Malaysian Muslims fume over heritage tag for pork soup

Bak kut teh, a traditional Chinese pork rib soup is forbidden for Muslim-Malays who form about 60 percent of the population

Vanitha Nadaraj

Updated: March 04, 2024 01:48 PM GMT

Malaysia's Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Tiong King Sing. His political opponents are calling for his resignation after the listing of Bak kut teh, a traditional Chinese pork rib soup boiled with herbs and spices, as one of Malaysia’s heritage foods has angered the country’s Muslims. (Photo: Twitter)

Angry Muslims in Malaysia are demanding the resignation of the country's tourism minister after a traditional herbal pork rib soup was listed among national heritage food items.

Tourism minister Tiong King Sing, an ethnic Chinese, faced criticism in the parliament on Feb. 29.

Criticism began a week after Heritage Commissioner Mohamad Muda Bahadin, a Muslim, announced the list. 

The objection to the traditional Chinese recipe, known as Bak kut teh, stems from the concern that it is based on pork, which is forbidden for Muslims, who form some 60 percent of the country's population.

Rosol Wahid, a parliamentarian from the Malaysian Islamic Party (known by its Malay acronym PAS), said considering the pork soup as a national heritage touches on religious sensitivities.

If we were Taiwan or Hong Kong, it would not be an issue, he said in parliament.

Akmal Saleh, youth leader of the United Malays National Organisation, which is part of the ruling coalition, called for Tiong's removal from his ministerial post.

If the minister cannot think of Malaysians' sensitivities, then we urge Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to fire the minister,  Saleh wrote on Facebook.

A food item should not be a national heritage if most people in the country cannot eat it, he said.

The Malay nationalist party's youth leader suggested replacing the soup with the ubiquitous fried rice.

The fried rice can be consumed by everyone and not only by certain segments of society, he told The Star.

Tiong responded to the criticism by saying halal versions of the soup are available using chicken and lamb.

Halal, meaning lawful or permitted, indicates something produced or processed following Islamic teachings.

I have emphasized several times that the herbs used are halal. The type of meat used can vary, he said.

Bak kut teh, translated from the Chinese, means meat ribs soup made with herbs and spices. It is said to have originated from China and was a staple diet for port workers in Klang, an hour's drive from Kuala Lumpur.

The poor man's dish is now a much sought-after delicacy in Malaysia.

The basis for listing the soup was not made public but the National Heritage Department comes under Tiong's ministry.

The heritage list also includes a rice dumpling cooked with coconut milk; a noodle dish from Sarawak; a rice dish of Indonesian origin; a wild ginger pickle; and a South Indian dosa or pancake variety.

The Malaysian Tourism Board backed Tiong's decision, adding that the minister should have done more to bring the tourist arrivals to pre-pandemic figures.  

Tiong has been the target of verbal attacks over some of his recent decisions including the demotion of a high-ranking official from his ministry who happened to be a Muslim-Malay for underperforming.

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