22 Jun 2022

The Indonesia-Malaysia Culture Wars

How does food signify everyday nationalism and why does it lead to food wars between nations?

Yvonne Tan
Lenny Maria
Food Culture Wars
Nasi Goreng
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Hello from Malaysia. Yes, negara serumpun kadang tak rukun. As a disclaimer, I apologise beforehand if my words may hurt you in any way. We have had some “cultural wars” every so often from batik, angklung, wayang kulit, tari pendet, Tor-tor dance and Gordang Sambilan. They are somehow the preoccupation of our governments from ensuring national recognition from UNESCO, just like President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s batik campaign and Malaysia’s promotion of tourism seen in the Truly Asia campaign. The latter led to Malaysia and Indonesia unearthing a series of what they claimed were the oldest recordings and films that featured the “Rasa Sayang” tune such as Usmar Ismail’s “Darah dan Doa” (1950) and a Malay comedy film called “Rasa Sayang Eh” (1959). More serious problems such as transboundary haze and abuse of domestic workers added fuel to the fire, especially during the peak of the Anti-Malaysia Protests in 2010 at the Malaysian embassy. Food wars are always closest to our hearts especially when dishes were claimed as part of the national heritage campaigns, placing rendang, satay, nasi lemak burger, Semarang spring rolls and Hainanese chicken rice at the center of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singaporean (but somehow never involving Brunei) social media and news outlets. It especially hits hard when foreign media recognizes one of our foods as exceptionally tasty without acknowledging that the food is not only exclusive to one nation.

Take for example when Malaysia was left out in the Netflix series “Street Food Asia”, most netizens lamented that if Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore were able to be featured, why weren’t they? When cendol was listed as CNN Travel’s “50 of the World’s Best Desserts” and that it was “Singapore’s take on the classic treat remains especially tempting”, the news angered Indonesians and Malaysians leading to heated arguments about its origins. Sparking the food rivalry once again, some pointed out that Indonesian cendol was different to the Singaporean and Malaysian kind, where the former only had green rice flour jelly, coconut milk and palm sugar, and the latter added on sweetened red beans and corn. Of course, cendol is also a uniquely Southeast Asian regional dessert with variations and combinations called Lot Chong (Thailand), Lot Song (Laos), Mont Let Saung (Myanmar) and Bánh Lọt (Vietnam/Cambodia). I wonder if they also engage in heated food wars like us. Shwe Yin Aye, a snack eaten during the Thingyan festival (Burmese New Year) like Mont Let Saung, features a slice of white bread in pandan rice flour jelly, sago pearls, sweetened coconut milk, coconut jelly and sweetened sticky rice. You all have to try it. Other times, foreigners find themselves in the middle of such disputes such as Rio Ferdinand, a former Manchester United player, who tweeted about having local food during his visit to Singapore – referring to nasi goreng. Ferdinand later clarified that what he meant by “local” was “Southeast Asian”. However, sometimes we do unite to clap back against foreigners who were ignorant about our food such as a judge on Masterchef who eliminated a contestant for not making her rendang crispy. People are of course quick to point out that shared heritage is a thing before national boundaries exist, while others opine that there is a disconnect between how Indonesians and Malays define ethnicity. What might be considered regional Javanese, Ambonese, Sumatran, Betawi and so on cultural heritage gets mistranslated as simply “Malaysian or Melayu cultural heritage”. Whenever a dish is claimed to be a particular region’s national heritage, there is also a preoccupation with its origins, recognising that the food is eaten in many places but there is a need to point to where the dish originated from to “claim” it. Referring back to the “Rasa Sayang” debacle, research done between 2007-2018 on news related to cultural wars between Malaysia and Indonesia reported that “Rasa Sayange” resulted in 83,600 links and “budaya Indonesia yang diklaim Malaysia” resulted in 147,000 links, however, the latter under the news category filter only produced 9,300 links [1]

Food is one of the ways in which we, throughout the nation, practice a sort of everyday nationalism. This creates a sense of belonging that is exclusive to particular nation-states rather than a region. Hence, when particular nations at times package a shared culture for profit (via tourism advertisements, global recognition etc.) it leaves a big distaste. With global media and international organisations like UNESCO having some sort of authoritative power in declaring national cultures that would be protected by the nation-state, the clash of nationalism takes on another personal level having to “defend” their national identities. Hence, the clash over food and culture is almost, in essence, competing for everyday nationalism, and if anything, it shows how much entrenched nation-state nationalisms are that regional identification is almost impossible. Just like Ferdinand viewing us as simply “Southeast Asian”, I myself would be a bit up in arms about the nasi goreng he just ate. Is it nasi goreng Singapore or nasi goreng Ayam Ham? Because if it is, you can only find it in Singapore and so it is not my identity. Even their nasi goreng kampung is different to Malaysians. Maybe there will be one day where I will celebrate the fact that there are over 100+ variations of nasi goreng throughout Southeast Asia and the wider Asian region. As there are theories of nasi goreng having origins from Southern Chinese fried rice with the introduction of Chinese wok, Middle Eastern dish pilaf or from the creation and spread of kecap manis most probably via migration and trade, it is a culturally and socially dynamic dish. As our nation-states have constructed our heritage and looking for ways to legitimise local ownership, may it in the process also cultivate our memory of inter-cultural exchanges and openness.

[1] Yaputra, Albert, and Deddy Mulyana. “The contestation of cultural claims in online media between Malaysia and Indonesia.” Jurnal Studi Komunikasi 4.2 (2020): 344-356, p. 348[2] Ichijo, Atsuko, and Ronald Ranta. Food, national identity and nationalism: From everyday to global politics. Springer, 2016, p. 169.

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