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Robyn, as a non-Muslim Malaysian, I have been pondering this matter for years, as an insider.

Two things really. One, how religion is taught and practised and two, the politics.

In my view, there is a strong tendency for believers (of whatever religion) to take the easy way out - accepting whatever religious leaders say as god's immutable truths. Blind submission is often mandated and who wants to stick out like a sore thumb, right? So, when the externals like eschewing the "harams" are hammered home from cradle to grave as if these are the sure proof passports to heaven and heavenly delights, is it any wonder that any and every thing not conforming to this world view are viewed with great distaste (even abhorence) and revulsion? But of course there are those who see and seek right through these external nonsense to the heart of the matter - compassion and love - often this gives rise to toleration, acceptance and a live and let live attitude. Unfortunately, this group of liberals and moderates is in a small minority and often labeled as infidels.

Secondly, it is the digusting mix of politics with religion. Claims of having "truths" (or even god) behind them to legitimise their political existence and to shut up all contrary view points.

Left unchecked, religious fundamentalism and religionist politics will slowly but surely poison all aspects of life, including food and how it is prepared and cooked.

Moderates have to speak out loud and often. I do not think there is any other alternative here unless one enjoys the spectre of seeing the glorious Malaysian street food scene degenerating into touchable and untouchables food. Perhaps, god forbid, one day non-halal food will be consigned to be prepared and eaten behind 7 feet thick walls and roof with no sunlight through.


I grew up witnessing the sea change in the sociocultural and religious landscape of Malaysia which you have observed very acutely. Back then (in the 70's) my Muslim relatives would still come and eat at our home, and my parents would respect their sensitivities by not serving anything vaguely non-halal.This no longer happens,as our cutlery and crockery would be considered ritually unclean and therefore haram. It is another sad aspect of life in M'sia, among many others, which continues to polarize and segregate harmony loving M'sians.

Living abroad helps me to appreciate my own country in spite of her faults, for there is perhaps no other more uniquely diverse and yet peaceful country like Malaysia.


Mr. Burns - Thanks for your comment. You have a unique insider-outsider view. Before we moved to Malaysia I did a lot of reading. I remember an article abt eating - in KL, or Penang, or somewhere - that contained a comment from a Malaysian along the lines of 'Whatever our differences we always come together at mealtime.' True?

Sputnik - 'booran' means old or ancient - and 'kafe booran' really means traditional-style coffee. Ie not Nescafe! Kafe booran sellers use the hot water-sock method that Malaysian kopitiam do. It is always worthwhile, when ordering coffee on the street in Thailand, to say not just 'kafe' but 'kafe booran'. Even if they're making it traditional style they often see the foreign face (or hear the foreign voice) and assume you want Nescafe - speaking from experience (yuck).

Andrea - perhaps I am. I am also NOT stating some things that I (and maybe others) are thinking. Which might say something about blogging where I'm blogging from.

q - excellent point, thank you. Pudu is different - huge pork section, no corrugated metal or separation of any kind. However - as you also point out - the area is mostly Chinese and the Malay veg stalls there aren't so many. But still. Food for thought. Thanks.

Eurasian Sensation

I find this fascinating because I love how food can be a microcosm of its society.
When you consider that two of Malaysia's greatest culinary assets, the mamak and peranakan traditions, stem from ethnic intermarriage of Malays with Indians and Chinese respectively, it is a shame that this kind of cultural exchange has been under threat.
From my observations, the origin of this is the increased assertion of Malay-Muslim identity following the demise of colonialism. The demands of Islamic practice have the effect of encouraging separateness of Malays from non-Malays - for example, pressure to wear hijab and to avoid frequenting establishments associated with immorality (clubs, bars, kopitiams). At the same time, government policy which privileges Malays has the effect of creating resentment across ethnic lines, and segregating workplaces. It is telling to notice how Chinese and Indians tend to mix much more readily with each other than with Malays.
Love of food is the one thing that unifies all Malaysians, yet it is sad that the simple yet important act of sitting down to share a meal is fraught with cultural and religious complications.


