Love and Food in Malaysia

I have been feeling relatively reassured that the government has decided to tone down its questionable attempt to go after the employment of foreign workers in our food sector – shifting away from what was presented seemingly as a ‘requirement’ to merely a ‘proposal’ (funny how politics can be so fickle). But hey, this is new Malaysia after all – the rakyat reacted to a ‘proposed’ policy and those newly in power at least seemed responsive, which is a whole of a lot better than the ‘do-as-we-damned-well-please’ approach of before. One can argue that for such a half-baked and blatantly ill-advised ‘proposal’, it was always going to end up this way, but still, you never know.

 

I’m also heartened by the swift and strongly worded response by Chef Wan, who probably has more authority than the rest of us to speak about the culture and history of Malaysian food, along with the labor that goes into it. The framing of the policy as outright racist is absolutely spot on, and his description of food as a labor of love further highlights the bigotry and hate latent in these half-baked attempts to redefine who and what counts as ‘authentic’. Chef Wan is absolutely right, our food and cuisines are products of love, practice and learning – NOT products of our skin color or our racial characteristics.

 

I would also add that our food is a crucial component of our histories. Food here defies categorization and classification – there’s really no legitimate way for anyone or group to lay claim over our food as their own, as authentically ‘this’ or ‘that’. The only defining trait of our food and cuisines is that of hybridity, and for all you racist bigots out there – bastardization. What makes food here so wonderfully distinct and brilliant is the fact that most, if not all, are products of cultures, tastes and practices coming into contact. They are mutants and freaks in the best ways possible – how else could something as freakishly delightful as assam laksa even come to be? It’s a mish-mash of things that should not even make sense going together, but it does! Similarly, mee goreng? Indian fried noodles? It’s a delicious travesty.

 

Our foods carry our real histories, and those histories are about forbidden, blasphemous, often ‘dirty’ intermingling, contact and contamination.

 

How else do we find ourselves blessed with such a diverse, rich and mind-bogglingly wide mix of flavors and tastes that is comparable if not better than anywhere else in the world? It is because, as Chef Wan highlighted, of love. It is because people from different cultures and backgrounds and communities decided they wanted to do something taboo and be with one another, live together, procreate and make new things. Our food is undeniable proof that ‘dirty, inferior Indians’ did indeed fall in love with the Malays, the ‘money-minded and insular’ Chinese did indeed decide it was worth having cute, ‘mixed-raced’ children with the other races, and the supposedly pure Bumiputera did indeed feel that Thais and Indonesians were good to have families with. Like it or not, that is the truth of our food – people from different, seemingly incompatible, backgrounds falling in love and sharing their own foods to produce something magnificently new.

 

This idea that there is such a thing as ‘our’ food that can and should only be prepared by ‘our’ people is pure racist and xenophobic nonsense. It doesn’t help that this is being informed in part by the narratives of the ‘dirty’ foreigners, and discourses of ‘contamination’ that are not questionable at best. These narratives are not rooted in anything more than the observations of wannabe ‘armchair sociologists’ who use nothing more than things they happen to hear or see on occasion when they are outside.

 

Compounding this is a deeply problematic and flawed attempt of ‘scientific’ research conducted on the ‘hygiene status of foreign food handlers’ that somehow acts as an objective analysis of public health concerns. This research, recently publicized by The Star, claims that the majority of ‘foreign’ food handlers have unhygienic practices that create high probabilities for transmitting diseases to, I’m assuming, the ‘locals’.

 

Let’s set aside for a moment that no respectable scientific study deserving of actual credibility would EVER use ‘foreign’ as a category or unit of scientific analysis (it’s a socio-political category, not a biological one!). The study conducted by a group of researchers decided that it should limit its sample size purely to ‘migrant food handlers’ – which should immediately raise alarm bells about credibility, at the very least. The criteria for determining the unit of analysis and the sample pool is based on political categories (citizenship and foreigners) – what this study is actually doing is reinforcing a political distinction by giving it pseudo-biological legitimacy. Why just migrants? What happens when the study is not restricted to just ‘foreign food handlers’? Are we so certain that the health and hygiene risks are not more widely spread and not just something carried by ‘foreigners’? Using foreign vs local as a basis for public health research has to be up there with some of the most ill-advised and potentially harmful ways of doing research. Studies like this create the potential for very harmful social outcomes – using biology as a means to justify social and political exclusion and persecution. This is what happened during the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in the United States, and the hygiene-based persecution of poor Indians in Calcutta by the British, and, perhaps the worst example, the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.

 

The study’s findings shouldn’t be entirely discredited – the problem is methodological (and the politics informing it), rather than the findings. If it is indeed true that food handlers are at higher risk of pathogens and contaminants, then this is a serious public health concern that needs to be addressed holistically – by making sure everyone is safe and not at risk at their workplaces, regardless of whether they are foreign, local, green or violet. This is the very definition of public health. Pathogens and contaminants don’t exactly check passports and visas before deciding who they want to infect, do they? We should also be careful about the ways in which ‘racial predispositions’ to certain pathogens and microbes are being represented. Most research – including the Malaysian one, to be fair – is careful to indicate ‘country of origins’ or home environments rather than making the terrible mistake of linking race to biology. However, without careful reflection and a deeper understanding of these factors, it is incredibly easy for studies like this to be twisted by public rhetoric and discourse to justify the racial inferiority, or even ‘threat’, of different communities on the basis of their socio-political identities. Already, we can find examples of how this study is being used to further justify getting rid of some imagined monolithic group of ‘foreign workers’ from Malaysian food stalls.

 

The study, in spite of the questionable methodological decisions, does emphasize and recommend the need to “improve personal hygiene and sanitation standards by the relevant health authorities among migrant food handlers“, which I completely agree with as the right approach. If hygiene in the food service industry is indeed a major problem, then we need a much broader study for the sector as a whole to see what is really going on, not by bizarrely using political categories as a criteria for selection. As a researcher of migrant labor and displaced communities, my immediate impulse is that this should be used as a reason for further investigation and research into the health risks and concerns of poor migrant populations in Malaysia, particularly among the most vulnerable communities, such as the Rohingya – who are very much part of our wonderfully freakish food scene. In my own work with different communities, I am privileged enough to see much of the forms of mutations and mixing of cuisines emerging – through the most unexpected of encounters and romances between people who we view as nothing more than ‘dirty foreigners’.

 

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