Friday Jottings: The failure to rice to the occasion

ALAS, the humble, unexciting and under-rated cassava or better known locally as tapioca, has been the butt of vicious jokes during the festive season when forgiveness and humility are of essence.

Indeed, the innocent cassava was dragged into the polemics because a clever by half politician attempted to get his five-minute fame by dragging the starchy root tuber into the contentious debate on the shortage and pricing of local rice.

Obviously, the utterances were made without giving much thought or rather, they were said without making a pit stop at the grey matter.

Any personality of worth would have realised that when dealing with food, especially a staple, it must be treated with utmost courtesy and reverence as the annals had kept records of those suffering tedious infamy for their flippancies.

And of course, notorious of all would be Marie Antoinette, whose suggestion that those starving for bread be fed with cake (or brioche in some narratives).

There are those who disputed the historical account but Antoinette’s quote had stood the test of time, and as a stark reminder of how detached the elites and ruling classes are from the proletarians, peasants and the working class.

Though Johari Abdul, the Parliament speaker, who suggested cassava be considered in place of the elusive local rice, may not have reached Antoinette’s ignominy, the chorus of anger, mocking and disdain expressed for his opinion is damning by any local standards.

But Johari’s foot-in-mouth exploits in food matters is not Malaysia’s first.

Contemporary history would show that former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak performed similar feat when he publicly said that he preferred quinoa to rice, at a time when public anger towards the government for rising cost of living was at a peak.

Antoinette went on to  her fate by the guillotine while Barisan Nasional/Umno’s hold on the nation’s rule came to an end under Najib’s watch.

Whether Antoinette’s and Najib’s coup de grace resulted from their unsavoury utterances on the staple food may be debated, but their words obviously contributed further, if not majorly, to public disaffection towards them.

Back to Johari’s cassava or tapioca.

By any count, suggesting tapioca as a replacement, or a supplement, to rice is definitely as insensitive as Najib’s quinoa or Antoinette’s brioche or cake.

Secondly, it affirmed suspicions that the current administration is incapable of solving the shortage of local rice supply or if it could, it is only done at a higher price — either and both are unacceptable.

Thirdly, the history of tapioca in pre-independence Malaya is strongly associated or even symbolises war-time deprivation, poverty and oppression.

It was indeed a replacement and supplement to rice which was difficult to obtain, unavailable or only for those moneyed and positioned.

Rice at that time to most Malayans were equal if not more valuable than gold.

It was even revered by the pre-independent Malay community that special prayers were held for a bountiful harvest.

Post war Malaya and independent Malaysia showed that rice is a staple food taken by some for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even supper, reflecting the popularity and its stature and dietary significance among the majority of Malaysians.

It is as much a common folks’ food as it is for the wealthy. The former consume local rice, which price had, for years no end, been kept under control by previous administrations. The latter opts for the pricier basmati, pre-boiled, brown rice and other variants deemed healthier and such.

All these point towards the fact that rice, apart from simply being a staple food, is also equally complex in the structure and make-up of the Malaysian society.

It is definitely not a subject to be taken lightly or dispensed flippantly.

No matter how much Johari may try to highlight the virtues of tapioca over rice, it will never be able to take over the place and position of rice in the Malaysian household, unless and only when it becomes truly unavailable.

But to allow it to become scarce or unavailable is not an option either for any administration, past, present or future.

Millions, or rather billions of ringgit had been spent since independence by previous administrations in building dams, providing assistance from machinary to seedlings to fertilisers, to ensure that rice will always be available and at an acceptable price.

And the present administration is expected to do as much if not more.

Because of that, suggesting that Malaysians opt for tapioca in the absence or shortage of local rice is not an option.

It is an insult and utterly insensitive.

Politically, it is an admission of failure and incompetence because the availability of rice at all times at an acceptable price is the benchmark of a capable administration – no different than the ability to ensure continuous clean water and electricity supplies.

Disruption for a reasonable period is grudgingly tolerated but prolonging it will hasten the path to the exit.

As pointed out earlier, other leaders and administrations suffered the consequences for the disrespect accorded to the staple food and making light its shortage or increased price.

Antoinette and Najib learned the hard way and way too late which should serve as a caution to present and future leaders.

The rule of the thumb is simple — whenever there is shortage of rice — admit it and face it like a man and never suggest alternatives or replacements.

Unluckily, they seem incapable to rice to the occasion. — pic AFP


  • Shamsul Akmar is an editor at The Malaysian Reserve.

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