Coffee Break: ‘Give them nothing, take from them everything!’

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 11, 2019 - March 17, 2019.
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From Berlin to Hanoi, and from the space race to the nuclear arms race, the US clashed with the Soviet Union during an era known as the Cold War, which stretched from 1947 to 1991.

Fast forward to today, and China is now embroiled in a trade war and artificial intelligence race with the US to become the world’s biggest superpower.

But we Malaysians can forget about the Cold War, or the trade war, for that matter.

Our own country is at war — a food war with Singapore!

“Give them nothing, but take from them everything!” so said King Leonidas, as portrayed by Gerard Butler in 300, when he led 300 Spartans into battle against the 300,000-strong Persian army.

Clearly, Singaporeans are drawing inspiration from King Leonidas.

From bak kut teh, Hokkien mee, laksa, nasi lemak and char koay teow, Singapore has been nothing but a noisy neighbour who keeps claiming ownership over these dishes. In the contest for food supremacy, Singapore is taking everything from Malaysia.

Now, it is even preparing to nominate its hawker culture for inscription into Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity!

The food race has intensified in recent months, with Singapore seemingly having the support of Western powers.

In February, BBC claimed in a travel article that yee sang — raw fish salad served during Chinese New Year that symbolises prosperity — was created by four Singaporean chefs, dubbed the “Four Heavenly Kings”.

Although the BBC writer did mention that the original version was created by one Loke Ching Fatt from Seremban as early as the 1940s, many Malaysians are understandably upset. That is because the BBC asserted that the Singaporean chefs created a new, more colourful version for the island-state in 1964.

Back in December, both Malaysia and Singapore laid claim to cendol after CNN said the shaved-iced dessert was a Singaporean treat, and named it one of its “50 of the World’s Best Desserts”.

Naturally, Malaysians are not impressed. Seriously, what do Westerners know about our cuisine? Some even think chicken rendang is supposed to be crispy.

Now, if you are a Singaporean, you may think I am overreacting over a trivial issue. But sorry lah, food supremacy is really important to us — and we have to hang on to it, given that our love of food is about the only thing Malaysians truly have in common.

Yes, Singapore is much better than Malaysia in many aspects. It is one of the world’s top innovation hubs, and among the best when it comes to education and for expatriates to make a living.

It has the largest stock exchange in Southeast Asia and is one of the world’s top financial centres. Many multinational corporations would thus choose SGX over Bursa Malaysia as their listing destination, although the 2013 penny stock crash did happen in Singapore, even if it was allegedly engineered by Malaysians.

Oh yes, let’s not leave out the Singapore dollar. Whenever a Singaporean is losing an argument with a Malaysian, he can just hold up three fingers of one hand to mock us — in reference to the exchange rate of about three ringgit to one Singapore dollar.

Like it or not, it is hard to dispute that Singapore is a more advanced country. From education and the standard of living to the financial markets, it is obvious Singapore has an edge over Malaysia.

But when it comes to food, no way!

Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “Sometimes you have a noisy neighbour. You cannot do anything about that. They will always be noisy. You just have to get on with your life, put your television on and turn it up a bit louder.”

But for Malaysians, when our noisy neighbour claims it has better food than us, no, we do not put our television on and turn it up a bit louder.

With a population that is six times bigger,  our voices can certainly drown out their nonsensical claims.

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