I think a lot of us Malaysians have engaged in those long never-ending debates about racism before. The problem with these debates is that they are framed within the context of Malaysian citizenry and more often than not, they ignore the universal value of equality across the human race. This gives rise to hypocrisy among those who believe in equality among Malaysians. They disapprove of racism against Malaysians, but have no problem practicing it against foreigners.

I write this as a reaction to the proposal in Penang to ban foreigners from becoming cooks in that state. I find the rationale behind the proposal extremely flimsy: the state government wants to preserve food authenticity. It is about protecting Penang heritage.

This assumes cooking styles and recipes cannot be learned, with cooking being an innate special ability. It assumes there is something special about Penang people cooking Penang cuisine.

But the reasoning should be deconstructed to its logical end, right up to its building blocks. If we are worried about food heritage, then perhaps some Malaysians should be banned from making some Malaysian food.  Chinese cooks should not be allowed to make Malay food. Malay cooks should not be allowed to prepare Indian food. Run the logic of innate cooking ability for every single ethnic group and see if you like the results.

The differentiation between Malaysian and foreign cooks is just a pretty veneer hiding the ugly prejudice. One might argue there is a difference between racism and anti-immigrant sentiment: we are not discriminating against a race but against immigrants in general. But deep down there beyond artificial categorizations, is there really a difference between racism and xenophobia? Both definitions have more than a tinge of prejudice in it. Xenophobia is just racism by another name, it smells just as stink.

Besides, the proposed ban will likely affect foreign workers from poor countries. What if the cooks are of European origin? Would we worship them as gods instead? That line separating racism from xenophobia looks thin and blurry, if there is even a line in the first place.

Additionally, around the internet, the question of hygiene has been raised to suggest foreign workers are dirty people and of poor health, supporting the proposed ban and more importantly, revealing a crasser form of racism. The counterpoint on hygiene is that if you have gone to any of the stalls in Penang manned by the locals, you would conclude hygiene is not a priority of those hawkers. I definitely concluded so when I ate my noodles and cendol on Macalister Road in George Town recently.

I am not a good cook myself but I did try cooking when I was away as a student abroad. It appears to me that you can learn cooking and what makes it good is practice. I do not practice my cooking but I am quite certain if you learn and practice something, you will be good at it. If you intend to work as a cook, then you will need to go the extra mile to be good at it.

After all, we have Chinese Malaysian cooks making relatively good roti canai on Goulburn Street in Sydney. Does that make it less authentic? I ate the roti canai anyway and ordered another. I am sure there are more examples of that in Malaysia and all around the world. If we truly bought into the point about food authenticity and heritage, then these Malaysians should be condemned for cooking something belonging not to their ethnic heritage. But we do not.

In fact, a lot of us are proud of them for spreading Malaysian culture abroad. And for those of us who travel, sometimes we miss the food from home and we are thankful we can find Penang food just around the corner in Chicago, for instance. Some of us cannot eat anything else but Malaysian food even after years of living abroad, mixing only in Kampung Malaysia in London and elsewhere, which is a bit worrying but let us not go there for now.

So, why would it be okay for Malaysians to cook Malaysian food but not foreigners? Simple. We advocate equality among Malaysians, but to hell with others. In my books that prejudice comes close to racism.

At the end of the day, the judge is the customers. If they like you, they will patronize your stalls or restaurants, paying you good money for a good meal. If you are a bad cook, whoever you are, Malaysian or not, the photo-snapping hungry crowd will not visit your establishment all too often. We do not need the government to tell us we cannot buy food from certain parties. We can decide that ourselves.

The Penang proposal is not the only example of that kind of racism. When the Federal Territory Minister wanted to ban the homeless and soup kitchens from the Kuala Lumpur city center, civil society stood up against him and all the state machineries under his control. In defending the proposal, among others, the minister said most of the homeless and beggars were foreigners anyway (not true because based on news reports, City Hall ”relocated” 965 homeless persons in 2013, with about 13 per cent of them foreigners). In his imagination, that makes the proposal more palatable. Since the homeless were foreigners, he thought he could do whatever he wanted, forgetting that foreigners are human beings too.

And this does not stop there. Some of us think immigrants are lesser beings. That is why we abuse them. How many times have we heard of foreign maids abused in Malaysia? Some of us want them out completely, putting all kinds of blame on immigrants, regardless whether it is true or not. Low wages? Immigrants! No jobs? Immigrants! Rising crime rate? Immigrants! Low women labor participation rate? Immigrants!

Of course, really, they do not mean all immigrants and definitely not those under the Malaysia My Second Home program. Oh no, not the so-called high-skilled workers. Just immigrants from certain poor countries.

Citizenship grants us certain rights, but that does not make non-citizens less human. They bleed red too, like Malaysians.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on July 17 2014.

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