his siblings and every time he learned that they were safe, he would be relieved. His family stayed in Islamabad for a year and only returned to Buner after the Pakistan army had cleared off all the Taliban threats.

It was not a happy homecoming, however – as a result of the bombings carried out by the Talibans, there was nothing much left of their village, including their house.

His siblings did send Siraj photos depicting the aftermath, but he decided to delete those images as he felt that they were not good things to remember his birthplace by.

Later, Siraj said the Pakistan government helped rebuild the house for those affected by the TTP occupation. He said it devastated him that he could not send any money to Pakistan because whatever he had at the time, his family and his business needed it more.

“Alhamdulillah, with the help from the government, my family (in Pakistan) got a new house. Although I was not there throughout the turmoil, it traumatised me because I was extremely worried about my family’s safety.

“I remember that all I could do at the time was to keep praying and praying,” he recalled.

Leaving Pakistan

Having lived in Sarawak for 37 years – much longer than his early years in his country of birth – Siraj finally obtained his ‘Permanent Resident’ (PR) status not too long ago. “It was a long, long, wait, but it was worth it,” he smiled.

Siraj attends to diners paying for their food at the counter.

However, this brought him back to the time when went to Brunei in 1985, joining his uncle in running a business selling carpets and clothing.

Siraj was only 18 then.

When asked about his actual reason of leaving Pakistan, he started by saying that he was ‘a naughty and mischievous youth’.

“I was never interested in studying. All I wanted was adventure. At that time, many of my friends had gone with their fathers or uncles to other countries to explore business opportunities – I wanted to do what they did.”

One day, Siraj gathered up the courage to tell his parents about his decision not to continue his studies and instead, he wanted to go to Brunei with his uncle.

“When my parents grudgingly relented, I was excited that eventually, I got the chance to live out my dream of an adventure,” he reminisced.

In the beginning, he found Brunei fascinating, being a new place and a new experience for him. As time passed, however, uncertainties began to sink in.

“Things did not turn out to be as fun as my young mind had initially imagined.

“I eventually found out that I must work very hard for the business. Throughout the first two months, I was struggling because of the language barrier.

“Moreover, I knew nobody and had no friends.”

Siraj said in order to fit in, he knew that he must learn to speak the Malay language. It took him around four months to master basic Malay, which he felt was good enough for him to communicate in running his trade.

He became more fluent as the years went by.

Starting a family

It was around this time that Siraj went to Miri for a holiday, which would forever be marked as his ‘fateful trip’ in that he met a Malay girl who would later be his wife.

“I first met her at a coffee-shop where she ran a food stall. As I frequented her stall, the love between us blossomed.

“I then went to meet her family and seek her parents’ approval for her hand in marriage. We tied the knot in 1992,” said Siraj.

Not long after that, his wife got pregnant and they were both excited about starting a family.

However, their happiness was cut short after the doctor told them that something was not right.

“Due to certain complications, only one could be saved – either it’s the mother, or the baby. But I wanted both to be saved; I pleaded with the doctor to save them both,” said Siraj.

In the end, the mother and the baby got out of harm’s way, but at a great cost – Siraj’s wife would never be able to get pregnant again.

“Both of us resigned to the fate that we could only have one child of our own. It was really sad, but what choice did we have?

“We’re thankful to be blessed with this beautiful baby girl. Alhamdulillah,” said Siraj, adding that later on, they would adopt three children.

Siraj with his wife and daughter.

“Now, our daughter is all grown up and married, having given us a grandchild not too long ago.

“Our three adopted children have all grown up as well. Life is good,” he smiled.

Dealing with stereotypes

Having regarded Sarawak as his home, Siraj said it saddened him immensely when people would accuse Pakistanis as ‘bad and dishonest people, with the men marrying local women just so that they could stay here’.

He did not deny that there were ‘some bad apples’, but taking it out on the whole community was ‘not fair at all’.

“No race is bad. There are good and bad people everywhere – it has nothing to do with race and nationality.

“If you ever got the chance to go to Pakistan, you would meet a lot of good and honest Pakistanis.

