As a drug pusher and user, Mohamad Yusof Othman would source for supplies, buy in bulk, appoint dealers to peddle his wares and let the profits rolling in feed his habit.
Ten years later he has honed those business strategies to greater success. Only, now he is off drugs and his trading talents are being used to run a snack food business where tidy profits are helping feed him and his family.
Yusof, or his thriving stall at the Kuala Lumpur Downtown Bazaar, are not unique--some 80 of the 400 traders at the night market are recovering drug addicts who sell household items, traditional medicine, tailoring services, foot massage service, clothes, snacks and toys.
The KL Downtown, as it is popularly known, is a venture of Pengasih, or “Care Giver,“ a Malaysian association of former drug addicts that aims to integrate its members back into society, to help them earn an honest living and to be independent, functional individuals, reported AP.
“This market is a positive influence,“ the youthful-looking 47-year-old Yusof says. “When you are busy working on strategies to grow your business, your mind is full and you have a purpose...there’s no time to think of drugs and no need to turn to it.“
Malaysia currently has about 23,000 drug addicts, and reforming some 80 may sound like a drop in the ocean.
Still, it provides a clever and unique answer to the problem that may offer lessons and inspiration to other activists fighting addiction worldwide.
“It is a good start for such a small group,“ said Shan Kathirvelu of the local human rights group Suaram, adding that the project needs institutional backing from the government.
“It’s time for the big effort, because the numbers are very big and the concerns are serious and recovering addicts need urgent care.“
The recovering addicts at the Downtown Bazaar do not get any government aid to start their business--they have to raise their own funds. The land occupied by the Downtown Bazaar belongs to the city municipality, which has loaned it to Pengasih.
All the recovering drug addicts there are Pengasih members. Membership rules are strict: Addicts must be drug free and crime free for at least two years before they are allowed into the association and are mentored by senior members after that.
The project’s manager, Mohamad Rustam Roshandin, 24, who was addicted to drugs at the age of 11 and cleaned up at 20 with Pengasih’s help, said he mooted the bazaar idea to the group’s directors to encourage entrepreneurship--and also to help himself.
His dream is to create a safe space not just for former addicts to ease into a normal life, but also to reach vulnerable teenagers.