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Contemplating the conundrum of a 'toko obat' family business

Jessicha Valentina
Jessicha Valentina

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, February 4, 2019  /  03:36 pm
Contemplating the conundrum of a 'toko obat' family business

Having helped with her family's business as a child, the writer opted to find a steady job instead of building a business. (JP/Wienda Parwitasari)

From Monday to Saturday, 68-year-old Lim Kay Boen drives around 38 kilometers from his home in Cikarang, West Java, to his toko obat (a drugstore that sells over-the-counter medicines) at Kramat Jati Market in East Jakarta. Sometimes his wife, 65-year-old Lie Nyuk Liang, accompanies him to the shop to help serve customers.

The couple has been running the business for more than 20 years. The toko obat started small, but in the early 2000s, it expanded and opened a clinic at the market. The clinic was closed down several years ago, but that did not stop Kay Boen from going to the shop every day.

Kay Boen rarely takes a holiday. His longest holiday was in 2012, when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which required him to rest for several weeks. Other than that, nothing could stop him from going to the shop, even a second stroke he suffered.

His hard work paid off. The profit allowed Kay Boen to send three of his five children to university. His children graduated from school but, in the past five years, they seldom set foot in the shop.

Kay Boen and Nyuk Liang are my parents.

The shop is everything to my father. He’s a typical Indonesian of Chinese descent who works hard to feed his family.

When I was younger, I would spend my school holidays in the shop. When other children were playing with their friends, I learned about running a business and various health information, such as the difference between paracetamol and ciprofloxacin as well as warning signs of strokes. The latter helped me save my father from strokes in 2015.

Traveling to the shop was not a walk in the park. When I was in elementary school, we did not have a car, but my father tirelessly drove a motorcycle to and from the shop. Actually, it is one of my best childhood memories, sitting in a passenger seat with back pain while listening to his business tips.

My father said profit was essential for business.

“It’s entirely wrong to sell products below the market price to gain customers. This type of customer always looks for a cheaper price, so they will move to other sellers once you increase the price,” he said.

When he finally purchased a car, he would drive us around and share other business tips, on aspects like innovation and customer service.  

Although he offers similar medicine to other toko obat in the market, my father understands the importance of customer service.

Whenever a customer has a question about a disease, he explains it in layman’s terms.

He also loves to joke around with customers. If someone says they’ve got toothache, he will say,” Sakit gigi itu paling tidak enak! Sakit, tapi tidak ada yang jenguk” (Toothache is the worst! It’s painful, but no one will come visit you for that). This small gesture has allowed him to get many loyal customers.

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Similar to most Asian parents, my parents don’t really like to talk about their feelings, but all of us know they actually wanted one of us to continue the business.

My father’s ideal plan was to have one of his children go to medical school, become a doctor, use the shop as a stepping stone to study the whole business and open a clinic in a densely populated neighbourhood, as he dreamed of helping those who cannot afford expensive medical treatment.

He could not hide his disappointment upon finding out that I could not enter the science class in high school. Since I was never interested in studying medicine, I took my failure in science subjects as a chance to opt for a different major.

The same thing happened with my younger brother. Although he managed to get into the science class, he decided to study information technology instead. If you asked him why, he would answer that he’s afraid of the uncertainty in business.

Although my father was disappointed, he kept supporting us. “Maybe one of my grandchildren will become a doctor,” he told us, trying to make us feel better.

He still worked very hard to fund my education, sending me to study overseas, hoping I could get a better life.

Two decades have passed since he established the business, and there were ongoing questions among the five us: Who was going to continue the business and what should we do with the shop as my father’s health deteriorates?

Honestly, we were too afraid to discuss it as a family, as we did not want to think about the day when my father could not even go to the shop anymore. When my father suffered the first stroke, my older brother suggested he sell the shop or relocate it to somewhere near his house. Of course, my father refused to do that. I think that was the last time we discussed the future of the shop.

Speaking about family business, my cousin always teased me, saying I was a coward for not becoming an entrepreneur. “It’s in your blood,” he said. The grass is always greener on the other side. When I was a child, I envied his mother, who went to work every day and had a steady life.

He never knew that my siblings and I were afraid of the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship.

Similar to other businesses, my parents faced many challenges. I can remember the good days, when he bought me the most expensive cell phone at that time or purchased three other shop lots at the market. But there were some bad days, when I had to write a letter to my school informing them that I was unable to pay the tuition fees on time.

The uncertainty of income was not the only reason, though. When I grew up, I saw my parents face a lot of external issues, such as licensing and business competition.

After they had been running the toko obat for almost 10 years, the Health Ministry released a regulation about apotek rakyat (people’s pharmacy) in 2007. My father was ecstatic and happily complied with the new regulation, thinking the new status would help develop the business. In 2016, the regulation was revoked as apotek rakyat was considered no longer relevant. It broke his and our hearts as the shop was back to its toko obat status with many limitations.

Let’s not forget about the competition among the sellers. It could get dirty, as everyone wants to feed their family.

I also saw how other’s bad reputation could affect the business. I experienced a police raid, because one of the sellers sold illegal drugs. Trust me, people running around like that was not a scene you want to witness as a child.

As we faced too many ups and downs as a family, my siblings and I looked for a steadier life, which means working at companies. I personally think it’s better to receive a monthly salary than having my child feel nervous because I cannot pay their tuition fees on time. I’d also rather deal with my boss than face the tough competition and deal with police raids. (kes)

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