The Open Secret of Kuala Muda

24 July 2017

Pasar Bisik, Kuala Muda is a market with undisclosed prices and the middle man nowhere to be seen. Find out how it manages to run so well.
For a whispering market, Pasar Bisik is actually a flurry of action and noise. Fishermen call out to each other, buckets of fish are dragged and sloshed around. The act of bidding through whispers is a sight that doesn’t really gel with the brusque ways of the fishermen. Buyers lean in close to these fishermen whose faces are darkened from days out at sea, naming their price while cupping their hands over it in secrecy.

It’s an incongruent sight, and for some, a tourist attraction but it really is a sign of how these fishermen never gave up their hustle.

In 2004, a tsunami struck Kota Kuala Muda, a day right after Christmas. The tiny town, with nothing much to show, made the headlines for once, tragically. Ten lives were lost, property destroyed and along with that, a large number of boats, which were the source of livelihood for many of the town’s fishermen.

The whispering system was something that was fading away by then. It saw a sudden resuscitation when a group of fishermen, whose boats survived the wreckage, decided to get together and sell their catch using this old method. With the normal fishing community disrupted and the market place affected by the tsunami, this was their way of coping as the town struggled to pick itself up.

As their pool of customers grew, the fishermen saw regular folk and business owners from as far as Kedah and Perak turning up at their makeshift market. Eventually, the Lembaga Kemajuan Ikan Malaysia (LKIM) built a proper structure to house the whispering market, christening it Kompleks Pasar Bisik Ikan Kuala Muda.

Being a first-time buyer at the Pasar Bisik can be intimidating. The best time to be there is around 10am. The market, now housed in what LKIM calls a ‘complex’ is actually a simple roofed structure lit by the glare of the unforgiving sun.

Fishermen drag their catch right from their boats, weigh them and put them on the floor, a thin plastic sheet the only thing separating crab from concrete.

Things move at a brisk pace here. Buyers and fishermen are no-nonsense. The moment a fisherman lays down his catch, buyers immediately start sizing it up, moving in to whisper their bid into the fisherman’s ear. Usually, after three or four hushed biddings, the fisherman bends down and ties the plastic sheets together, bundling the fish and passing it on to the highest bidder. Cash is quickly exchanged and the deal is then done.

Customers come in a steady stream with ice boxes ready to stock up on fresh fish, crabs and prawns that will last up to a month in the household. Aside from them, many businesses take advantage of the lower prices to buy seafood in large quantities. One can reportedly get deals for up to 30 percent lower than market price, depending on the type of seafood and the weather at sea.

Usurping the middle man, this system seems to be a win-win for customers that enjoy a good bargain and fishermen who know how to sell. For those that prefer a more straightforward way of purchasing their seafood, there is a conventional market right next to Pasar Bisik where there is no need for secret bids.

Sometime around 3pm, the fish run out and the crowd dissipates. Tomorrow, the fishermen wake early and head out to sea again, clad in army fatigues, balaclavas and rubber boots – their version of battledress for another day out trying to survive the elements.

Text and photos by Adeline Chua



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