Let the people know what goes into
‘teh tarik’ and the cost

By Zainul Arifin, Columnist
From New Straits Times Online of Wednesday, March 29, 2006

HOW much now for a glass of teh tarik? This is a question of major importance as the lowly teh tarik is a national institution that transcends religious, race and class barriers.
The warm comforting sensation of a sip of teh tarik is a pick-me-up for some, and for the teetotaller, an emotional frothy crutch during troubled times.
It is not merely a drink, teh tarik; it is a social phenomenon, much like slowing down to look at accidents.
It is often enjoyed over banter and conversations of consequence or not, and over it much time has been wasted as well as millions of ringgit worth of deals sealed.
If there is a candidate for a national drink, then the concoction of sugar, condensed milk and tea dust swirled in hot water must be it.
For the health-conscious, unsweetened condensed milk (evaporated milk) is used and we have a mutation with less zing known as the teh C.
Such is the influence it has on us that someone in the Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs suggested that it be made a controlled item.
This, of course, is impossible to do, and I am sure even people in the ministry know that, too.
But it was a populist suggestion which drew nods here and there that was made at the height of consumer unease over the most recent hike in fuel prices.
As it is, a glass of teh tarik may cost 80 sen at the roadside stall, RM1 at the mamak restaurant, RM2.50 if it is air-conditioned, RM7 at a fancy restaurant and RM12 in a five-star hotel.
Now how can we make it a controlled item? Do we employ a multi-tiered pricing structure much like the National Automotive Policy? I think we are venturing close to the ridiculous here, if we begin to even consider such a move.
Truth be told, teh tarik prices have not really gone up at most of the places I frequent. I believe it is a marketing strategy since restaurant operators know that the first thing regulars will notice is whether they have to pay more for their favourite drink.
Malaysia’s business practices are rarely transparent. So we have businesses, especially those dealing in goods or services that are not controlled, fixing prices based on factors such as demand, location, cost and how much they can hurt customers’ wallets before they scream bloody murder.
It is a delicate balancing act that is closer to science than mere whim and fancy. And it is not illegal.
If we believe in our semi-regulated laissez faire environment, then we should not be attempting to curtail business enthusiasm.
Of course, everyone wants to pay less if they can, but business is business, nothing personal.
We cannot police prices as much as we can govern taste, either in fashion or food. Morally, however, well, that is another issue.
Anyway, consumers are strange creatures. They will complain over that 20 sen hike in the price of their mee goreng, but will smoke their more-expensive-by-the-day cigarettes or talk endlessly on their cellphones without flinching.
I believe that rather than spend much of our resources on seeking out price hikes, save for blatant transgressions against controlled-price items, we should spend them on promoting an informed and educated class of consumers.
An educated consumer cannot be created overnight with messages on billboards or via radio jingles. Our campaigns must have substance and information.
Rather than tell consumers to choose wisely, we should give them the tools to do so.
Take the teh tarik, for instance. It would be good if someone could break down its cost components and - after factoring in variables such as fuel, labour, transport, etc - work out the actual price for a glass, then make it known to all.
If, let’s say, it costs 30 sen to make a glass of teh tarik, then consumers can decide for themselves whether they want to continue paying triple the amount or change their lifestyle and opt for warm water to go with their nasi kandar.
Then, if they choose to pay RM11 to nurse their glass of teh tarik at a sidewalk café, more power to them.
We can, perhaps, extend this formula to all goods and services - roti canai, veterinary charges, movie tickets, haircuts, toll rates, etc - and let consumers vote with their wallets and feet.
This would add a new dimension to the pricing strategy of retailers and shop operators, who would now know that we know what they have known all along.
This, I think, can go a long way to keeping the lid on prices.

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