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When bread has race


Boycott campaigns of products based on race and politics only shows the shallow-mindedness of some Malaysians.

GARDENIA or Massimo? Roti Benggali or Roti Boy? Mexican bun or French loaf? Walk into any Malaysian home and you are bound to come across a loaf of bread. Whether it's white or wholemeal, bread is a big part of Malaysian lives.

It does after all go with almost anything sardine, tuna, butter, cheese, jam, honey and kaya.

Or even that one-day-old chicken curry lying in the fridge.

Malaysians are spoilt for choice when it comes to picking the breakfast staple. There are quite a few local companies selling bread with Gardenia, High5 and newcomer Massimo currently the biggest players in the market. There is definitely a wide range to pick from based on preference of price, health value and taste.

Recently, a Facebook group has urged Malaysian bread lovers to add race and politics to their list of preferences.

Started around a month ago, the online campaign called for a boycott of Gardenia bread because it is allegedly owned by a “crony company”.

It claimed that after buying into Gardenia, Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) pressured the breadmaker to stop buying flour from Federal Flour Mills Bhd (FFM), owned by Hong Kong-based Malaysian tycoon Tan Sri Robert Kuok, for racist reasons. Bernas is owned by Tan Sri Syed Mohktar Al-Bukhary.

The campaign also urged consumers to switch to new loaf on the block, Massimo, which incidentally is produced by FFM.

While the link to the campaign cannot be determined, sales of Gardenia dropped, prompting the company to place advertorials in the print media to deny that it is a crony company, and that it had been directed by Bernas to stop buying flour from FFM.

In the advertisements, Gardenia Bakeries stressed that it purchases flour from Malayan Flour Mills Bhd and Prestasi Flour Mills (M) Sdn Bhd purely due to commercial reasons.

It also added that although Bernas had a stake in another flour mill, it had never been directed or coerced into buying flour from the mill.

In return, the FFM group also came up with its own advertorials in the media to deny any involvement in the smear campaign against Gardenia.

The FFM group claimed it is a company that has always believed that businesses should be allowed to operate in a fair and equitable manner that permitted free enterprise and competition.

“We have been fortunate to be able to compete in a market that shares these values,” said FFM.

Neither FFM nor Gardenia could be reached for further comments.

Too much ado about bread

Datuk Marimuthu Nadeson of Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association (Fomca) says he is stunned that food has been politicised so.

“If even bread can be equated to race and politics, I don't know which God will help us,” he says.

“Although consumers have the right to choose, boycotting for the given reasons reflect something unusual that must be addressed.”

At the end of the day, stresses Marimuthu, consumers must believe in the product based on its quality alone.

A random straw poll of about 30 bread consumers at several supermarkets and sundry shops in the Petaling Jaya area found that many of them seem to prefer one brand over the other.

However, the consumers interviewed mostly offer the same sentiment their choice has nothing to do with politics or race. For most of them, the deciding factor is taste while for some, price is another consideration.

Massimo currently offers a standard-sized 400g wheat germ loaf at RM2.50 while Gardenia's 400g wholemeal equivalent is priced at RM3.20.

Petaling Jaya resident Abdul Manaf, 59, says he tried Massimo when it was first available and found it was to his family's liking.

But he has not given up on Gardenia and now buys both brands. He finds the smear campaign “kind of silly”.

Another consumer who wish to be known only as Tan says she tried Massimo Wheat Germ (sandwich loaf with wheat germ) when it was first out in the market but subsequently switched back to Gardenia because she preferred wholemeal bread.

Like Marimuthu, she is perplexed that there are people tagging ethnicity on bread, joking: “Is High5 Chinese, Indian or Malay?”

On a more serious note, she says: “When you put race on bread, it's really ridiculous.”

Unfortunately, there are some people who are branding bread according to race, as can be seen in online forums.

Some netizens have slammed Gardenia for allegedly practising cronyism.

Interestingly, Gardenia is garnering support from “unlikely” parties, such as DAP parliamentarian Teresa Kok who has come to its defence in her blog.

“I find this SMS to be extremely racist and not acceptable. I condemn the use of the race-based angle in attacking Gardenia,” wrote the Seputeh MP after receiving an SMS on the matter.

Kok also advised members of the public to be more careful with any information received via forwarded SMS/e-mail and not forward it without verification.

Marimuthu agrees. “It seems to be quite easy to discredit or run down people online or via SMS.

“People must learn to evaluate information,” he says.

Although not common, such smear tactics have been employed before.

In 2008, there was an SMS campaign in Penang to boycott the nasi kandar stalls because the operators and workers allegedly protested against the Penang Government at Komtar.

Penang is famous for its nasi kandar and there are more than 250 such outlets in the state.

Following the boycott, then Malaysian Muslim Restaurant Operators Association president K.K. Sihabutheen reportedly appealed to consumers not to stay away from the outlets.

He said it was unfair to spread rumours on the nasi kandar operators when they were not even involved in the demonstration.

The campaign, however, fizzled out not long after as the lure of the nasi kandar was too great to resist.

Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia (PPIM) activist Datuk Nadzim Johan concurs that there are many Malaysians who are easily swayed by race rhetoric.

“Business is not an issue of race. We can't use political or racist elements in business,” he stresses.

He says that PPIM would boycott products based on safety and health issues and not because of who the owner is.

“We are against anything that shortchanges consumers,” he stresses.

Time to move forward

Prof Datuk Dr Wan Hashim of the National Defence University of Malaysia laments the racist allegations.

“This kind of thing shouldn't happen at this stage of our development.”

In the past, he adds, no one questioned such things.

“Should we now ask who owns KFC and McDonalds before we choose to eat there?” he poses.

If there is anything to be questioned, it would be whether the product is halal or not, says Dr Wan Hashim who has authored a book on race relations in Malaysia.

Datuk Dr Chandra Muzaffar, a trustee of the 1Malaysia foundation, however, feels that racial sentiment is normal as Malaysia is an ethno-centric society.

“Those who deny this are not being honest and their sentiments don't reflect reality,” he opines.

He points out that when we describe fellow Malaysians to others, we often refer to them by their race.

“For example, a Chinese doctor or a Malay civil servant. It goes back generations and is very unfortunate, although not unusual.”

After the race riots of May 13, 1969, non-Malays boycotted durians as they were associated with the Malays, he says.

He urges Malaysians today not to condone this sort of practice.

“What we should be concerned about is whether their business practices are ethical or not,” he says.

A consumer known only as Yap says he is disgusted by all the dirty tactics employed in the smear campaign.

A firm believer in the 1Malaysia concept, Yap observes that race and politics are becoming an increasingly divisive factor in Malaysia.

“It's bad enough that race is already in politics and our forms.

“But when it's in bread, it just makes me sad and angry,” he says.

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