Food and Politics

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As I spend more time in politics, I find that food features prominently.

When I was first elected in 2013, between August and September that year (during the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival month) I attended over 50 community dinners in a month. Of course my colleagues had warned me about the KBSM obligation when I decided to go into politics. The acronym stands for Kenduri, Bersalin, Sakit, Mati (Feast, Childbirth, Sickness, Death – referring to politicians attending important events held at different stages of life).

But food and politics are more inextricably intertwined than just politicians attending dinners.

In November 1977, the late Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt, became the first Arab leader to visit Israel and to address the Knesset. Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin eventually won the Nobel Prize for their effort to seal the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. At that time, this seemed an impossible feat, given that both countries had emerged from the Yom Kippur War merely four years before – a war fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab nations led by Egypt.

Yet in January 1977, when Sadat attempted to end subsidies on cooking oil, flour and rice due to pressure from the World Bank, the whole country was thrown into chaos. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians went to the streets in what was known as the “bread riots”. More than 1,000 people were arrested. The rioting only stopped when the subsidies were reinstated.

Oddly enough, it was easier for an Arab state to make friends with Israel than it was to remove subsidies on bread.

Let Them Eat Cake

I remember just months before Malaysia’s 13th general election, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, the prime minister’s wife, told the press that she hoped children in her Permata Centres would get to eat croissants. Permata Centre, where Rosmah is patron, is an early childhood education programme for children from poor families.

Her statement immediately launched the social media community into a tirade against the self-proclaimed First Lady of Malaysia, with the most interesting ones comparing her to the infamous Marie Antoinette, queen of Louis XVI, the last King of France before the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette was alleged to have said “Let them eat cake” – referring to hungry French peasants who were too poor to afford their staple food, bread; so she told them to eat cake, a luxury food, instead. The statement has come to describe how the elites are disconnected from – and even indifferent to – the sufferings of ordinary people.

In a typical Malaysian household, 18% of the monthly expenditure goes to food (and non-alcoholic beverages). This is the second largest expenditure after housing (24%). Food is only number two because housing cost is so high in Malaysia. According to a 2014 report by Khazanah Research Institute, houses in Malaysia cost about 5.5 times our annual median income – higher than countries such as Singapore (5.1 times its annual median income), the US (3.5) and UK (4.7). By definition, affordable housing is one that costs three times a country’s annual median income.

Keeping Food Prices Low

The BN regime is obsessed with keeping food prices at bay.

Every year during the major festive seasons (Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Deepavali), prices of certain foods are controlled. This practice started in 2000, in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, the Reformasi and a drop in BN’s performance in the 1999 general election. So committed is BN to ensuring that price control works that penalty for failure to comply includes a jail term of up to three years!

On New Year’s Eve in 2013, while an official countdown was taking place at Dataran Merdeka, 50,000 protesters rallied under the theme “Turun” (Go Down) and stormed the New Year concert barricade to denounce price hikes in basic food items and fuel.

A few weeks after the Turun protest, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak lamented how the government was always blamed when food prices went up, but no one praised the government when prices came down. He then went on to use the humble kangkung, a local vegetable cheaply and easily available, as proof that prices of food did come down.

Social media was once again set ablaze by the prime minister’s gastronomical faux pas.

To add, Najib himself once proudly declared that he had bought a whole chicken at the bargain price of RM1, and went on to urge Malaysians to shop wisely for similar bargains instead of complaining about price increases.

GST on Food

In April 2015, when the GST was introduced, one of the biggest concerns was the increase in the price of basic items, especially foodstuff. The federal government spared no effort and resource to explain that the GST was good for the country. When I was in Egypt and met with Malaysian students there, I was told that government officials, including ministers, had recently met them to explain the implementation of the GST.

The government’s poster boy for the GST, Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Ahmad Maslan, was recorded on national TV saying that its introduction would bring down prices. When the GST was finally introduced, the federal government was careful to put essential food items – oils, salt, flour, vegetables, poultry, fish and etc. – under zero-rate supplies, i.e. consumers do not have to pay GST on these items.

Two months after the introduction of the GST, while facing a huge backlash from the Malaysian public, Ahmad tweeted photos of his GST-free fried rice recipe – again to the annoyance of netizens and Malaysians in general.

One reason for public anger is, despite the government’s repeated assurance that the GST will not affect our gastronomical habits, the fact is the cost of living has increased, with cost of food items being affected the most.

Within one month of the introduction of the GST, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is used to measure inflation, increased 1.8% compared to the same month a year before. By July 2015, when Ahmad introduced his GST-free fried rice, CPI was 3.3% higher than July 2014. A year later, the inflation rate was 2.1%; two years later, in April 2017, it was 4.4%.

Two years after GST was implemented, some of the worst affected items are foodstuff and beverages, with a 4.1% price inflation in April 2017.

These numbers all exceeded the projection of the federal government.

The disconnection is very obvious: on one hand, senior government officials – from the prime minister to the deputy finance minister – are obsessed with demonstrating how cheap kangkung is, or how we can actually buy a whole chicken for one ringgit, or cook our own GST-free meals. On the other hand, the people are having to deal with the rising cost of living every day.

In June 2017 a Chinese-language newspaper leaked a federal government plan to impose 6% GST on more than 60 zero-rated food items by July 1, 2017. While the government claimed that these food items were “not normally consumed by the masses”, the list actually included popular foodstuff such as bee hoon, koay teow, laksa noodle, potatoes, long beans, spinach and etc. These are ingredients for most of our favourite hawker fares! The ensuing public outrage was not unexpected. Within a day, the federal government U-turned on the decision and scrapped the plan.

No wonder the people are angry. Basically the elites have no inkling what is happening in the lives of ordinary Malaysians whose very lifestyles are affected by the government’s reckless policy. One perversity often highlighted is how luxury food items such as lobsters and oysters are zero-rated, while food for ordinary people such as canned sardine suffers the GST. Once again, Marie Antoinette comes to mind: a starving people unable to afford commoners’ bread are asked to eat haute pastry instead.

Food is Political

Recently, amid outcry by locals that durians, a fruit most native to Malaysia and a popular fruit, have become unaffordable, Najib proudly declared that it was he who was responsible for the durian price hike. In the prime minister’s own words, “Durians used to be sold for RM1 a fruit but today, the price is more than RM100 a kilogram. I am responsible for this…” Imagine: a traditional native fruit, a local favourite so much so that the durian is crowned the “King of Fruits”, is no longer affordable by locals because of the maddening price inflation.

The Grand Ayatollah of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, once famously said of the Iranian Revolution: it is not about the price of watermelons, a popular fruit in Iran. This indicates that the Ayatollah’s politics were aiming for loftier goals, and economic hardship was even to be tolerated to achieve it.

Yet, despite the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, despite the ancient saying, “Men shall not live by bread alone”, the “bread and butter” issue is often the important centrepiece during election campaigns.

Confucius, when asked about the meaning of government, said: “Enough food, enough weapons and the trust of the people.”

And when asked which he would give up first if he had to, he answered, “weapons”, leaving “food and the trust of the people”.

For Malaysia, perhaps reflecting the colourful local culinary culture, the whole politics of bread and butter is confounded further by the overhanging question: “Is the bread and butter halal?”

Bon appetit. Bon politique.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and a member of Penang Institute’s Board of Directors.



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