Curse not the herbal broth, seek thou understanding

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According to reports, the bak kut teh, which is native to Klang, has grown in popularity with travellers from China, Thailand and Vietnam, and is recommended as a ‘must savour’ item on their itineraries. — Malay Mail photo

THE pot is still boiling even after weeks of what appeared to be a comic display of disagreement and unkind gesture by certain quarters trapped in the warp of their negative perception and seemingly not amenable to rational explanation.

On a brighter note, the ‘war of words’ has caused the popular local herbal meat broth, bak kut teh, to soar to new heights of fame and popularity.

A lot of bystanders too will be curious to learn more about bak kut teh, and even sample the many meat varieties, both halal and non-halal.

Political farce

Some have gone over and above to turn the discussion of bak kut teh into a political farce to the point that there is a great deal of pointless debate at the current parliamentary session on it. But it is good for bak kut teh because, for the first time in Malaysian history, it has entered the Hansard and left significant footprints in the pages of the legal document that the public and future generations may access.

The boiling has slowed down, but there is no indication that it will end anytime soon.

Even if the topic is gradually losing steam, the dispute has created a lot of unnecessary hostility, and the misconception may well persist in the minds of the unenlightened and those unable to accept reasoned explanations.

For many of the latter, their deep hegemonic mindset rooted in ethnic and religious values may provide an explanation.

What exactly is it about the bak kut teh that has created such a stir and debate among opinion leaders and in parliament?

Are the naysayers truly knowledgeable enough about the herbal broth to level such harsh criticisms?

Or are they essentially shooting themselves in the foot?

If so, are they jumping up in undue excitement and raising their voices without caring to find out more about the herbal dish?

Perhaps the name or what they learn about the contents from an unreliable source that causes them to draw unfavourable conclusions and raise the taboo flag.

Criticisms

How unfortunate for bak kut teh!

The popular dish appears to be receiving more criticisms than it should, both inside and outside of Parliament.

Sadly, it does not have a life of its own and is powerless to withstand the barrage of criticisms, much of which stems from prejudice and ignorance combined with a rudimentary understanding of the gastronomic delight.

If bak kut teh had taken on a life of its own and momentarily gained a human personality, he would have come out of the silent shadows in time to take a savage stand against human critics of this delectable dish.

‘Mr Bak Kut Teh’ would likely inform you that he can accommodate both Muslim and non-Muslim patrons with his diverse menu offerings utilising different cuts of meat, and that he strictly adheres to the halal requirements for Muslim customers.

Proposed national dish

The controversy started when Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing initiated the move to make bak kut teh a national dish along with several renowned Malaysian dishes, and would feature as part of the national tourism promotion programme.

According to reports, the meal, which is native to Klang, has grown in popularity with travellers from China, Thailand and Vietnam, and is recommended as a ‘must savour’ item on their itineraries.

The minister is looking at the numbers in terms of increase in arrivals and more tourist dollars spent, and better business for the local food business.

Unfortunately, misinformed people who were eager to label the meal non-halal because they thought the meat used was exclusively pork, which is prohibited to Muslims, temporarily derailed Tiong’s well-intentioned attempt.

Unbeknownst to them, the halal version of bak kut teh can be found made with beef, chicken, lamb and other meat varieties.

If indeed, ignorance and misunderstanding are the root cause of their intolerant gesture, they should have checked the facts first to find out more about the herbal dish, instead of speaking too soon and causing unnecessary discord.

On the other hand, the Tourism Ministry officials would do justice to their promotion if steps were taken to provide proper explanation on the bak kut teh, highlighting the halal and non-halal version, in the media in collaboration with the operators of halal bak kut teh business.

Misguided quarters

Is the well-meaning public assured that tolerance will prevail even if there is now apparent understanding from the hitherto misguided quarters?

It comes down to heart in response. When a topic is part of a larger, expanding, and dominant trajectory, it might be challenging to fully eradicate when it has to do with the heart and social intellect.

Wider ground to the issue

This opens up a larger area that merits discussion. This covers a wider ground that is worth talking about.

The conversation revolves on issues of awareness, hegemonic ideals, intolerance, and ‘pigeon-holing’ viewpoint. These topics continue to be fundamental to Malaysian society and define the psychological selves of some segments of the populace.

Pictures and descriptions of items that some people find repulsive might offend sensitive people and spark controversy.

Precautionary measures must be upheld and taken care of to ensure that there is no crossing of the red line, even if it is unintentional. The consequence is too costly for the nation.

Even the Unity Ministry has chosen to take a middle path and refrain from commenting on matters that are purportedly sensitive and on advising measured steps to be taken to allay further discord.

In such circumstances, the public is mostly left to rely on their own intelligence and sound judgement to resolve delicate matters that threaten to incite religious and ethnic prejudice, which frequently originates from politicians.

Hate speech

Malaysians have been urged to help control the spread of hate speech and negative statements touching on ‘3R’, namely race, religion and royalty issues, especially on social media.

Exploiting issues that touch on the 3R, which can split the country, must be stopped without compromise.

As we face the impending problems ahead, politicians ought to set the example and take the initiative. To ensure that a move is politically correct, one should never play it safe, or play to the gallery. Doing so is reckless and morally incorrect.

A case in point is the recent bak kut teh episode, where many politicians chose to remain silent and not speak up to provide explanation and support to the Tourism Minister.

The outspoken Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin, a Muslim Orang Sungai, was arguably the only one to daringly speak up in support of Tiong’s proposal to make bak kut teh a national cuisine.

He (Bung Moktar) even went so far as to chide the narrow-minded opponents by pointing that bak kut teh was also available in halal form, using beef, mutton and chicken.

We expected that a few more from the Borneo states would join the chorus of support, but no, Bung Moktar’s was the sole voice.

The explanation by the Tourism Ministry officials joined by the likes of MP Bung Moktar and local food connoisseurs should put to rest the controversy over bak kut teh and enlighten those hitherto had been ignorant or prejudicial on the herbal dish.

But there is reason to believe that there is more to it than just knowing and understanding the dish and the types available. It concerns a state of mind and psychic with roots in a social and cultural setting.

Religious tolerance in Sarawak’s DNA

Much of the controversy surrounding bak kut teh happens in Peninsular Malaysia, where race-religion sensitivity still holds sway.

In Sarawak, religious and racial tolerance is an embedded part of the state’s DNA, and sensitivity over trivial issues such as names of food or drinks is hardly heard of, and the people are mindful of not crossing the line and raising the alarm.

Tolerance, respect and acceptance are inherent definers of the demographics in Sarawak, and they are the reason for stability and unity in the state.

Similar to ‘kolo mee’, which is originally from Hokkien and is also sold in halal form at Muslim food stalls in Sarawak, the bak kut teh made of halal beef, mutton and chicken, is quickly gaining popularity among Sarawakian Muslims as a herbal cuisine.

The same cannot be said of their cousins across the South China Sea. The mindset of those who harbour prejudice and insecurity has to be changed, not the food in its halal form.

* Toman Mamora is ‘Tokoh Media Sarawak 2022’, recipient of Shell Journalism Gold Award (1996) and AZAM Best Writer Gold Award (1998). He remains true to his decades-long passion for critical writing as he seeks to gain insight into some untold stories of societal value.