Singai entrepreneur overcomes poverty with perseverance

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Maria Ringsee James revels in the fruits of her labour as much as she enjoys her work.

LOCAL entrepreneur Maria Ringsee James revels in the fruits of her labour as much as she enjoys her work. Hardworking, kind and helpful, she is typically busy managing a variety of tasks and obligations to the family.

She reminds me of the saying, ‘hard work has its own reward’, and prompts me to ponder on the meaning of it. It can well be understood as ‘being able to work hard is a reward in itself’ as you get satisfaction for having accomplished the work, especially when it is a difficult one, and not counting the end result yet.

In spite of difficult circumstances, Maria’s unwavering drive and optimism in her quest for a better living are laudable. She remembers the hard times when she had to start working at a young age to support her family.

Her parents were menial rural farmers with little money. The second of five children, Maria quit school when still in Form 2 to take a job as a live-in domestic servant. It was difficult for her to adjust to living with a family that was completely unfamiliar to her at such a young age, being away from home.

She kept going. She believed that it was the only way she could support her parents financially.

Maria quickly picked up the necessary methods for maintaining a clean and organised home and developed her mental toughness because she was now on her own.

Trustworthy and eager to learn

She was a trustworthy assistant due to her eagerness to learn, but occasionally she struggled with feelings of guilt about being a housemaid due to the unfavourable perception of the position.

Although at times, she was reprimanded by the ‘boss’ for a simple error, which injured her dignity, she saw it as an opportunity to grow.

Nevertheless, she never turned back. She was respectful, teachable and resilient. That she served many years as a live-in maid, even after she was married at 21, was testimony to her credibility. It was only after she had her first child that she stopped working to assume her motherly duties.

“It was tough as my husband’s salary was small. I could not even afford to buy underwear!

“I wore pre-loved clothes handed down by some generous souls. After staying at home for about a year, I started doing odd jobs. I managed to pay a relative to look after our child and then, secured a driving licence as I planned to be a freelance housekeeper,” she recalls.

Multiple jobs

She took whatever job she could do, from housekeeping, caring for the sick on night shift at hospital, looking after the aged at home, to cleaning graves.

“I needed to work badly to help support the family. I also needed to buy my own things. The best way was to earn my own money. This would also lighten my husband’s financial burden,” she explains.

She was being practical, and with simple planning, hard work and determination, she got what she wanted – a better life.

Today, at 45, she boasts of her mini ‘cleaning agency’ and also her tour guide service which she runs on a freelance basis, and a homestay.

“I’m no longer ashamed to do whatever kind of job for an honest income. As long as I can do it, I will do it,” she confides with a sense of confidence after handing me her business card – on it is written ‘Maria Cleaning Services’ and her contact.

Maria (front row, third left) with her tour group during a visit to Labuan in 2017.

Cleaning service

As far as her cleaning service is concerned, Maria is the boss and she is also the cleaner providing housekeeping services to homes and offices.

No doubt, she also employs part-time workers especially when the demand is high, or when she is away on a vacation.

She even has her own uniform.

Originally hailing from Kampung Segong, Singai in Bau, Maria moved to her husband’s village, Sudoh, another Bidayuh village situated in Singai, just after they got married.

Maria, her husband and their two children on his 50th birthday celebration.

Their residence is located 30km from Kuching where her work is centred.

Further up is Murluod, a scenic upland area about a 30-minute drive on gravel road from Sudoh, where her homestay is located.

“Initially, the house was meant to be a holiday home for the family. The idea of a homestay transpired during the Covid-19 pandemic where people had to stay home under the MCO (Movement Control Order).

“I observed through social media that many people loved going jungle-trekking in the uplands during the period, and so I thought: Why not make some money out of the house by turning it into a homestay?”

Maria at the compound of her newly-completed homestay in the Murluod Highlands.

Homestay operation

Maria Murluod Homestay, aptly named after her, stands proudly in Murluod where a vast area of Native Customary Rights (NCR) land there belongs to the Bidayuh community around the vicinity.

Built on her father’s lot, it is a reward for her hard work, the fruit of her labour. She bore all the building cost of the house, which was built by her own father and her husband with the help of their woodcutter.

She takes pride in the fact that the house poles are made of ‘belian’ (ironwood) from the nearby jungle, and that the homestay has freshwater, which is piped in from the mountain.

The area, as she prides, is also facilitated with WiFi connection.

Declared open in 2021, the homestay, furnished with cooking appliances, floor mattresses, settee set and other necessities, is aimed at providing lodging for jungle-trekkers, nature lovers and any adventure seekers at a rate of RM350 per night.

The homestay, strategically located near two waterfalls, has. since its opening, received four groups of guests respectively, each group comprising averagely 10 persons.

“That is encouraging enough,” she says, adding that she is optimistic that the near future is going to be bright for Murluod, as she anticipates the completion of a new and better road to the upland and other development projects in the area.

She is also looking forward to the completion of another homestay that she is building on the land that she has bought at her own village, Kampung Segong.

She has plans to promote traditional food in both her homestays – this enterprising woman is also a good cook.

“I can teach the guests how to cook rice in ‘periuk kera’ (pitcher plant), ‘lemang’ (glutinous rice in bamboo), ‘pansuh’ (food cooked in bamboo) and other local food if they wish to have their meals prepared by us.”

Maria did not have the chance to continue her secondary education, but there is no stopping her from changing the course of her life for the better.

She has indeed come a long way from the time she was a live-in maid.
She has been to places like France, Barcelona, Portugal, Jerusalem, Turkey, Korea, and the list goes on for vacation over recent years.

She is blessed with a compatible friend who loves to travel and the two of them became travelling partners.

Maria enjoying her vacation in Turkey in 2019.

Tour organiser and guide

Maria then became a freelance tour organiser for group tours. As a tour organiser, she used to travel within Malaysia up to six times a year before Covid-19 struck as she led group tours to tourist destinations such as Penang, Langkawi, Melaka and Kota Kinabalu.

After the pandemic, she would normally host four group tours a year. Her package includes booking air tickets to and from the destination, arrangement of transport, accommodation, meal and activities, and checking in at airports and hotels.

She does most of the bookings online.

A recent photo of Maria (front, second left) leading a tour group in Penang.

“I have to google every day to look for cheaper flights, and the booking has to be done months in advance. I already have two trips confirmed for next year, one in March involving a group tour of 30 people to Kota Kinabalu, and the other in July with a group of 16 people to Hat Yai, Thailand,” she says.

Maria is not only the tour organiser, but the tour guide herself as well and she is good at both jobs. The tourists are mostly her relatives – aunts, uncles, cousins and all and also her friends and her friends’ friends who are from the villages in and around her area.

“It is my way of helping them to travel and see places by not expecting monetary profit, as long as they pay for my air ticket,” she smiles.

Perseverance and heart of charity

What makes Maria who she is today is undoubtedly a result of her years of self-confidence, perseverance, and philanthropic heart. She does not have a formal education, yet she does well at the ‘University of Life’.

She has overcome poverty with perseverance.

“Sometimes, I do feel proud of what I have achieved so far, even as my two children have gone to college level to enjoy the opportunity I did not have.

“Hard work truly pays off.”

Maria has come a long way to carve her niche of success which she now relishes.

She rose from the pangs of poverty and hardship and unashamedly beat the odds that stood in her way, and much of this attributed to her self-confidence and strong determination.