The value of fifty cents

Earlier this afternoon, I sat on the RapidKL bus from the city back to Ampang.

As I was walking back to my car, parked quite a distance away from the bus stand, I bumped into three schoolboys. They must have been brothers, with the eldest maybe 9 or 10 years old and the youngest maybe 7. They were walking ahead of me with their heavy bags weighing down on their shoulders. The eldest turned around and looked up at me.

“Uncle, ada 50 sen tak?”
(Translation: Uncle, can you spare fifty cents?)

At this point, the second brother quietly frowned at his brother, “Eh, takkanlah nak mintak macam tu!” The youngest one just stood there blankly, quietly holding onto the straps of his bag.

I was curious so I asked the eldest.

“Nak buat apa?”
(What do you need it for?)
“Nak naik bas.”
(For the bus fare)
“Duduk kat mana? Tak cukup duit ke?”
(Where do you live? You don’t have enough?)

This time the second brother replied,

“Tak cukup 50 sen.” while pointing at the youngest one.
(We’re short of fifty cents.)

I fished out a nice fat 50 cent coin from my wallet and handed it to the eldest brother.

“limaposen cukup ke? Betul?”
(Are you sure fifty cents is enough?)

He insisted that it was enough.

“Terima kasih uncle.”
(Thank you uncle)

He took my hand and raised it to his forehead. His brothers came closer, and thanked me with a similar salam before turning around and walking towards the bus stand.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about those kids. Admittedly, I was sceptical at first, seeing how common it was in Kuala Lumpur for people to beg, lie and cheat. Live here long enough and you grow cold, numb, disillusioned about helping strangers. Everyone is a fraud, a con-man looking for the next gullible victim.

But these kids, they were not begging. They were only short of fifty cents to get a ride home. What was that fifty cents to me anyway? The bus ride back from the city was RM2.60. Lunch was RM10.00. Fifty cents wouldn’t qualify me for even an hour of parking in the city. But that was all the boys needed for a ride home and that was all they asked of me. Nothing more.

I guess what really took me by surprise was the way they thanked me. I have a soft spot for the salam, the Malay custom of gently lifting the back of the hand either to the mouth or the forehead,  the ultimate gesture of respect reserved for elders. You can’t buy it, nor can you demand for it. I know nothing of their upbringing or where they lived or if they were the naughtiest kids in school, but their parents planted the right seed within them. And if you plant the seed of a cengal , then by God’s grace, expect nothing else than a mighty cengal.

I hope the light within their hearts continue to shine bright as they make their way through life, searing through the racism, prejudice, corruption and injustice that has mired our beautiful society. For a brief moment in a soulless city that demands from you much more than you are willing to part with, I was the one these boys trusted to ask fifty cents from. And for that I thank them. For blessing me with something so pure as the humble salam. I may not have much to my name but such experiences are to me, more valuable than anything money can buy.

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