Creative Income: When the going gets tough

This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 29, 2021 - April 04, 2021.
Creative Income: When the going gets tough
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In the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only caused millions of deaths but also wreaked great economic and social havoc across the globe. In 2020, the global economy fell into recession and among the consequences was millions of people losing their jobs.

Last July, Malaysia’s unemployment rate hit 5.3%, the highest in more than 30 years, before falling to 4.9% in January this year. “Retrenchment” and “restructuring” became common terms in the past year. 

Facing such adversity, many enterprising people who have lost their jobs have risen to the challenge and sought new ways to earn a regular income and, for some, even build up their wealth. Many became entrepreneurs by mustering their remaining resources to set up new ventures, while others used their hobbies to stay afloat or kick-start a new career.

It is surprising how, when forced by circumstances, people can turn even the simplest things, such as doodling, into opportunities. Their resilience and tenacity are stories of inspiration and hope. In this article, Wealth talks to a former banker and two outdoor educators who lost their jobs during the pandemic. While their circumstances are not as dire as those in the lower-income group, they have shown their tenacity in dealing with challenges by being creative and resourceful. As clichéd as it may sound, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. 


From banker to skateboarding coach

"At one point, the income generated from these [skateboarding] classes was able to fully replace the income I earned when I was working with the bank” > Dures

Last October, Joseph Romey Dures, 39, was given the dreaded news — he was being retrenched. He was the assistant manager of the private banking department at a foreign bank, in charge of executing trades and transactions for clients, brokers and other parties in the back office. 

“There was a lot of restructuring going on at that time and heads were rolling. Since the start of the pandemic, rumours had it that the company was moving our operations to India. Still, I did not expect to lose the job. It was my third year with the bank. And I thought the budak-budak baru (new boys) were more at risk.

“I was shocked to hear the news. I was mostly unprepared, mentally and financially,” he says.

For about a week, Dures did not have the courage to break the news to his wife, who had also lost her job earlier but managed to secure a new one.

“We had a two-year-old daughter at the time. And we had just started to send her to pre-school and were planning to save up for her. Everything seemed to be going well before the bad news hit.” 

Dures was jobless in the following months and the bills had to be paid. “I started to deploy my emergency savings. And we were worried. Fortunately, the severance package I received helped sustain our family for that period,” he says.

Dures has always loved skateboarding, and several times in the past, he had thought about becoming a full-time coach for the sport. It was time to follow his passion. His hobby had become a lifeline, insofar as his career was concerned. 

Dures, who has 25 years of skateboarding experience, represented Sarawak in the national arena when he was young. He also participated in X Games Asia, a major extreme sports event in 2004. In 2018, he became a certified skateboarding coach and had been coaching young children and teenagers over the weekend while working as a banker. “I love skateboarding and that was why I started coaching. It was not so much for the money,” he says. 

Shortly after he was retrenched, Dures started to tell people about his skateboarding classes and appearing more frequently at Mont Kiara Skate Park and Desa ParkCity with his students. He recruited 35 students very quickly, before the Movement Control Order (MCO) 2.0 was imposed in January. 

“It was totally unexpected. I thought parents were unlikely to send their children for outdoor activities during this period. But it was the opposite, perhaps because their children had been playing on their phones and computer games a lot at home without socialising. And they wanted their children to go out and work out. Skateboarding is a ‘cool’ thing for these kids. It got them interested and intrigued more easily than some other sports,” says Dures. 

Classes were conducted on a one-on-one basis to adhere to the government’s standard operating procedures. “At one point, the income generated from these classes was able to fully replace the income I earned when I was working with the bank,” he says. 

Just as things gained traction, Dures had to put his skateboarding classes on hold because of MCO 2.0. As it was lifted in early March, however, he is looking to start classes again. 

Dures is not putting all his eggs in one basket. Besides teaching skateboarding, the art lover draws and sells cards during festive seasons. He also draws doodles and designs on skateboards that are customised on requests by his clients. On average, he can earn about RM2,000 a month. 

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends are skateboarding days, whereas Mondays and Thursdays are allocated for art and drawing. “I have an Instagram account for my skateboarding classes and doodles. Those who are interested can check them out on jrskates_my and jrdoodles,” says Dures, a Bidayuh from Bau Singai, Sarawak.

His long-term plan is to return to his birthplace. “I inherited ancestral land there, near the mountains. It is very nice. We have caves, rivers and nice forests! I want to go back to my hometown and continue my career as a skateboarding coach.”


Fresh grad and doodling artist

"The pandemic has slowly pushed me to realise my strength and start taking art more seriously” > Sofia

Sofia Shamsunahar graduated early year with a double degree in political science and human geography. She was hired as an outdoor instructor in January last year, her first full-time job since graduation. One month later, she was unemployed.

Sofia looked for other jobs to no avail. “I looked for jobs related to my field of study, but I couldn’t get one. I explored positions at NGOs that help with women and empowerment, refugees and other social issues. But I think they were badly hit by the pandemic too.”

In the following months, Sofia dipped into her savings — money she earned from doing part-time jobs in Canada. She was a resident adviser in charge of matters related to students living in the university dormitory. She also helped to organise student leadership programmes and did freelance artwork.

Sofia considers herself lucky, as she lives with her elder brother and does not need to pay rent. Her financial liability is not as huge as many others who have a family to feed and a mortgage to service.

Things started to change for the better this year, the turning point being Valentine’s Day.

