By : Yong Huey Jiun
KUALA LUMPUR: This year's Hari Raya Aidilfitri may have to be dubbed "Hard" Raya for many low- and middle-income Muslim families in the country.
Soaring prices have put a damper on festive spirits, as families already girded by tightened financial belts face the prospect of a very lean Aidilfitri.
For the family of Rohaya Mohd Radzi, for instance, this week's celebrations may be remembered for how unexceptional they will be.
For one thing, they will have to learn to go without anything new. Granted, they can't remember the last time they got anything new, but Hari Raya Aidilfitri will simply underscore how difficult things have become for them.
Although the rise in prices hit the family hard, Rohaya said she could still afford the basics, without worrying about what tomorrow would bring. But the situation had since worsened and reduced even that way of life to a bare minimum.
"I can't plan for the household in advance now. We just manage one day at a time," said the 42-year-old wife and mother of three.
Rohaya, who holds the family's purse strings, now has to hold two jobs -- she is a babysitter by day and seamstress by night -- to afford food and other necessities for the family.
But she barely scrapes by: the rent for her flat takes up more than half of her RM700 monthly income. Her 42-year-old husband, Shahwari Md Sharif, has difficulties holding on to a job for long.
"Even when he does bring money home, our combined monthly income has never surpassed RM1,600," she said.
The prevailing high prices have tested her ability to stretch every sen -- from recombining leftovers to sewing Raya clothes for her children herself.
On a recent evening, just 15 minutes before breaking fast, Rohaya went to the kitchen of her family's one-room flat to make lempeng pisang out of some bananas.
"One can't afford to waste at this time," she said.
Carefully pouring cooking oil into the frying pan as if each drop were the last, she heated the oil before putting in the banana dough she had kneaded hours earlier.
"I buy cooking oil in packets now, as I can't afford bottled cooking oil."
Later, her daughter returned home with some kuih-muih from the Ramadan bazaar. Together with the lempeng pisang, the simple meal was to be shared by four.
Occasionally, Rohaya's neighbour, Khatijah Hashim, brings over some leftovers from her food stall for breaking of fast. Khatijah and her husband operate a food stall at the Ramadan bazaar across from their flat.
But Khatijah, too, is facing hard times.
"It can get quite tiresome eating the food you cook and sell every day, so we used to eat out almost every day," said Khatijah's husband, Baharuddin Isa. "But high prices have forced us to buckle down and eat at home," he added.
Khatijah said the price of ikan kembung, for example, had jumped 12 per cent from just two weeks ago, and the cost of other staples such as eggs and cooking oil had also shot up.
In spite of this, the couple has only raised the price of the fish and chicken they sell by a small fraction, deciding to absorb the rising costs of other food items so as not to shock customers.
Nevertheless, their decision to raise prices has had an impact on the number of visitors to their stalls.
Last year, the couple sold four huge tubs of rice by mid-Ramadan, but they've sold only half of that this year, even as Raya looms. This suggests consumers are skimping on rice -- a commodity that has seen a surge in price since the beginning of this year.
"It also suggests to me that consumers are cooking at home," said Khatijah.
Because of the new eating-in trend, the couple, whose monthly household income totals RM4,000, expects profits to dip by 30 per cent from last year.
To compound the bleak outlook for this Raya, fewer people will balik kampung, due to the high price of petrol.
Rohaya's family will not be going back to their hometown in Kampung Gajah, Perak, while to save costs, Khatijah's family will travel back to Kuala Krai by train.
In spite of everything, the families are taking the hardship in their stride. "Even my 10-year-old son understands times are hard," said Rohaya.