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The Vulnerability of Mistrust

We are becoming hardened. I sense a hardness in the so-called liberal circles, artist circles, activist circles.

By Ivy Josiah, Jahabar Sadiq, and Yee Heng Yeh

Ta Pau // Bungkus: the bringing home of food prepared in a kopitiam or restaurant or cafe

The Ta Pau folio of the Transpacific Literary Project explores this cornerstone of Malaysian culture as a launching pad for honest conversations on national identity, race, religion, class, gender. Read here a virtual encounter with Ivy Josiah, Jahabar Sadiq, and Yee Heng Yeh, then take yourself back to folio’s home, for more Ta Pau conversation.



JS: So we’re going to talk about food!

IJ: Yes, yes. Can I just suggest that we start by saying: tomorrow is the start of Ramadan, so what is your favourite ta pau during Ramadan? And take it from there lah. And maybe it will go into a political conversation, we don’t know. Because the idea is to start with ta pauing food is it — am I correct, are those the instructions?

JS: I had my last big meal of the day publicly today. I went all the way to PJ old town market to have salt fish curry because you can’t get it any other way, except publicly, unless your mom and dad cooks it, which is impossible.

IJ: But the fasting month there are two types of ta pauing right. First, there are Muslims who can’t fast, or won’t fast, or who are not too keen to fast, so they ta-pau food and turn up at our offices or our friend’s homes and eat secretly during the fasting hours. So there’s a lot of ta pauing going on secretly. And then of course, there is the actual ta pau from 4pm onwards, we all rush to the stalls. I just go berserk during Ramadan and I think I eat a lot more because I am ta pauing all the food we don’t normally have during the other months, especially dishes from East Malaysia as in Terengganu and Kelantan.

JS: I just want to clarify that part about ta pauing secretly. Actually you know what, it’s allowed. If you can’t fast, you can’t fast. You can actually buy food and eat it privately, you’re not supposed to eat in a public place, that’s all. Growing up, I remember, places like Coliseum used to have these screens at the back room, where Muslims could go and eat during lunchtime, and no one would disturb them. I was living in Jakarta, they still do this today. What they do is string curtains across their glass windows and ipso facto it’s a private place, you can eat.

IJ: But in Jakarta I’ve seen people eating in public during fasting month.

JS: Because you can’t tell what’s their faith, right? Because they all look alike, unlike us. We are state mandated, that Malays must be Muslims. Unlike there. So that’s where we’ve become so conservative and puritanical and entitled.

YHY: Are there any sort of legal rules? I mean it’s a social rule that you shouldn’t eat in public, right?

JS: Well you shouldn’t eat in public at all. If you’re not well, you can’t even go out, right? You should be at home. So you can eat. So women on their menses might feel a bit weaker, they can eat. You’re allowed to eat. There’s no restriction about not eating. But, you’re not supposed to eat publicly, in, you know khalayak ramai, in front of, I mean, you’re going to tempt the other guy, right? So… I remember at school, because I’m so Chinese looking, I used to buy food for all my classmates and they will go behind the toilet and eat. It was St John’s School, everybody knew, but you know, behind the toilet was considered private.

IJ: But it is legal? I’ve been at lunch and people will ask to see my IC. I remember I was with Maria Chin who is Muslim, Chinese looking. I’m Ivy, Christian, Malay-looking, or Muslim-looking. They kept asking to see my IC so I gave them my IC but they didn’t bother to ask Maria. But Maria wasn’t eating that day anyway. So then I said to them why are you doing this? They said, this is the law, we can get shut down. So the restaurants are obliged to do a check. Is there something in the law that says that restaurants have to check? And also, apa tu, that I can’t eat in public and I can be punished. That is a provision in Sharia, right?

JS: I’m not too sure. It’s a shame if buying alcohol in liquor shop in KLIA. If you are Muslim then you’re not supposed to buy. There’s a big sign that says they can’t sell to Muslims. And I buy all the time and I say, hang on a minute, this is discrimination, right? You can’t stop selling it to me because I’m Muslim. It’s my sin if I carry it. But this country, is so hazy and vague that we have the moral force of a law, I mean, that sin in criminalized. This is interesting, that we are criminalizing sin in this country. If you dress scantily, which is legit, but apparently it’s not. If you enter certain offices you have to cover your head. I’ve been going to Parliament, a lot of my fellow reporters who are women, they wear a skirt with a hem line just above the knee and they get sent back.

IJ/IHI: (Disapproving sounds)

IJ: But going back to ta pauing, so the ta pauing secretly, yeah you’re right. You mustn’t eat in public. I get that. Even that for me, sometimes I find it a bit…people shouldn’t be so tempted so easily. I mean this whole business, I have pork, and other people can get worked up about beef. I just want to celebrate one thing about Ramadan lah, and ta pauing: it’s that really the food is out there for all of us to enjoy, especially for those of us who are not Muslims, we really win, we have double the joy because not only we have killer food, but suddenly we can eat throughout the whole day all this amazing stuff because food comes out around 2, 3 o’clock, other food already in the stalls, right? So it’s 30 days of just feasting…

JS: Rather than fasting.

