Eating Politics, in halal format

Food is a national obsession, yet in the same vein a stark mirror to the divided nature of our country.

In Malaysia the preparation, serving and consumption of food has reached an endemic level, where the mere errors of perception can lead to horrific outcomes. We are paranoia central, here in Malaysia.

In the 1980s the KFC chicken scare – where the halal issue of the meat was questioned – made people desert the franchise.
And now we get intermittent reports on how school canteens are becoming battle-fronts. The Education Ministry has barred the sale of non-halal food in schools, added to almost all operators being Muslim only, some principals still unsatisfied with all present prohibitions elevate the issue by banning the bringing of non-halal food to canteens.

Can you imagine the unconstitutionality of such decisions? Where do these little napoleons develop the courage to apply these rules?

There is a dire need to have a food debate in this country, and soon.

The food-court

The Maybank building close to my office has a foodcourt for obvious reasons. However the oddity is that there are no non-halal stalls. There is one Chinese restaurant, but it is a vegetarian one, you are not going to get your pork rice there.

I am quite prepared to have a lengthy debate on public sector venues in regards to should there or not be non-halal food in their venues – like City Hall, Ministries etc.

But we are talking about a private sector company, and its building’s food-court. Making their employees venture out of the building whenever they want other foods, is unfair.

Maybank is after all South East Asia’s banking tiger with its unending paws gobbling up local banks all across our region – trying to become a diverse banking group.

But where is this diversity when it comes to treating its employees? “Sorry, you are unfortunately Chinese, so if you want ‘your’ kind of food, then you have leave ‘our’ business building to get it. ‘We’ however can get ‘our’ food here in this building of ‘ours’.”

That reeks of discrimination.

The food-court should serve all, or serve none – if the ‘we are all Maybank family’ dribble works at all.

How about us?

The obvious rebuttal would be, someone would ask, how can you deny me my halal food?

But nobody is. The stall claiming to be halal can be your preferred restaurant. And you can have halal stalls in direct proportion to how many needing it. That is fair.

Yet Chinese or any other food not fitting the halal standard can be served side by side.

Why not?

The minimum to the maximum

The principle of inclusion, which is focal in any formulation of an ‘everyone policy’ is providing the minimums for everyone.

A food-court is there for everyone in the organisation. Therefore the minimums for everyone must be met. Letting the peddlers of foods corresponding to the taste buds and preferences of the employees reflects that.

The issue is when the serving of some foods offends some people. Is this sense of being offended fair?

Vegetarians – on the basis of opposing animal cruelty – may get nauseous seeing chicken flayed up as means to tantalise people. Devout Hindus would look dismayed when beef is placed side by side with the other meat dishes they are about to consume. Not to mention the rising number of vegetarians amongst Muslims.

So where does this end.

When in other Asean cities like Manila, Bangkok and Singapore, initially I was ill at ease with their roadside and even restaurant foods. It has nothing to do with the quality or the taste of the food – many of which have become my favourites, but because the foreignness of the food, for someone unexposed to it.

Like in most things, what we don’t see we fear. And when there are so many Malaysians raised in polarised environments, the look of food they are not accustomed to, not their taste or value, upsets them. You can’t be hurt by a dead piece of pork meat – but the pains we go through to make sure that piece of dead pork meat never materialises in front of a muslim is silly to say the least.

That is why minimums will be about not reducing the basic needs of people, and advising people who need auxiliary arrangements (of a very strict diet, preparation, serving, consumption and environment)  need to seek food elsewhere, preferably in a more exclusive food venue which meets their very specific needs.

Food courts are there to meet the reasonable minimums of everyone. It is not fair to exclude people from their choices because your preference requires not only the presence of your type of food, but the banishment of anything different.

The utensil and disposal argument

Foodcourts do share utensils, but Muslims are not Brahmins – who cannot touch non-Brahmin utensils ever.

If you are adamant on not sharing utensils, that is your choice, and you are welcome to it. Bring your own.

You cannot ask people to bend backwards because you are obstinate. Brahmins in India, New York or in Madrid will do what most devout Brahmins do, eat at home.

You cannot condition other people’s taste buds because they disagree with yours.

Tall towers

Maybank has offices worldwide, and in its buildings elsewhere – like in Manila and Singapore, do they enforce a halal only policy?

How do they say with a straight face that they are an equal opportunity employer with an eye for multicultural practices – so that they can get international capital (do bankers ask what one eats before they take one’s deposit?) and win the PR battle – only to chuck it out when it comes to what they do in their home country?

Hypocrisy comes in large blocks in Malaysia, and sometimes the hypocrisy is so long held and without challenge that we almost make ourselves think that it is the most natural thing to occur – except it isn’t.

Food, if you think about it is a functional activity. It grew into a socialising activity since its uniform repetition and need. But now here we are, our food deciding who can sit with who. Talk about evolution.

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