Some time back in 2005 I went on a week-long holiday to Pulau Langkawi with three of my closest childhood friends. Driving a deathtrap of a rented Franken-car, we went in search of real Langkawi seafood. Like most Malaysians, we assumed it would be at a ramshackle restaurant, set up haphazardly next to a ditch, drain or river, and operated by a middle-aged person who liked to yell at customers about why they were wrong about what they wanted to eat. Of course we found just such a place, nestled at the fringes of one of the small towns on the island. Of course we got yelled at for wanting the wrong type of chilli crab. And of course there was a small river next to us, and a colony of rats holding an AGM right across from the restaurant.
I remember the fun, youthful memories of that trip very well. But I also recall the conversations we had at that restaurant about how quirky Malaysians are when it comes to beliefs about food and “authentic” taste. We talked about what made local food so delicious — that it was not just about following a recipe, but a practice and almost ritualistic adherence to preparation. We also talked about the special ingredients that went into proper Malaysian food — dirty cooking utensils, unwashed and unsanitary kitchens, cooks not bothering to wash their hands and the general contamination of the food (adds to the flavour, mah!). This was all back at a time when young people like us never spoke of politics and had no interest in elections.
Contamination has been in the news a lot recently. It’s been in the public consciousness ever since news reports of unhygienic practices at local restaurants led to the closure of several businesses. Migrant workers were accused of using contaminated water to clean dishes, among other things. Last year, a research paper was published highlighting that the majority of “foreign food-handlers” carry microbes that could contaminate food and pose health risks to patrons. Beneath the exuberance of a new Malaysia are strains of xenophobia. This reached a head in a new government proposal — just weeks after the election — for “local cooks only”, aimed at completely removing migrant labour from the food service sector. Addressing the “flood” of foreigners into the country is clearly a major item on the agenda of the new regime. It taps into powerful populist xenophobia that unfortunately also informs popular support for the Pakatan Harapan government.
The local Chinese community have an expression that pertains to local “ethnic” foods prepared by foreigners — “It’s just not the same hands.” There is something contradictory about popular perceptions about migrant workers and our beliefs about authenticity of food, around this idea of contamination. On the one hand (pardon the pun), many of us believe that some form of contamination is what adds to the flavour of real Malaysian food. It’s why we choose the old kopitiam or mamak stall over the modern, sanitised establishments — it’s bad to be too clean!
On the other hand, we’re quite happy to express outrage at how foreigners are contaminating our food, frequently using racist justifications about their unsuitability as cooks and providing legions of examples of how dirty they are. The association between foreignness and its inferior ways, values and practices is the main course of xenophobia with a hearty side of racism. It is xenophobia coded into biological reasoning — the very idea of foreign agents (migrants) contaminating the purity of a bounded organism (Malaysia). On this basis, we become judgemental and rationalise the need to protect our food from foreign contamination as a matter of both national security and public health.
Ironically, contamination is not something we can be selective about — that’s not how contamination works. Food in Malaysia (and elsewhere in Southeast Asia) has long developed from happy accidents of mixing, experimentation and contamination. Ask an Italian or French person what they think of the ingredients we put together to produce assam laksa or char kuay teow and you’re likely to receive very judgemental looks. Try explaining the reasons for adding coconut milk and pandan leaves to rice — it’s not easy. Our food is the product of histories of contamination. And, you know, contamination is not always a bad thing.
It is neither useful nor necessary to defend the hygienic practices and safety of migrant workers. Contamination is intrinsic to our histories, as Malaysian as kaya toast and as Malaysian as our obsession with driving through rush hour traffic to get to that one, true seafood place in the corner of some godforsaken back alley next to the Old Klang Road.
We shouldn’t be using contamination to create racist exclusions. As Malaysians, we’re all contaminated. And the electoral earthquake was a victory of a delightfully contaminated people.
Parthiban Muniandy is the author of Politics of the Temporary: An Ethnography of Migrant Life in Urban Malaysia