hi there, i love your article. when i was growing up, the issue hardly ever arose, and malays ate freely in chinese homes as long as pork was not served. fast forward 30 years or so, it is now not uncommon for malay muslims (i'm not sure about chinese muslims) who refuse to even touch crockery and cutlery that has been soiled and tainted by non muslims. my colleagues, for starters, would not touch the office cutlery or crockery.

i have the utmost respect for all religions, but honestly, i find it a bit hard to swallow that God should be so pedantic about these external shows of piety, what not to touch, and yet, close a blind eye to the other "sins" of man.

well, sabah and sarawak are probably the last bastion where people of all race and religion mingle in chinese coffee shops.

when i was in jogjakarta recently, the place was packed with buddhist statues. i asked the beca driver, who carved them, was it muslims? he looked at me puzzled, and said, yup, who else, as they're mainly muslim there. he was shocked when i told him in malaysia, it would be unheard of.

well, who am i to say anything though, as we are not allowed to question or comment on such matters here.

Kelantan Gal

I too don't buy the "it just makes good business sense" explanation. There is a Chinese wet market in Kota Bharu where pork is being sold openly. There are also many Malay vendors there selling their goods. They are not offended by the pork products. And there are many muslims enjoying their kopi in chinese kopitiam, whether pork is sold or not.

In Malaysia, the situation is politicised. How can a "race", an identity, change with the times if it is rigidly enshrined in the consitution. In fact, base on the Malaysian Consitution, once a Chinese or any non-Malay converts to Islam and meet the other stated criterias... he/she becomes "Malay". Think about it, how can you be a Chinese one second, and Malay the next. I studied this for my Master's thesis, the more I researched, the more "man-made" this whole Malay race seemed to be.

The other factor is that most Malays do not understand their own religion. So they are not confident to challenge those who claim to be more knowledgeable in "matters of religion". After all who really wants to be called a "kafir".

This is perhaps not a situation many muslims want to be in, especially when Malaysia doesn't encourage an environment of open discussion.

You are right Robyn, the Peranakan wouldn't have existed in current Malaysia... and they are a dying breed. Because we all know what happens when a non-muslim marries a muslim in Malaysia... how sad.

Rasa Malaysia

Born and raised in Penang, pork stalls are always there and not hidden, probably because of the Chinese majority. But when I was in Johor earlier this year, I was shocked to hear that it is very hard for Chinese to get pork and they had to drive far out to get it, at least in some of the suburbs. Again, Penang is a little haven that shields me away from the reality elsewhere in Malaysia, I guess.


Kelantan Gal and Bee - there is a Chinese saying to the tune of 'the further a region is from the capital the more freedom it has to do its own thing'. Perhaps that's the case in KB and Penang. Earlier this year I met a Malay on Penang. We talked about dangdut (he is a musician) and he noted that it's easier to find on Penang then elsewhere.

'This is Penang,' he said. 'KL is far away.'


fatboybakes - Thanks. I agree with your observation about 'external shows of piety'. And I would make the same observation to over-the-top Christians, not just to Muslims.
Jogja is fascinating, such a lively art scene! We have found - based on where we've travelled so far - Indonesian Muslims to be rather on the liberal side compared to their Malay counterparts (of course there are pockets of hardcore in eastern Java, and elsewhere - so I note I'm making a huge generalization here).
Go figure, huh?

Eurasian sensation - I agree on both those points.

TJ - religion and politics are a dangerous mix. And that's coming from the perspective of an American who does not see her own country through rose-colored glasses.
There is little public space for speaking out here in Malaysia. I think that's reflected in the fact that since I posted this I have received no less than 35 emails from Malaysians who do not want to comment publicly, even though they can do so anonymously.

Kit - that's very sad. I think when you love your country your criticism carry more validity.


Robyn, what an amazing piece. I can't wait to hear about the two larger projects you mention (food and identity, and Muslim self-expression) as these are particular interests of mine as well.