IJ: …rather than fasting! Exactly. I love it. I love going and buying the food and coming back, and having that blue-colour rice. I just love it. But for me it’s also sad how food has become so politicized. The eating of food can be so political, especially for the Muslims, because they can’t really. Can’t eat, drink.

JS: I guess when you have to show piety on your sleeve, because it’s become peer pressure and society. I don’t know how it became that. Growing up I don’t think it was like that at all in, the 80s or even the 70s in Kuala Lumpur. We weren’t that conservative or puritantical. I guess it just evolved that way, because as peer pressure, and I think the Muslim clerics just saw it as a way to get in and control people’s lives, and set up a standard which was never there.

IHI: Even outside the Ramadan period, then you have discussions about halal food and non-halal food, and whether Muslims can drink alcohol, if it’s a personal choice. There was this story of the Malay guy who went to a Chinese salesgirl who was selling beer at a supermarket, and it became… and of course it’s one incident, and it’s not necessarily representative of the Muslim population at large. But I think it’s a move toward moral policing, of what we can eat or can’t eat. What we can eat or can’t eat in public. And sometimes it affects non-Muslims as well, whether and how much space, essentially, they get to….

IJ: I know what you’re saying. Food should bring Malaysians together. Food does bring Malaysians together. All of us — eh, coincidentally we’re all like, Indian Chinese Melayu mix, just the three of us, right? We love talking about food, Jahabar especially, has a wonderful book about Penang and food. It should bring people together, but I notice these days that people are getting very prickly. My Hindu friends are now saying, hey how come they can serve beef, they are not sensitive to us. And I’m like, eh relax let’s not get all uptight about beef and become so extreme like the way you can’t have pork and everyone goes berserk. People start policing. If I have pork on the table and there’s a Malay person coming in they start policing me, trying to protect the Muslims, while a Muslim person doesn’t really care, she just ignores the pork dish and eats all the other dishes. So then we are now getting prickly about beef on the table. Or a vegetarian can say, I’m going to get prickly about why there is all this meat. It allows the pettiness to come out, because you want tit-for-tat. And that for me is the sadder part.

JS: They are not becoming the bigger person, they are becoming the smaller, pettier person.

IHI: Right, right.

IJ: It’s so resentful, right? Hey what do you think about the Ramadan month and the way we encourage all Malaysians to fast, go in the morning and then break fast. Or get up early in the morning at 4 or 5am, and have a meal together then fast the whole day, and then break. Is this something that’s good? Because Islam is the religion of the nation and this is the way of bringing people together? I always think about during the month before Easter for 40 days, my brother will fast for 40 days. Fasting in my religion, and I suspect also in other religions, is a very quiet affair. Whereas this has become a big affair. What do you think about all of this? Do you think this is good when everybody comes together and fasts together whether you’re Muslim or non-Muslim

JS: I think it works well in an urban, liberal context. The reality is a majority of Malays, Muslims, live in rural areas where they hardly see the other, anyone else. It becomes apparent the in Klang Valley. You go to Shah Alam, ‘the other’ is not present. So they are not touched by a sort of empathy. The can’t connect to it. The ones who can connect to it are among our circles, the creative circles, the so-called liberal circles, the activist circles. We celebrate this togetherness, but the rest don’t seem touched, either because they feel left out, or they want to be left out, or they feel entitled that they are the chosen people and therefore they fast. That they are People of the Book. When you tell them that, Eh, you know, Christians fast too, and they actually fast longer: Oh but they drink water! But it’s still a fast! Hindus fast. Buddhists fast. And actually, you know, Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays, they take fish. And they didn’t know that. Either they don’t know about other cultures, or they don’t want to know about other cultures. And I see maybe sometimes it’s harder to do this because if churches open their doors to Muslims, in Selangor, then we get an uproar, hey are you trying to proselytize them. Like with Pastor Raymond Koh, all that outreach they did for single mothers, it gets twisted and turned. So I don’t know if it’s done on purpose or they are just stupid about it.

IJ: It’s a very good point you make, Jahabar, a lack of empathy. We are becoming more hard, even the so-called elite circles and liberal circles. I sense a hardness even among my activist friends who have been doing this work for a long time. Perhaps it’s fatigue, perhaps it’s frustration. I mean it’s all of that, of course, it’s fatigue and frustration. We don’t understand the kind of, I want to say the word ‘purity’, maybe that’s not the right word, but all our cultures and all our different ethnic groups, we have practices that are really quite religious and pure. But it’s become that the Malay mind, or the new, programmed, brainwashed Malay mind thinks that everything that is Chinese and Indian is all the same thing and there is something terrible going on with us.

