25 February 2016

Some of us have become rather obsessive about the religious pristineness of our food and are perpetually on the lookout for whoever may next cause offence.

ONE of the fascinating things about India is the food. While there is a wide variety of all sorts of cuisine from all over the large country, one thing that you will always see in every restaurant menu are two categories: vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

A large number of people in India are vegetarians, that is, they eat no meat at all. Then there is another lot of people who are non-vegetarians, that is, they do eat meat. Of the meat-eaters, there are those who don’t eat beef because of their religion, and those who don’t eat pork, also because of their religion.

There is then potentially all sorts of confusion to be caused by all these different food preferences. There is the possibility of non-veg people being offended by restaurants that only offer veg food, or the other way round. Meat-eaters are at great risk of being offended if they happen to walk into a restaurant that serves meat that they are forbidden to eat.

The odd thing is that rarely is there any confusion at all among Indians regarding which restaurants to go to. Virtually every restaurant serves the food that anyone can eat, whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, non-beef or non-pork eaters. People sit side by side and order whatever they want. There is no need to practise culinary apartheid.

Recently there was a case where some villagers in India beat a Muslim man to death because they thought he was eating beef. It has to be noted that all this is occurring in a scenario where a rightwing political party has gained power.

After his death, tests of the meat in his fridge showed that, poor as he was, he may have been eating mutton and not the more expensive beef. It just goes to show that anyone can kick up a fuss about food, if provoked enough, even to fatal consequences.

Malaysians are not dissimilar. We love our food. And some of us are rather obsessive about the religious pristineness of our food. Which is not the same as being obsessive about hygiene, I might add.

So if someone should suggest that the 1000-calorie-a-bite bar of chocolate should have the slightest hint of porcine DNA, without so much as demanding to see the lab test reports, our people will go hysterical.

Ever-alert that someone wants to taint their pristine bodies, the same bodies that consume more sugar than any other South-East Asian country, their antennae are perpetually tuned to whoever may next cause offence, intentionally or otherwise.

Now unlike India where people speak English and understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’, in Malaysia, ‘no’ can mean ‘maybe got something else which someone insidiously put in because they want to taint us’.

Thus a sign that says ‘no pork’ doesn’t just mean that. It also means ‘we won’t know if there is anything else we shouldn’t be eating.’ It is a wonder how Muslims in Malaysia haven’t starved to death from food anxiety every day. What on earth do they do when they travel?

Of late I’ve noticed restaurants with names that make it so clear exactly what they serve that nobody with half a modicum of brain could fail to realise what food of the non-vegetarian kind it is. But even then there is room for confusion.

If people are so protected from the sight of little fat pink creatures with curly tails to the point that even the movie Babe was once banned (funny, I never knew movies were free in Malaysia!), then they may not recognise the icons used in the restaurant’s graphics. When we start seeing people exiting restaurants in a panic all of a sudden, we’ll know what happened.

At that point, I’m sure our ever-righteous leaders will step in with a law to ban restaurants from serving pork in order to save fragile Muslim souls from ever being offended, regardless of whether they ever go into those restaurants or not. Never mind that there is a much higher likelihood of Muslims dying of diabetes from too much nasi lemak and fast food than from inhaling the smell of non-halal food.

All of these are of the utmost importance these days. Our bodies must be presented on Judgment Day in pure form, never mind if they are flabby and overweight from unhealthy halal eating habits and lack of exercise.

Never mind also that the brains these bodies are attached to are atrophying from lack of use. Never mind also that the hands attached to these bodies sometimes handle money that may not be righteously earned.

These are all irrelevant. What matters is that we must be perpetually on guard against all manner of insults and intent to injure.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is passing us by.

12 February 2016

FIRST of all, let me wish everybody Gong Xi Fa Cai! May the Year of the Monkey be one of prosperity and happiness, despite the depressing circumstances facing us now.

What depressing circumstances? Well, the economy is hardly what anyone would call dynamic. I know many retailers and businesses are saying that things have really slowed down, even during the festive seasons.

Things are simply more expensive to import, what with our ringgit in the doldrums. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) hasn’t helped, of course. And virtually nobody was fooled by the 3% reduction in Employees Provident Fund contributions.

What is the point of having that little bit more money now when it is going to be GST’d every time you spend it? Better to save it for old age and earn some interest on it.

Then, there is just the state of things. We’re now facing a Government which literally thinks that, one, it can do what it wants with impunity and, two, that we are all fools who will believe anything it says.

If you say something it doesn’t like, here’s what will happen to you: if you’re not a well-connected person, they’ll charge you with all sorts of crazy things, including for saying things within your professional capacity, drawing cartoons or dropping balloons. (You have to wonder about a government that is scared of cartoons and balloons.)

If you’re a well-connected person, your way out may be well lubricated with lots of monetary inducements. Proof of this is that the first act of the new leader is to ask his boss for money, which he gets instantly. (You also have to wonder about people who think they can always buy support.)

Then, you get the endless stream of untruths about a supposed very big gift. I decided to read up on Arab gift-giving customs and learnt a few things. It’s a very delicate issue.

For one thing, if you’re a subordinate, you simply do not give gifts to someone ranked higher than you. Royalty is presumably ranked way above any commoners regardless of whatever position they may have at home.

Subordinates may of course be given gifts but the value of the gift has to be carefully calibrated: not too expensive and not too cheap either. One interesting fact: if you’re a man, you should never give gifts to an Arab man’s wife or even ask about her. I wonder if it works the other way round.

But what does cross many cultures, especially Middle Eastern and Asian ones, is that you should never return a gift. It would be considered grossly insulting. If it is inappropriate, then the recipient should return it immediately with a polite note explaining why.

You certainly don’t wait for a while before returning it, and that too while retaining some of it. I can’t think of a single culture where this would be considered polite. Perhaps some cultural anthropologists can enlighten us.

Perhaps this is why there has been some consternation among the alleged gift-givers about the return of this gift. They must be wondering: “Does he mean to insult us?”

They seem pretty sure it cannot have been a gift but rather an investment because it would make more sense. I think there is a book to be written called Saving Face for Dummies.

Meanwhile back home, someone has the awful job of having to explain all this and is truly making a hash of it.

“I know but I can’t tell you” is thundered in the same breath as “I don’t know why they gave it. It’s personal!”. All the while, papers are waved which should have been under lock and key.

And as all sorts of international authorities are piping up about the inappropriateness of all this, some bright spark tries to lecture them about not interfering in our internal affairs while forgetting that if we put money into overseas accounts, it is no longer internal. (Some people should really get out more.)

And then there are people who think the world is as gullible as us when they can blithely say that they received gigantic commissions for doing “a job”, yet feel the need to reinvent themselves as a scholar. Isn’t the very concept of gigantic commissions problematic?

How do we keep our sanity amidst all this monkey business? Why, with our unique Malaysian sense of humour, of course!

It’s so easy to know who’s on the right side of things: it’s those people who draw and write the wittiest responses to all the nonsense. There is virtually no way to humorously defend corruption, after all.

Oh, I forgot: it’s “let’s move on”.