How real is my 'mamak mee'?

JANUARY 10 — At the corner of Del Monte and Araneta lay the scene for my education on food consumption. Glory, the supermarket, sold crackers. I did not bother to read the back of the packet, it’s safe obviously. In my serene but feeble mind. Crackers, after all. Not so, when I did actually read it on a whim, months after consuming them crackers daily.

“Consists of vegetable fat, animal fat (beef, pork, chicken etc), marine fat or any other kind of fat.”

Half of me was aghast, and the other perplexed that they just did not put “fat” instead of that elongated admission of uncertainty. The bloated “fat” universe was uncovered to me.    

Apparently, food producers around the world don’t stay up late at night working out details to ensure a certain Tamil-blooded Malaysian living at the edge of Quezon City — the largest of the 12 which constitute Metro Manila — was offered only food fit for him from his peculiar mindset.

Rather, the world was screaming, “Want something, look for it, dipshit!”

Growing up in Malaysia, it is expected that food arranges itself specifically in the way we expect it to, well, arrange itself. Or in other words, we expected smart food, long before the arrival of smart technologies.

When I pointed this out to Caloy — my ever-supportive mate from another mother — after my “fat” discovery, he laughed out loud and said I should read the ingredients list if I had prohibitions.

Why must it have what I do not expect it to have?

A fairly obvious point, but one my countrymen, through the virtue of our conditioning, by large ignore, to assume responsibility of what we eat rather than expect a third party to ensure us in our stead.

Which brings me to persistent rumours about, for the lack of a better phrase, cultural appropriation of mamak restaurants.

To be precise, the mushrooming of false mamak.

[Restaurants presenting Islamic piety with visual displays on the walls, donation boxes to religious charities at the payment counter and workers growing beards accompanied by skull caps, when in truth, the owner is not Muslim and probably possesses halal certification and has his South Indian workers dress in a way to suggest they are Muslims.]

Is there nothing sacred any more in Malaysian business?

A dark presence

Earnest bloggers bent on averting panic among Muslims, set out to offer information.

Presenting incorporation documents and other litmus tests for restaurants, to identify which are proper Muslim-run, Indian-Muslim owned and Indian food certified outlets.

One blogger went as far as to thank the man who assaulted a worker at a Shah Alam restaurant for asking the patron to desist from smoking indoors. Because it inevitably revealed the non-Muslim name of the mamak owner when he filed a police report for his foreign worker.

But it is foolhardy to dismiss the deep need for many Malaysians to have secure dining spaces, in substance and in perception.

As much as food binds Malaysians, it is equally for the same reason an incendiary issue.

But, can there be guarantees?

Owners can claim a thematic outlet. The shop observes halal codes as drawn out and regulated by religious authorities, the visual presentation does no disservice to the faith as in compromising the treatment of valuable religious items and the uniform is equally respectful.

As a point of sobriety, do we walk into Mexican restaurants in Ampang to upset Bangladeshi, Filipino and Malaysian staff who are pretending to be Hispanics in an outlet in Tijuana?

Or do Indian nationals bemoan Pakistanis and Bangladeshis abroad who conveniently refer to their restaurants as Indian restaurants to broaden their appeal?

Fair points, however, there is the matter of intention in our local context. The supposed Indian Malaysian owners are aware if the restaurant appears to be Muslim owned, run and manned, the market grows exponentially. Not very honest.

Yet, the owners can claim if they adhere to dietary requirements and preparation, and do not disparage the Islamic faith, they are friends of Islam.

It’s a fine argument, and I will not venture to the theology, but do welcome the discourse because the practical elements below render widescale enforcement impossible.

Every neighbourhood from Johor Baru’s Stulang Laut to Penang Island’s Balik Pulau has a mamak at some corner. It would be an enormous undertaking to track all of them, all the time.

Ownership can be fluid, and there are instances where the parent company is Muslim owned, but the franchisor is not. Or even partial business ownership by non-Muslims.

It must come down to caveat emptor to a large degree.

I do welcome bloggers, social commenters and citizen journalists to report fairly about these outlets and allow the public to have better information. Or even generate crowdsourced mamak verification apps. Let players who live by the sword of perception, die by the sword of public judgement. The public can be vicious if they realise they are pawns in a game of deception.

The informed many

There is an opportunity here.

If Malaysians are aware of corporations, like the mamak, who are not what they say they are without the assistance of the state, it would be a proud day for consumerism. 

It augurs well too for the Malaysian in the globalised era, where goods and services are procured without borders.

The false mamak may be exploitive, but they are stark reminders to Malaysians that they must arm themselves, in order to protect themselves and far more pointedly, to benefit from blind spots emerging from a world without explicit guidelines.

It can be the cue for the Pakatan Harapan government to urge more initiatives to encourage an informed citizenry.

That just like fake news and fake promises, fake mamak are just realities of this brave new world. That does not make them right, but it would be wrong for our rakyat to expect the government to sift and sort it for us.

Or we risk becoming fake owners of our own destinies.  

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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