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The toxic effects of food and fear mongering in Malaysia

The Muslim-majority nation has a long history of food-related controversies triggered by overzealous folks based on misinformation

Foreign tourists and Malaysians pictured at the popular Jalan Alor food street in central Kuala Lumpur in this file photo dated Sept. 25, 2015.

Foreign tourists and Malaysians pictured at the popular Jalan Alor food street in central Kuala Lumpur in this file photo dated Sept. 25, 2015. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 21, 2023 11:24 AM GMT

Updated: November 21, 2023 11:35 AM GMT

A restaurant in Malaysia sacked an employee after a video of him wearing a crucifix at work went viral last Sunday, kicking off a public outcry.

The latest mass expression of discontent linked with food could further widen the racial and religious divide in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation.

The video of the crucifix-wearing man was meant to show the serpentine queue outside a restaurant in the heart of Kuala Lumpur well-known for its meat-filled flatbread.

However, many Muslim-Malay viewers were annoyed seeing the crucifix hanging from the worker’s neck. Moreover, he was wearing the songkok, a Malay traditional headgear. 

The restaurant faced a barrage of criticism. Was it trying to hoodwink the public into believing it was a halal establishment by making a non-Muslim wear a Malay-Muslim songkok? Some also questioned if the food and the preparation were halal.

The restaurant’s manager-cum-spokesperson appeared to be a Chinese national but there were hardly any details about its ownership available in the public domain.

The manager said the worker was immediately terminated but the outrage refused to die with one group demanding halal food must only be prepared by Muslim workers.

Others said workers should not be penalized for their religious beliefs.

Many non-Muslims did work in halal places including fast-food outlets and restaurants run by Indian Muslims or mamaks.

“Even mamak restaurants employ non-Muslims and it has never been an issue. What next? Patients in hospitals demanding to be attended by healthcare professionals of the same religion?” one asked.

Malaysians have been discussing the role of food in their religion for some time now.

A home-grown pizza chain with more than 100 outlets in Malaysia and Indonesia is considering changing its name from US Pizza to KITA Pizza. It has sought public feedback through social media on the proposed move while clarifying that the US in its name meant “us” or kita in Malay, and not the United States.

Elsewhere, Muslims were upset with a Chinese restaurant for including pork in a dish called nasi kandar, an India-Muslim dish traditionally prepared without pork.

The dish was opened in October, evoking mixed reactions from both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Muslim business owners objected to it saying it could confuse Muslims, who might end up eating pork, which is forbidden in Islam.

“Customers believe all nasi kandar sold at various outlets is halal Muslim food...  will cause confusion to customers and nasi kandar fans in this country, thus giving a negative image to this much-loved dish,” said Jawahar Ali Khan, president of the Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Owners Association.

The stall owner, Suresh Gnanasekaran, an ethnic Indian, said there was little chance of that happening. His stall is in a Chinese restaurant, in a predominantly Chinese area, where pork is used and the pork label is displayed in the restaurant.

As for non-Muslims flocking to his stall, it was to try out a novelty – the first pork nasi kandar – and to show support to a non-Muslim facing criticism.

Outlets selling traditional Malay dishes using pork have seen a surge in customers since the controversy, news reports say.

Malaysia has had a long history of food-related controversies that are mostly triggered by the overzealous folks riding the misinformation tiger.

Businesses take extra care to avoid potential controversy. Supermarkets have non-halal sections with separate payment counters, and food outlets ensure non-halal or “no pork served” signage. Bars and online liquor sites also caution Muslims.

A local whisky label that won international awards in 2021 named its whisky Timah, which is tin in Malay. The label carried a picture of Captain Tristram Speedy, the British administrator credited with the development of the tin industry in Malaysia.

Yet, a controversy was triggered with claims that the name Timah was a contraction of the name, Fatimah, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. The photo resembled a devout Muslim with a skullcap, rather than a British officer, it was claimed.

The matter went before the cabinet of ministers and after much discussion, the company was allowed to keep the name and label.

Cadbury also faced controversy in Malaysia in 2014 after claims that pork DNA was found in its chocolates. Its products were recalled, halal certification revoked and sales dropped as a result.

Religious leaders called for Cadbury’s Malaysian plant to be shut down, causing even Indonesia to start testing its products. Laboratory tests were done and showed no pork DNA.

Cadbury Malaysia did manage to get back its halal certification, but incidences like these contribute to the already sore ethno-religious relations, besides frustrating businesses.

And yet, there are no signs of an end to the fear-mongering related to food.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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