Nasi lemak: The dish to unite a country

By NZ Herald

An ethnic Chinese rapper accused of stirring Malaysian racial tensions has brought his social commentary to cinemas with a food-themed comedy celebrating the country’s mixed cultural recipe.

But Wee Meng Chee – better known by the alias Namewee – characteristically pulls few punches in Nasi Lemak 2.0, an unusually daring exploration of a tide of racial distrust that has stoked concern in multi-ethnic Malaysia.

The comedy, named after the national rice dish and which opened last week, takes an unflinching but ultimately fond look at many of the racial stereotypes that Muslim-majority Malaysia’s various ethnic groups aim at each other.

The main character, an arrogant chef played by Wee, expresses revulsion at Islamic practices such as circumcision.

In another scene, an ethnic Chinese student complains of difficulty getting into college, a reference to quota policies and other privileges favouring the dominant Malay ethnic group.


“My message is that the system in Malaysia is unequal … But when we live together, we eat together, there is no racism,” said Wee, sitting for an interview with AFP wearing his trademark beanie pulled down to his eyes.

More than half of Malaysia’s near 28 million population are Malay Muslims, who live alongside sizeable Chinese, Indian and indigenous minorities.

Overt racial and religious antagonism has been largely avoided since deadly race riots in 1969.

But tensions have increased recently amid rising resentment over the Malay preferential policies, a trend toward what many say is increasing Islamisation of society, and other recent disputes.

Wee first stirred the hornet’s nest in 2007, shooting to celebrity with a song mocking the national anthem.

In 2009, authorities threatened sedition charges over another song, Nah – based on a real incident – which lashes out a Malay school headmistress who makes racist slurs against her ethnic Chinese and Indian students.

Wee insists he is a patriotic Malaysian and that his art is meant to provoke a positive discussion leading to fairness and social harmony.

With potentially divisive snap elections expected to be called soon, Prime Minister Najib Razak has pushed his “1Malaysia” campaign promoting ethnic unity, and Wee said the film was meant to support that.

However, he adds: “I want to show the real Malaysia, how we live together. For 1Malaysia to work we have to be treated equally.”

“I just want to share my music, my creativity with my true feelings without hiding anything.”

The film’s plot is anchored in Malaysia’s undisputed common cultural touchstone: love of the country’s diverse and spicy cuisine.

Wee plays Chef Huang, who studied Chinese cooking in China and ridicules Malay food.

Roped into a cooking competition, he finds however that he needs the help of people from all races – including a Malay with four wives and Indians who dance Bollywood-style – to create a delicious new version of nasi lemak.

Co-producer Fred Chong told AFP the movie – which mixes several of the nation’s languages and dialects – made more than 1.5 million ringgit (A$472,988) in its first four days in cinemas, closing in on a previous high of 1.6 million ringgit for a movie by an ethnic Chinese producer.

Malaysia’s film market is dominated by Malay and, above all, Hollywood films.

Nasi Lemak 2.0 was made on less than 1 million ringgit after private investors pulled out last year, spooked by the threat of sedition charges against Wee. None were ever filed.

Despite the film’s positive message, Wee remains outspoken.

He said Nasi Lemak 2.0 was aimed at internet-savvy Malaysian youngsters fed up with official calls for unity by the Malay-dominated government that has been in power for decades.

“Our government always treats the people who are against them or disagree with them as criminals,” he added, referring to the threatened sedition charges.

With its cast of local stars, song-and-dance numbers, martial arts routines, and numerous jokes drawing on current events, the movie has proven a hit with some, and Wee’s Facebook page has been bombarded with supportive postings.

“Nasi Lemak 2.0 may not be perfect, but it has its moments,” leading English daily The Star said in a review.

“It’s a Malaysian movie, yes, but it is out to make us take a good hard look at ourselves… and laugh.”