Thursday, November 6, 2014

Beauty Queen - an extract from NST 50 yrs Merdeka Edition

Shannon Teoh
New Straits Times
Beauty queen
Byline: Shannon Teoh
Edition: Main/Lifestyle
Section: Supplement
Memo: Celebrating the Malaysian spirit

VERY much the archetypal makcik, Latifah Tak found her niche in life - and with it financial freedom and opportunities to globe- trot too! - by being an Avon lady. SHANNON TEOH finds out that when all else fails, a cliched life may be a good thing.

The life and times of Latifah Tak are in fact, littered with cliche. But when you put each degree of cultural and historical truth in her life story together, you get an unflinchingly quaint story of a Malaysian who's been there all through our 50 years - meaning the sum of the cliches is a cliche.
She was there when we first became a nation, she grew up in a kampung, she sought her fortunes in the city, she sent her children overseas to study and now recalls fondly the days when things were simpler and less evil.

She is very much the archetypical makcik, and so, is in fact, a sculptured result of Malaysia-hood.

Even more than that, she was and is part of a legion of women who have been empowered by the global phenomenon known as Avon and there is no overestimating the effect that the world's most-recognisable direct-selling cosmetics company has had on thousands, if not millions, of Malaysians.

The Avon lady is yet another cliche, but when you find someone who has found success through it, it is a joyous one.

Kak Pah, as she seems to be referred to by everyone other than family, has gained more than her share of fortune from signing up as a dealer one fateful day in 1977, although it was a case of necessity rather than initiative.

"I had just given birth to my first child and my salary was tiny. I was earning RM600 but the house loan was RM400. I needed a form of side income.

"I have always been interested in business, but I had no capital. Then I saw one of Avon's first advertisements saying `We need dealers!' So I called the hotline and a sales manager, a Chinese lady, I remember, brought over a huge catalogue. And suddenly, I was selling RM200 of products a campaign. Nowadays, I can sell RM8,000 a campaign," Kak Pah told us at the Avon Beauty Boutique (ABB) in Ampang Jaya.

The ABB is part of the direct-selling system Avon employs nowadays, allowing dealers to place orders and collect products instantaneously at a store close by.

In its humbler beginnings in August 1977, Avon had only six staff in a little office to service its 400 dealers, who included Latifah Tak.

The system for which Avon is famous for might have undergone some tweaking as the years passed - for example, a campaign, which involves tactical discounts and promotions, lasts only two weeks as opposed to three when they first started - but the basic elements remain the same.

You sell the goods on micro-credit based on orders from your customers and Avon only collects on this. It's risk-free and the more you sell, the larger your "discount", which is in essence, your cut of the takings.

This has led to a phenomenal 370,000 dealers finding themselves on Avon Malaysia's database, selling RM280 million worth of Avon's expanded range of products per year, from the original line of cosmetics to undergarments and even household items.

Kak Pah was, in fact, once Malaysia's number one dealer, according her legendary status amongst her peers when she breached RM60,000 back in 1982. But as the brand gained a foothold, even sales of RM250,000 didn't win her the award again.

She hovers at about half of that nowadays but this still means that her own coffers were enlarged by over RM45,000 last year.

Now aged 60, she might have slowed down a bit and enjoys the pensioner's life, but she's still quite the prolific salesgirl, claiming that in half-an-hour's walkabout in her "turf", she can hit sales of RM1,000.

"When I was still a phone operator in Mara, I used to only have the two breaks to take orders. But if there's even a few minutes when there are no customers, I get itchy. It's like a phobia. I'll immediately get up and start looking for orders.

"I won't even stop to chat. I'll say, `You want to order or not? Don't want, don't waste my time.'"

Despite her caustic manner, she is admired far and wide. Even her superiors at Mara hail her as a success story and use her as an example at seminars.

"A lot of Malays come in asking for loans to start businesses. My director used me as an example to other entrepreneurs - that one does not even need to borrow a single sen."

Nowadays, she's enjoying the fruit of her labours. When visiting her happy hunting ground near the Mara building on Jalan Raja Laut - which includes several government offices and both Sogo and Pertama Complex - she'll even stop by at the old cafeteria and sit down for a chat.

"It's basically a ladies' club. No guys allowed. Just for us to sembang-sembang."

It mirrors Avon's nearly jaundiced commitment to women.

As Kak Pah says, from "top to bottom", Avon covers a spectrum of women's products. Its corporate social responsibility revolves around breast cancer, with a programme called KEBAL, an acronym for Kesan Barah Awal (Detect Cancer Early).

Kak Pah is unflinching and nearly militant about what Avon has done for women around the country.

"When I needed help to support my new family, nobody helped me. Only Avon was there," she claimed emphatically.

Yet, at the same time, it is her own canny business sense that has seen her prosper. Unlike the typical Avon lady, she has never gone door-to-door.

"If you go around the neighbourhood to housewives, their money is all derived from their husband, so they need permission. But if you work the office-going circuit, then these are empowered women with disposable income. They are the ones who will buy whatever they want."

And the young female executive in KL, above all else, apparently wants to smell nice.

Kak Pah sells hundred-ringgit bottles of perfume by the dozen each campaign and fondly recalls a time when this trend saw her bag an incentive trip to Paris.

"They were asking us to push some perfume back in the mid-90s. It was RM79 per bottle of perfume and we had to sell 300 of it in a year. Senang aje, in one month habis. After that, Avon never challenged us again. I wish they would," she snickered cheekily.

