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Rice and coconuts

September 27, 2011

A new comedy about Malaysia's main ethnic groups has triggered a national debate about a subject that is usually taboo. 'Nasi Lemak 2.0' was made by the 28-year-old Namewee.

A bowl of rice
Malaysia's iconic dish nasi lemak is based on riceImage: AP

Racial discord and religious spats have marred Malaysia's prospects and standing in recent years. A young filmmaker has taken up the issue in a light-hearted movie named after an iconic rice dish said to be symbolic of the Southeast Asian nation.

"Nasi Lemak" (which means rice and coconuts) follows the story of a brash young ethnic Chinese chef who has no choice but to rethink his racial prejudices after he falls on hard times. After losing his restaurant, he is forced to ask for help from a Malay nasi lemak seller he had previously scorned and is sent on a journey to learn how to make the dish.

A woman selects fish at a fish market in Kuala Lumpur
Different religions and ethnic groups live side by side in Malaysia.Image: AP

"The most serious problem in Malaysia is the racial policy," says filmmaker Namewee, a second-generation Malaysian ethnic Chinese, in an interview. He told Reuters he feels the policy should not be defined by skin color but on how poor people are.

The dish nasi lemak is made up of several components such as rice and spicy sambal, each from a different culture. The dish, which is not tossed into one, is said to reflect how the different races live together in Malaysia but maintain their identities.

Racial harmony is a common theme in Namewee's films and music, which argue that a decades-old policy favouring ethnic Malays has bred a culture of inertia among Malays and widespread resentment among the country's minorities.

Ethnic divisions in the society

Almost 60 percent of Malaysia's population of 28 million are ethnic Malays and Muslims by birth. They are given preference in jobs, education and business under a policy designed to redistribute national wealth.

High achieving non-Malay students routinely complain of being overlooked for government scholarships, while professionals such as lawyers and architects say Malay firms still tend to be preferred in tendering processes for government jobs and contracts.

An Indonesian migrant worker reads a local Malay newspaper
Many economic migrants come to Malaysia to workImage: AP

Prime Minister Najib Razak has announced that the policy will be reformed but critics say it would be tough to balance the demands of ethnic minorities with the claims of the Malays, who are his core voter base.

There is still hope

Namewee dressed in his trademark beanie, oversized shirt and baggy pants added that, "I hope freedom of speech would be widened." He also called for a faster pace of change.

Namewee, a communcations graduate of a Taiwan university, thinks ethnic relations have actually improved in the last three years, but the progress has been eclipsed by reams of bad press on racial discord.

He believes Malaysia will be able to achieve racial unity within the next five to ten years, driven by a young generation pushing for change and moves by the government and opposition to encourage racial harmony.

Namewee, whose music and short film productions are laden with expletives and sexual innuendo, has jolted a country where open discussions on racial privileges are typically forbidden and debates on morality are cloaked by a conservative exterior.

Nasi Lemak is his first full-length movie, a budget production filmed on less than 320,000 US dollars.

Author: Reuters
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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