The huge profit margin that 33-year-old retailer Ramesh (not his real name) pockets from selling illicit cigarettes is too lucrative for him to give up anytime soon.
The strong demand for illegal cigarettes from his regular customers and the slap on the wrist he is liable for if caught is a push factor for him to continue dabbling in the illegal trade.
He has been in the business for a year and has not looked back since. It began when customers kept asking for these cigarettes. In meeting their demand, Ramesh began stocking up on the cigarettes, which he sourced from wet markets in Chow Kit.
"They primarily sell groceries, jamu (a herbal supplement from Indonesia) or other goods, but once you ask for illegal cigarettes, they will take you to one side and show you their stock. From there, we negotiate and seal the deal," he said, adding that a carton of 10 packs of the cigarettes cost him RM22.
"But if I buy in bulk it'll cost between RM16 and RM17. But there are better deals all over the city. All you need is a good network." Ramesh's supplier is Budi (not his real name) from Aceh, Indonesia. He's been selling the contraband for more than four years. Each time, Ramesh comes to replenish his supply, Budi will alert Ramesh if there are authorities or plainclothes policemen nearby. The authorities would sometimes go after those buying, but never the sellers.
"I do it because the profit is great. I don't make that much by selling legal cigarettes. Most of my customers also prefer illegal cigarettes as they are cheaper and they buy about three packs at once.
"They are low-income earners and labourers, but there are also professionals."
Ramesh does not display his contraband openly, but keeps them in a special drawer under his counter, just in case.
"At first I was really afraid, but then my customer base kept growing and I started making good profits.
"Eventually, the returns outweighed my fear of getting caught.
"If I don't sell, I will lose my customers to the other shops that sell them."