JS: Because they don’t want to know.

IJ: They don’t want to know. They are not even allowed to teach that in schools and share that, right?

JS: I think you can. When my nephews were in school, way after I went to school, I mean, you are young, but there was a time when our parents would cook for end of the year last week of class, we’d have a class party and our parents would cook a feast. But now, apparently, you just put in money because it’s catered.

IHI: I had that in school as I remember. When I was in high school there was a Teacher’s Day when we all did a sort of pot luck. I was in SMK actually. I can’t recall their having any sort of problems about whether the food was halal or not. I think everyone was quite trusting of each other. And it’s that sense of trust.

IJ: But it’s not the case in some schools now.

JS: The teachers are setting the standards and limits for all the students.

IJ: I heard, a Chinese student who brings a vegetarian food deliberately to make sure everyone can eat it, apparently her food was not touched at all because at the end of the day, it was a Chinese bringing a vegetarian dish to school. And there was… because of that.

IHI: Speaking of this trust, I want to say that it’s not just the Malay community who are doing this. Especially in Penang you get a lot of Chinese people who are really quite racist. There is just no way to powder it over. I think it’s because a lot of us grew up in… For my primary school, I went to a Chinese primary school and I didn’t have a single Malay friend until I was in secondary school, when I went to SMK. I think that even some of my friends now who are Chinese and who’ve never had a proper relationship with a Malay person, they still hold some very racist views of Malay people and Indian people. So how do we overcome that? I think part of it is in response to the sense that Malay people are doing the othering, they’re saying that the Chinese are the other, and so the Chinese people do this in response and it just sort of feeds back.

IJ: Yeah it’s a terrible cycle.

JS: Food is one thing that unites this country, but also food is one thing that divides this country, what you said earlier. That is what this country is all about: unity and division. I think the main point is, we can’t reconcile ourselves as Malaysians because we keep asserting our cultural past. Which is unity and diversity. Diversity is fine. But when you make the difference as your point, what is common should be the thrust of the whole thing. But we still live in a time when we make our difference as the main point of our existence, rather than our similarities.

IHI: Do you think this applies in terms of how Malaysians view themselves on a global stage, as opposed to just in Malaysia? Recently there’s a Netflix show that covers Southeast Asian food, and Malaysia was not included but Singapore was, and a lot of people got mad over it. But in a way, Singaporean food is Malaysian food—I’m not sure if you agree with me—and a lot of Indonesian food is also Malaysian food. I think we sometimes we get so possessive about certain aspects of our culture and we think, this is ours. But then it really is the same.

JS: I think the point is: when we are outside of Malaysia, we are Malaysians. When we are inside, our so-called cultural warriors, or race warriors, or religious warriors live in fear of being overwhelmed and diluted by the other; that the majority can be the minority. We see it everyday in the next generation—they mix together more. You know, one day all of us will look alike. One day we will look as dark or as fair as we are. We will get there, we will become Malaysians.

I think the point of what is happening in this country: there is a disharmony and it comes down to food. Because we don’t trust each other, we have no empathy for each other. I don’t know whether we have grown apart, in some ways maybe we have. But I see even in urban areas now, we’re having all these racial enclaves.

IJ: It’s true. It’s happening even among the elite “awoke” groups. And I think it’s due to the fact that we are getting more marches by extremists, so-called Malay Rights or Muslim Rights. Fringe groups. I call them fringe groups really, but they become symbolic and then we fall into the same trap: oh they all are like that. Which it’s not true. It’s very much a political context. People are using that political context to start marching and saying, Malay Race, Religion, and Royalty. But we need to take a deep breath and go, this is very specific manipulation, this is not the average Malay. Yes, the average Malay living out there doesn’t know anything about Ivy Nallamah Josiah, why am I having a Tamil name and a Christian name, and how I love to eat rendang. Because there’s that, ongoing from the past, ignorance that’s been built up over the years. Deliberately too. We really need to figure this out. I’m the oldest in the group, and I thought, my goodness, finally in my lifetime, after having gone through so many election campaigns, I’ve seen that a government—a political party—can be brought down and a new political party be put in place. I just fear that I’m going to see in the evening of my life, in the next thirty years, deterioration rather than getting better and better.

My heart breaks and I want to work doubly hard now to save that Malaysia. Because all of us have become so vulnerable. Even the politicians are walking around in a very vulnerable way. Rather than having the political courage and taking the risk to say, you know what, we are going to lead Malaysians into believing this is the way it should be. And take that risk. Take that risk. And say, I may lose one or two votes, maybe many many Malay votes. Maybe there will be another hundred Malay votes waiting to say, yes, we all are together. We have to do that. And that’s…food!