Friday Jottings: To dish or not to dish

GOING by protagonist Tiong King Sing’s reaction, now that bak kut teh has been declared a national heritage dish and any attempt to question it is deemed “racist, extreme politics”, the issue status of the dish is a fait accompli.

For good measures, Tiong, the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, had declared that the dish should not be associated with pork as the word “bak” referred to meat which meant that the dish can be of any meat, not necessarily pork.

Antagonist, Umno Youth leader Umno Youth Chief Dr. Muhamad Akmal Saleh, despite having been chided and told not to behave like an opposition for raising the issue, seemed unperturbed, stood firm on his calls that Tiong be dismissed.

Akmal upped the debate by claiming that “bak” meant pork in Hokkien.

Whether Tiong’s or Akmal’s definition of “bak” is definitive is actually inconsequential. All that needs to be established is what bak kut teh immediately means to the general populace when it is mentioned.

Tiong can try to hide with the semantics but no one in Malaysia, if they are honest, would deny that bak kut teh is pork soup. Wikipedia, the common source for basic reference, clearly states that it is “a Chinese pork rib dish cooked in broth”.

No matter how hard Tiong try to defend his position, bak kut teh is a dish with pork inside hence the strong reaction from Akmal and other Malay Muslims who felt the listing of the dish is an insult to the status of Islam being the religion of the Federation.

The whole issue centres on the porcine presence in the dish and had nothing to do with racist or extreme behaviour as Tiong suggested of those opposing the listing, Akmal included.

If racism and extreme tendencies were said to be the underlying reasons for the protest, it doesn’t hold water when all other non-Malay/Muslim food which had been listed, recently or in the past, as heritage dishes had been accepted without much ado.

It is simply a case of Tiong and, unfortunately, the innocent bak kut teh, being insensitive to the sentiments of a segment of the society and it is a major segment for that matter.

Next of interest is how far would Akmal go in demanding Tiong’s resignation as Tiong at this stage is defending his position and is unlikely to buckle to the former’s demand.

That however is putting the cart before the horse because, of Akmal’s public protest and demand for Tiong’s resignation and Tiong’s reminder to Akmal not to behave like an opposition actually sums up the absurdity of the intra-party relations in the government patched up together post-election.

In the first place, when Umno and Akmal decided to be part of the Pakatan Harapan-led Government, they should have known that they are joining an entity that is for multi- culturalism and multi-racialism.

While on the surface, there is some degree of recognition that the Malay and Bumiputera interests are of the essence, in particular in economy, society and governance, the rest should be of equal measures.

The signs were already there. A recent one was Minister Nga Kor Ming’s suggestion that the Chinese New Village being nominated as a UNESCO Heritage Site saw widespread protests especially from the Malay Muslim community, leading to the withdrawal of the suggestion.

Much as it was withdrawn, the more cynical saw it was merely a red herring, a test to see how the Malay Muslim community would react to such a suggestion.

Hence, the bak kut teh is yet perceived as another attempt to “bait” the Malay Muslims and when they react strongly and aggressively, they are then labelled as racist and extreme.

Unlike the New Village issue, the bak kut teh is not being withdrawn and with Umno Youth Akmal taking the lead, their end game is being watched closely by the Malay-Muslim community.

If Umno and Akmal fail to either get the dish out of the list or Tiong removed from the Cabinet, then the popular sentiments among the Malay Muslim community that they had lost their gumption in fighting the community’s cause is further affirmed.

Inevitably, it would also affirm the community’s sentiment that PKR, the party of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is not the party for them to turn to.

Their silence or trivialising matters sensitive to the community has not gone unnoticed and the strong reactions from the likes of Akmal from Umno amplifies the fact.

And the growing disaffection among the community towards the Government due to the rising cost of living, new taxes and the dismissive nature when dealing with the massive currency depreciation had intensified the sentiments.

No matter how much the ruling elites attempt to picture the opposition as being religiously and racially intolerant, it would not distract the community’s scrutiny of what they view as the lack of commitment to preserving their interest and dignity.

Tiong and bak kut teh come at a crucial moment for the PH and its partners.

It is at the best of times as it is a good opportunity for Umno and Akmal to prove their mettle while the rest of the Malay political parties seemed in a corner in another set of power play with the ruling multi-racial parties.

It came at a stage when the partners in the coalition government had to decide how they want to define multi-racial and multi-cultural for the national psyche instead of merely mouthing Hallmark kind of utterances – nice to hear but meaningless.

There’s however a sneaking feeling that in this foray, neither Tiong nor bak kut teh would be forsaken.

Unless there’s a dish of halal spine. – pic AFP


  • Shamsul Akmar is an editor at The Malaysian Reserve.