You can’t have your ‘nasi kosong’ and eat it too


When news broke that university students were starving because they didn’t have enough money to buy themselves three square meals a day, I was compelled to share my story as a protective mother with a daughter studying at a public university.

Like many other parents, I had my worries when my girl left the nest and began her foundation-level studies at a university three semesters ago. The consolation was that, like all other foundation students on campus, she enjoyed a scholarship that took care of major expenses – tuition fees, books, accommodation, food.

However, the first disbursement of her scholarship was slightly delayed.

Not a problem, because I made sure I bought everything she needed – shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, lotion, perfume, powder, even snacks and oatmeal bars to stave off those early morning hunger pangs.

To top it off, she received a RM300 food allowance.

As for transport, I made sure I was available to fetch her to and from campus on a weekly basis.

But two weeks into her enrolment, when she came home for the first time, I noticed she had lost weight. It took some interrogation on my part, but she sheepishly informed me that it was difficult when things were rather pricey on campus – a piece of chicken cost RM3-4, and to make her money stretch, she chose one main meal a day and went easy on the others, literally tightening the belt to fit the budget.

I won’t deny it – my heart sank when I heard her words.

The voice in my head started its spiel. I felt guilty.

What was the point of working hard, when my girl still went hungry at school? So, like every other loving, concerned parent, I made a decision.

I increased her food allowance, almost doubling it. On top of that, I occasionally delivered boxes of pizza and home-cooked food to her hostel room.

Then one day, sometime in her second semester, I received a text message: “Ma, can you bank in my allowance? I want to go out with my friends for the weekend. I’m stressed and need to chill.”

This came in the third week of the month. Shouldn’t she still have had enough money to spend?

It took awhile to sink in but the realisation hit me like a tonne of bricks.

Every month, she received her scholarship money. On top of that, I gave her a monthly allowance, bought her personal care stuff, and even sent groceries to her doorstep!

“Why then was she still saying that she didn’t have enough money?” I asked myself.

Then I noticed it. The weekly movies with friends. ‘Lepak’ sessions at Starbucks. Shopping extravaganzas. RM20 ice cream cravings. Mytaxi and GrabCar instead of LRT and public buses. Birthday presents for friends. The list went on.

That is when I made another decision: My ‘little girl’ had to manage her life with whatever money she had on hand.

If having Frappucino at Starbucks and movies with friends were more important than enjoying a decent meal every day for a full week, so be it. After all, she’s a young adult, old enough to make her own choices. It’s about time I treated her like one.

So, except for a small fixed allowance every month, I stopped all other forms of financial assistance. I stopped subsidising her lifestyle.

Yet, the mother in me needed reassurance that my little girl would be okay.

Out of curiosity, I asked my brothers how they survived their cash-strapped undergrad days. I’d heard about their stories of surviving on sausages and free ketchup from fast food chains. But here’s where one of them put my head right:

“Funds weren’t enough because every time I received my loan, I ended up buying a pair of Nike’s or a Reebok’s. Then I ate Maggi to survive. When even that wasn’t possible, I had no choice but to eat ketchup or free food samples at malls. But that was the impetus.”

“I knew I needed to make money, so during semester breaks, I became a research assistant for my lecturer. Then, I found the cheapest photocopy shop in Penang and started a small but brisk photocopy delivery service – I took orders from other students and charged them reasonable prices for the service, that’s how I made my profit. It’s a business skill I learned which I still use today.”

It’s only normal for us to feel worried when our children leave the nest and soar on their own for the first time. Standing aside and not helping them makes us feel like terrible parents.

But in the bigger picture, how will they ever learn to be independent if our actions speak otherwise? And actions do speak louder than words.

Our children must learn that education loans and scholarships are meant to take care of their living expenses. It is not to be sent home to pay bills, not for investment in some MLM scheme, and definitely, not for extravagant expenditure.

As for my daughter, she’s gone back to her one-meal-per-day policy – nasi kosong, telur mata and kicap – and lost some weight. She must feel happier parading in her new leather Converse compared to having a happy tummy.

But that is her choice. I have grown to respect her decision.

She is an adult. It’s about time I treated her like one.

You can’t have your cake (or in this case, nasi kosong!) and eat it too.

Perhaps, it’s time we treat our university students like adults.

I am, of course, thinking of my brother when I say a good dose of ‘nasi kosong’ may just make a woman (or man) out of you.