I can't add any great insight to the discussion; I can only confirm that yes, even thirty years ago, and certainly fifty years ago when my parents were young, it was not a big deal for Malays and non-Malays to eat at the same stalls/coffeeshops, or even in each other's homes. Now, I know so many Muslims who would not think of accepting even a drink in a non-Muslim's house. But this transformation began a long time ago; it was just gradual and insidious enough that many people didn't notice it until now. I remember when I was in secondary school in the '80s, a close Malay friend was chastised by the other Malay girls for sharing her water bottle with me on a hot afternoon, because my lips were "contaminated" with non-halal food.

I did want to point out: yes, being Malay equals being Muslim in Malaysia, but being Muslim *should* not equal being Malay. Just a few decades ago, Indian Muslim culture was allowed to remain quite distinct from Malay culture, but now, both these Malayan/Malaysian cultures are being Arabised thanks to the meddling of the authorities. (Farish Noor is someone who has written/thought a great deal about the decline of true Malay culture in Malaysia.) I wonder if, like Nyonya cuisine, Malaysia's Indian Muslim (mamak) cuisine is another one that might not have arisen in modern times, because Malaysian Muslims are increasingly anxious to dress/eat/talk exactly like each other.


hi, left a comment earlier but musta gotten lost.

yup its a sad sad situation, in malaysia, where muslim colleagues refuse to use the common office cultery and crockery coz its been tainted. let alone eat in a non halal coffee shop. its a rare sight, but a heartwarming one, nonetheless.

i have friends who travel abroad with suitcases full of maggi mee, for fear they cant find halal restaurants. absurd as that may sound, i respect them, for at least they are consistent. there are those that wont be caught dead in a non halal place HERE in KL, but have no qualms about eating in pork infested places overseas. now, that is questionable.

some of my best friends are muslim, and i am glad they are still willing to eat in my house.


> "meat-eating Buddhists"

There is nothing unusual about meat-eating Buddhists. It is unfortunate that in the West, hippies are the only face of Buddhism exposed to Americans and Westerners. Most Buddhists are normal laypeople. just like non-monastic Christians and Muslims, we eat meat just like everyone else and do normal everyday stuff. The stereotyping of Buddhists in the West is very unfortunate.


Hi fatboy - you're comment's there - you just gotta click at the bottom of the page to get to the SECOND page of comments (that's a first - two pages of comments).

I think each person should be free to interpret their religion in their own way. Your Muslim friends obviously value thinking for themselves above those 'external shows of piety' you mentioned in your last post.

Preeta - I could write a thick pamphlet of examples along your water bottle story from the emails I've received. It makes me a bit pessimistic for any changes for the better in the future.

Interesting observation about Mamak. I wasn't aware of increased Arabisation among this group of Muslims. It would be a shame if Mamak culture was eventually simply folded into a greater Malaysian Muslim culture rather than retaining its distinctive features.

Observer - I wouldn't call it 'stereotyping' of Buddhists in the West. I would call it more complete ignorance of what Buddhism is about (excluding among Western Buddhists, of course).


Robyn, i think you are mistaking East Malaysia for East Coast Peninsular Malaysia. I meant Borneo which gets confused as 'not part of Malaysia' by the outside world and rarely associated with the title 'East Malaysia'.
On duty free Labuan island and there's alot of muhibbah/unity social gatherings at most of the liquor serving kopitiams!
Kelantan you are right about muslims not being in liquor kopitiams. I love the Amazing Kelantan food and the unique culture it retains due to political divide.


Thanks cumi. Yes you are right, when I see 'East Malaysia' I think the east coast of peninsular Malaysia; 'Malaysian Borneo' describes Sarawak and Sabah for me (and the reason for that has its historical reasons as well, yes?).
Duty-free entities are often places unto themselves.
I also appreciate the east coast's unique culture though I'm not sure it would disappear if there *weren't* the political divide.

Steven Goh

what to do, Malaysia is a bit behind from other people. Not sure when our country will be improved?


Hi Robyn,

I have been lurking here for a while now. Love to read what you write and admire the accompanying shots from Dave. It is a stupendous combo. The respect that both of you have for the food and its peddlers and the humility that you display is indeed very heartwarming. Kudos to both you and Dave!