“I have been running an Instagram page posting my artwork since 2014. Those artworks were meant to help people understand their feelings and be honest about them. And I was invited to paint murals and attend events and workshops.

“As Valentine’s Day drew near, I thought I could do some related art for people. I was thinking about drawing digital cards and announced it on my Instagram account.”

To her surprise, the response she received from the account, SofsDoodles, was encouraging at first and then overwhelming. 

“It was unexpected to see how many people were interested in it. Orders started to come in from friends who wanted to support me, and then from strangers. I did a few and people were thanking me for the work I had done.

“As the days went by, more people were messaging me and asking for my service. It even got to the point where I thought, ‘Oh God, this is quite intense.’ I had to create a Google calendar to schedule how many hours I wanted to spend on each piece of artwork. Sometimes, I work 10 hours a day. It became like a full-time job and I had to slow down on the marketing,” she says.

Sofia managed to earn a monthly income that was “more than what a local fresh graduate” would get. It was a boost to her low morale at the time. 

“I think people appreciate my artworks because there is a lot of storytelling and feelings being conveyed. I would spend half an hour, or sometimes more than an hour, talking to clients over the phone.

“I would also ask them things like, what character do they identify most with? Like, a coffee lover, footballer or teddy bear? They would give me more information before I started to draw,” she says.

The income she generates from the artworks is seasonal, though. Requests for her artworks flood in during specific seasons, such as Valentine’s Day, and are fewer during normal days.

Sofia hopes the pandemic will end soon so that she can get her career back on track. “Growing up, I never took my art seriously, though it was something that gave me joy. The pandemic has slowly pushed me to realise my strength and start taking art more seriously. And I still like outdoor education. My dream is to do both.”

Meanwhile, Sofia is working on a comic book about her travels, to be published by MPH and expected to be released in May. She is also a resident artist of HAUS KCH, a community-led project aimed at revitalising abandoned buildings and turning them into creative and community launch pads.


Carving spoons, sharpening knives

"I can earn about US$300 for an eight-hour job as tech support. As a facilitator for the online programme, I can earn about US$60 a day.” > Yung

Up until March last year, things were looking great for Noel Yung, 32, an outdoor educator. He was already fully booked for the year to lead student groups on trips to islands and forests across the country. But when the pandemic hit, all schools were shut and outdoor trips cancelled.

“I had to withdraw money from my bank account in Australia. That was an emergency fund I saved up when I took on industrial rope access (ropework that allows workers to access hard-to-reach locations without the use of scaffolding and other equipment) jobs overseas.” 

Yung was fortunate in that he had no loans to pay, only rent. Respite came late last year when he was given a job to lead an outdoor education programme in Pulau Tioman, but he still needed a regular income stream.

An outdoor enthusiast who once camped three weeks by a river, the tenacious Yung adapted quickly to the new economic reality. To survive, he reached out to his previous employers in Thailand, who invited him to be a facilitator for their outdoor education programmes conducted online. It was here that he learnt about Zoom and became a technical support person for online conferences.

Yung still had to do more to supplement his income. That was when he thought about carving wooden spoons and selling them online. He had learnt to carve spoons when he was camping in Patagonia, a region in Argentina known for its dramatic mountain peaks and glaciers. “I used to camp there for a long time and spent much of my time hanging out at the campsite by the river. I had a pocketknife and started to carve spoons for fun.

“Since I had nothing much to do at home, I thought, why not make spoons?” he says. 

Yung quickly searched for spoon-carving videos online and started collecting abandoned logs from the neighbourhood. “I drove around the area to look for logs. I would bump into people from the city council trimming and chopping trees, and I would take some logs from them. Or some people would be cutting trees outside their houses and I would ask for some of the branches,” he says. 

Yung has sold only about 10 spoons in the past few months as he slowly improves his skill. He sold small pocket spoons at RM35 each and regular size spoons at RM55 each. A spatula that comes in a bigger size is priced at RM85. “It used to take three to four hours to carve a spoon, but I’m getting more efficient now,” he says. 

Just recently, Yung finally felt confident enough to set up an Instagram page called Mindfulwoodcraft to showcase his products for sale. “My ultimate goal is to conduct spoon-crafting classes. Crafting a spoon is fun, but it is also a lonely exercise. It will be more fun to do it together,” he says. 

Since January, Yung has been earning extra income from providing knife sharpening services in his neighbourhood. The idea came to him during a visit with friends. 

“My friends were complaining about blunt knives over dinner. And I said, ‘Hey, I have the stuff to sharpen knives. I have been sharpening my knives for wood carving all the while. I can sharpen them for you.’ 

“At first, I was doing it for free in a very simple way with a sharpening stone. Then, more friends started asking me to help them and I borrowed a sharpening jig to sharpen knives better. From there, I realised that I could provide knife sharpening services to people for a fee as well.” 

In the past two months, through Whatsapp and word of mouth, Yung has sharpened about 100 knives, charging clients RM2.50 an inch. A damaged knife that needs re-profiling costs RM3 to RM5 an inch. 

“From what I understand, this is still very cheap compared with the market price,” he says. 

Of his side jobs, Yung says the tech support work for online conferences is the main income contributor. “I can earn about US$300 for an eight-hour job as tech support. As a facilitator for the online programme, I can earn about US$60 a day,” he says. 

Yung estimates that these jobs can help him pay his rent until year-end, when vaccines are expected to be widely distributed and the pandemic brought under control. “Hopefully, things will finally go back to normal next year,” he says.