For someone who grew up in the kampungs of Kampung Baru and Jeram (near Kuala Selangor), visiting places like Paris was quite a thrill even if by then, she had been to cities such as Cairo, Istanbul and London.

She remembers her first overseas trip though, and despite the immaculate makeup she had on, there was a slight blush when she related the tale.

"Avon took the top 20 dealers in the country to Bangkok in the early 80s. I wanted to buy some cloth and mistakenly thought 2,300 baht per metre came up to about RM20 when in fact, it was more than RM200. When he was cutting it, I realised to my horror my mistake. I told him I had to look for friend. I went into the bus, sweating profusely, refusing to come out. I was afraid I'd get walloped by those Siamese! I was as pale as a ghost!"

But all her success was not driven by greed or ambitions to see the world - although she often ironically refers to how glamorous her life is - but by a deeply rooted sense of maternal instinct.

The same way Avon affords her credit, she also extends the same privilege to her customers, many of whom are young `uns still making their way in life.

"They like to joke about how shopping at Kak Pah's is the best in the world because you don't have to bring any money," she told us.

There's always a good helping of beauty advice and recommendations on bras, girdles and corsets. One of fondest memories are girls as young as five coming up to her and asking to buy lip gloss. Then there's the 38-year-old woman who called her `cik', only to learn that she was pushing 60.

"Her skin was so bad, her face so wrinkled, so I took her under my wing for a few months to show her how to turn back the clock.

"It's hard to imagine Malaysia without Avon. Malaysian women are so beauty conscious, and Avon has made it affordable," she said with a somewhat ridiculously philosophical tone.

But it isn't really that ridiculous. She's seen her fortunes shoot through the roof because of Avon, so why not any number of these women?

Certainly, she attributes the funding of her two daughters' education in the United Kingdom - four years apart with a brother aged 28 between them - to Avon. In that indirect sense, Avon has affected these women's lives who are now both successful executives in their own right.

The elder of the two did obtain help from Mara and the younger worked part-time to ease the burden but Kak Pah insists that the steady flow of income from Avon was a big help.

"I remember my youngest worrying that she might not attain her dream of following in her sister's footsteps because her mum was "just an Avon dealer". So one day I told her, "Open my handbag and look". When she did, she found it stuffed with cold hard cash from my sales. That was the end of any money worries."

(Both Mara and JPJ had also rejected her daughter's applications for financial aid, claiming that their orders were to look into "critical" fields such as medicine and engineering.)

"When she graduated, the Malaysian embassy in UK wanted her to work for them. My daughter was keen but I insisted she come home. Tell the Government to hire their `critical' graduates," she pointed out sarcastically.

"Avon kept me too busy to raise more children. I didn't really have much leisure time when I was working either. I'd go with my husband to watch a movie or a live band at a hotel but mainly I kept myself occupied with Bakat."

Officially the Armed Forces' Family Welfare Organisation, it is also known as the Wives Assocation Movement and Kak Pah was chairperson of her particular branch. Even here, she showed her matriarchal side.

"I really didn't like the protocol involved with the officers' wives. I preferred mixing with the lower-ranking girls, playing badminton or berjoget."

Her service in Bakat eventually earned her a Pingat Pangkuan Negara from the then Agong, Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin, the Raja of Perlis.

But more than a businesswoman, more than a kampung girl done good, Kak Pah is first and foremost, a mother. And she is a mother to her country - you can see her brow furrow when waxing philosophical about our current state of affairs.

She is unreserved in both her enthusiasm of living in Malaysia but also wistful in wishing it didn't come with so many side effects.

Like any proud mother, she sees this nation as successful and affluent although she believes that the moral landscape of today has taken a turn for the worse.

"Actually, I've never felt the economic downturns. Working for Avon, I've always hit my targets. You look around and people have more disposable income than ever. Now we even consider things like cosmetics and beauty products to be necessities. How many KL women go around without their compacts and moisturiser?

"We used to take taxis from Kampung Baru to the shopping centres, paying just 40 sen. Now, we sit in a Mercedes and our younger generation drives Japanese cars. Maybe our roads are a bit sesak, but it doesn't bother me.

"What bothers me is this fear. I just pray May 13 never happens again. I mean, I was living in Kampung Baru itself. We were afraid of everything and everyone. We couldn't even go to work!"

Kak Pah's other fear is how jahat people have become, in particular, sexual fiends.

"Nowadays, we even have fathers raping daughters. I wonder if the problem is due to the television and the Internet. Since the 90s, people have access to all sorts of sexual content.

Back in those days, boys climb trees and spy on you but they won't touch you."

"We used to walk 5km to school and we'd be safe. Now, people get killed by snatch thieves outside their house. I used to hitch lifts on bicycles to go for my Quran classes. Does anyone dare to take a lift nowadays?"

She recognises all this is somehow inexorably linked to the progress we've had and will readily admit that she's enjoyed as much modernity as the next person. But when push comes to shove, she'd rather things the way they were.

"My hope for the future is that Malaysia becomes a safer place. We want our development and people want bigger pay cheques. But the smiles you see when they get their bonuses can so easily be wiped out by the evil things that could happen to them."

But as Kak Pah settles to life as a matriarchal grandmother, she can look back at a life that was lived to the full with experiences and wisdoms that will be passed on to her children and grandchildren - as cliched as that might seem.

(Copyright 2007)

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