“I feel very thankful with what I have achieved today. I have customers from all races and backgrounds. I strive to be at my shop every day to meet and interact with people. I like to help out with the daily work, despite having the workers to do it.

“Being a boss doesn’t mean you cannot be humble at the same time,” said this owner of a coffee-shop and a clothing store at Jalan Satok in Kuching.

For Siraj, his family remained a priority and he would never want them to live in hardship.

“My wife and my children are everything to me. I hope that I could leave something behind for them when I die.”

On the challenges of running his business, he said the perennial problem had always been the lack of manpower – specifically local workers.

He said many of the local workers would leave only after several months, despite them being provided with very good pay, Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Social Security Organisation (Socso) contributions, and also free meals.

Photo shows Siraj’s coffee-shop, named ‘Sahabat Khan Kafe’. According to him, business has dropped by 40 to 50 per cent since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. However, he believes that things would eventually turn around for the better.

The situation forced him to hire foreign workers, which was a very costly undertaking but it was necessary as he wanted to do everything by the book.

Siraj said he had some workers from Pakistan as well, some of whom had a very hard life back home.

“I want to help them out so that they, in turn, can help their families back home.”

Siraj said throughout his 37 years in Sarawak, he had only gone back to Pakistan eight times to visit his family there.

To this day, he strives to keep in touch with his five elder sisters and three younger brothers in Buner through phone calls and social media.

Both his parents are no longer around. The last time Siraj went back to Pakistan was in 2018 to visit his parents’ graves.

“Not a day passes that I would not remember my parents; I always think of them in my prayers.

“It was only after I had a family of my own that I realised how much my own parents had sacrificed to raise a big family. Somehow, they managed to provide for everyone,” he said.

Siraj’s father passed away in 2002, in his 90s, while his mother died in 2013 at the age of 85.

“I was by her side during her final days. She was in my arms when she took her last breath,” he said.

Looking back

Siraj said his life in Pakistan was just a moderate one. His parents owned a farm, which had sustained the family for many years.

“I remember there were families who had hard lives and were struggling to make ends meet, which was the reason why many of the young ones would venture out to explore better opportunities in other countries.

“Poverty, unemployment and population boom were among the factors leading to many social problems back then.

“However, things in Pakistan have gotten a lot better now than they were over 30 years ago. My birth nation has improved significantly, with the new political and socio-economic developments taking place,” said Siraj.

He said even his village in Buner District had undergone lots of changes.

“It’s impressive, actually. There are many new roads now; educational institutions are sprouting here and there.”

A quick search on the Internet revealed that the first public-sector university, University of Buner, was founded in 2017.

There are also many other public and private university campuses in Siraj’s home district today such as Abdul Wali Khan University, Government Degree College Daggar, Government Polytechnic Institute of Buner, Buner Institute of Medical Sciences, Rafiq Institute of Information Technology, Buner Paramedical Institute Abdali Public School and College, and Abasia Public School Bazargai – just to name a few.

On how he first set up his business in Sarawak, Siraj said the start-up capital came from the money that he had earned while helping his uncle out in Brunei.

He first rented a food stall in Miri, running the operations 1993 to 2005, before relocating to Kuching with his family in 2006.

He opened his coffee-shop in the state capital in 2006, while his clothing business took off in 2010.

He brought in one of his brothers from Pakistan to handle the clothing shop.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Siraj said the Covid-19 pandemic had adversely affected his business, with turnovers dropping by 40 to 50 per cent.

His clothing shop was the worst-hit, in that it was not considered an essential service allowed to operate under the present restrictive period.

“My brother who managed the clothing shop, had gone back to Pakistan before the pandemic was declared last year – he’s still unable to come back here due to travel restrictions and a host of other problems.

“So, I have to also take care of the clothing shop, on top of my eatery.”

In his parting remarks, Siraj gave this advice to anyone wishing to go to other countries to earn a living: “Be appreciative of and thankful for every opportunity that you can get. Work hard, do not create trouble, and always be humble.”