What Mahathir doesn’t understand about chopsticks

mahathir and chopsticks

To most, chopsticks are eating utensils shaped out of two strips of equal length, commonly tapered, and made of a wide variety of materials such as bamboo, metal plastic or wood.

To Mahathir, chopsticks are purportedly stumbling blocks for a perfect Malaysian assimilation.

“The Chinese eat with chopsticks, they don’t eat with their hands. They have not adopted the Malaysian way of eating food. They retained the chopstick, which is an identity from China, not Malaysia, and many other things,” he reportedly complained at the launch of his new book “Capturing Hope: The Struggle Continues for a New Malaysia”.

With due respect, I’d like to point out to the nonagenarian politician that: first of all, his remark was an incredibly flawed analogy. You don’t have to be a foodie to know that the use of chopsticks is no longer confined to China; having become a staple within the culture of many other East Asian countries for thousands of years and increasingly ubiquitous anywhere you go in the modern world.

No one should be forced to dig into a simmering bowl of noodles, or a boiling hot pot, armed with just their hands to make a point about their allegiance. Scalding your hands proves nothing except your own foolhardiness and a disfigured appendage to show.

Secondly, it appears to me that Mahathir had failed to make the distinction between the term Malay and Malaysian. Eating with hands is customarily the Malay (and Indian) way, when in fact, there is not one definitive Malaysian way of eating; thus, invalidating his conjecture about chopsticks and assimilation.

The distinction between Malay and Malaysian

The word “Malay” defines a dominant ethnic group native to the lands of Peninsular Malaya, Borneo and Sumatra, descended from the Malayic-speaking Austronesians and Austroasiatic tribes, with their own sets of genetic traits, traditions, literature, and culinary habits — masakan Melayu is often consumed with just hands, no additional utensils needed.

Article 160 of the Federal Constitution also put forth an interpretation for “Malay” as someone who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, and conforms to Malay custom and — (a) was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or is on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or (b) is the issue of such a person.

On the other hand, what makes us Malaysian is not predefined by the color of our skins, the way we pray, and how we eat: hands, chopsticks or fork-and-spoons. At its root, to be Malaysian is to be conferred the legal status of citizenship. Yet it is also so much more.

Malaysia is best known as a melting pot of cultures, races and religions. Diversity is simply built into our national identity. Being Malaysian means investing in the ideals of national unity, believing there is strength in diversity; that we embrace multiculturalism and safeguard our cherished values of moderation and mutual respect.

Giving up on chopsticks will neither make someone more Malay nor Malaysian. It, however, dilutes the diversity of Malaysia, and as such, strips away the very fabric of our national identity. In a way, failing to understand the very fundamentals of our country makes Mahathir less Malaysian than anyone else.

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