I am a Malaysian working and living in Singapore. What we are seeing now is the sad product of the politicization of religion by the ruling regime.

I remember my old English teacher telling me that it definitely was not like this in the sixties. People were more relaxed then. Jokes about the decibels of the calls for prayer from the mosque or the boisterous nature of Taoist funeral wakes can be cracked without the oversensitive reactions.

The practise of religion seems to be more about the form than the substance when it should really be between one and God but unfortunately in Malaysia, that concept has now been corrupted (and in many other aspects, may I add) with the people tripping among themselves to display how religious they are compared to the others.

Even the Turkish people play with dogs openly in parks.

But I live in hope. With education and more importantly, exposure, I am certain that this sad hypocrisy and pretension can be eradicated. And.. hopefully everyone will be brave enough to make their votes count next time so that Malaysians can look forward to a better country for the next generation.


Kelantan Gal - I didn't respond to your comment earlier (believe me when I say I am not used to dealing with so many comments!), but this line of yrs struck a chord:
>>Malaysia doesn't encourage an environment of open discussion.

That's true. There is no public space for free and open discussion. And after a last weekend and a certain someone's comment along the lines of 'We can provide stadiums where they can scream themselve hoarse' only drives that home.

Steven - thanks for your comment. But I don't think of it as Malaysia being 'behind' this or that other country ...

da-messiah, thanks for your kind words. No humility here - we're just quite frankly in awe.
I agree with you re: politicization of religion. And we've spent a lot of time in Turkey ( target-ness of that example. I speak Turkish) so yes, I appreciate the appropriateness of that comparison.
As for the next elections ... I don't know. You might look at Taiwan as an example. Real 'democracy' never happened until those in power were ready to let it.


It's sad to see how we have let religion divide us. I totally agree on your take that each person should be free to interpret their religion in their own way.

My muslim friends whom I play basketball with would not bat an eyelid taking a sip from my water bottle.

I still harbor hope for this country which I call home.


Or maybe it's best to ask a Muslim in Malaysia itself regarding the situation? The faction of Islam practiced in Malaysia is that of the Shafiee faction, and is more stringent than the the other 3 known factions (Hanbalii, Ghazali) which is practiced in Indonesia, China and Middle East countries. So perhaps what is deemed tolerable by Muslims in these countries may not be viewed likewise by the Islamic practice here. I don't think it's meant to offend anyone though, it's just the way things are practiced.

Simon Seow

Well, we can still find the chinese kopitiam in Jalan TAR where there's a Malay stall selling nasi kandar, a Chinese frying char kueh tiow and an Indian making his rojak pasembur. All this religion thing is being politicized to separate the people in Malaysia sigh.


yes, I did have the observations that we used to have such unique presence in Malaysia - the Peranakans, that gave us so much wonderful food that is unique to us Malaysia, but sadly we no longer blend in such ways anymore and all is lost in culture, food and identity!


Amazing article... after reading thru it... I felt the same... BUT from my travels... most of what is mention on segregation happens mostly in Peninsula Malaysia... in Borneo... Pork selling food stalls and Muslim Halal food stalls co-exist side by side and there is no problems with that. Apart from that, Muslim dining in non-halal establishment is commonly observed. Out of Malaysia, during my travels thru Central Asia. In general, all the countries there are Muslim. But the locals there being Muslim does consume pork and alcohol. Explanation I get being they normalized or got used to /force to that during the Soviet Union era.
IMO mutual respect on religion should be practice and segregation should not occur. AS what the gov wants to work towards a ONE MALAYSIA idea...
just my 2 cents


i've never seen a country use islam so much as an excuse to control and channel outdated, ultra conservative beliefs and in the example of food, a stick waver for bumiputera authority.

the quran says dont eat pork, not be offended by ppl who do, not run away from babi fumes, not shun ppl who eat it at your table.

Malayan Tiger

Did u visit Pasar Pokok Pinang in the the heart of Kota Bharu ?

It is much like u saw in Songkhla.
The pork butchers, Muslim woman traders and all that ..

And Kota Bharu is no where in Thailand ..

It is in Malaysia,


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