Out-Malaysianing the Malaysians?

AUGUST 6 — So Singapore and Malaysia are having a burger battle.

Malaysia’s myBurgerLab is taking on McDonalds Singapore’s Nasi Lemak burger with a nasi lemak-inspired creation of their own. 

Now the desirability of a world overrun with nasi lemak burgers is open to question but you could also ask: why is Singapore is leading the charge towards nasi lemak-inspired burgers to begin with?

Of course good old coconut rice is common to the region — Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia; we’re all in the game but the truth is we Singaporeans are pretty effective promoters.

Our McDonalds is leading the way with nasi lemak. In fact, over the years, we’ve bagged and branded a whole heap of regional staples from laksa to the sarong kebaya.

Even our dialect, Singlish, is cool but who (globally) knows or cares about Manglish (Man-glish? really?) even though it’s the effectively the same and its roots are clearly in Melaka, Penang etc. 

I think this actually tells us something quite important. Singapore, this micro-city state with an innately younger and weaker national identity has always looked for ways to define itself.

We have seized on every regional icon and theme from wayang and orchids to the humble ang ku kueh and durians — and in a way it worked.

Our national identity is still fraught with divisions — race, class, migration — but we’ve also successfully branded ourselves; from Third World to First, we are an efficient Singlish-speaking, hawker centre-loving, nasi lemak-eating people.

Meanwhile, Malaysia has struggled to find a coherent identity. The twin towers are what most people associate with the nation but it is a modern edifice.

McDonalds Singapore’s Nasi Lemak burger. — Picture courtesy of McDonalds Singapore
McDonalds Singapore’s Nasi Lemak burger. — Picture courtesy of McDonalds Singapore

What about Malaysia’s rich heritage, its amazing natural beauty. Where are the icons there? The closest it got was the incredibly catchy Malaysia, Truly Asia jingle but that was a 90s phenomenon and as a must-go tourism destination these days, it doesn’t crack lists despite having so much to offer.

Individual Malaysian cities like Penang and Melaka might have some cachet but as a nation?

There is amazing local music from Tamil and Malay rap to local Chinese pop but these things don’t jump to mind when one thinks of Malaysia. Look at the food: Malaysia where I, and I think many Singaporeans, have had some of the best food in our lives barely has a restaurant in Asia’s top 50 restaurant guide.

Again these guides don’t mean much because Malaysian food is amazing but what this tells us is Malaysia is not branding itself well.

Globally and nationally the country hasn’t really created any kind of coherent narrative. Not because there isn’t one but maybe because there is just too much; many identities and flavours to easily categorise and unpack.

Of course the eternal problems of race and religion mean the country struggles to define itself to its own people let alone to the rest of the world.

Which of course gives us, your much better organised little neighbour, ample opportunities to brand your best bits.

So Malaysia might make a great Nasi Lemak Burger but in the end we Singaporeans are probably going to end up being remembered for it.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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