Malaysia

Gardenia row points to rising ethnic tension as economy bites

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 3 — With surging prices leading to belt-tightening, Malaysians are now more inclined to point the finger at each other and frame disputes through racial lenses.

Analysts told The Malaysian Insider the recent campaign to boycott Gardenia bread over allegations it is a racist and “crony company” reflects the reality in the country where nearly all facets of life are seen from a racial standpoint.

Gardenia is the market leader in bread. — Picture courtesy of famouschris.comGardenia is the market leader in bread. — Picture courtesy of famouschris.comGardenia Bakeries was forced to take out advertorials last week to deny it had been directed by Padiberas Nasional Bhd (Bernas) to stop buying flour from Federal Flour Mills Bhd (FFM) for allegedly racist reasons.

Its decision was sparked by a drop in sales of its popular Gardenia bread as many Chinese Malaysians opted for a new brand in an apparent reaction to a campaign on Facebook and email that was also spread through text messages.

Bernas is owned by Tan Sri Syed Mohktar Al-Bukhary, while FFM is controlled by Hong Kong-based Malaysian tycoon Tan Sri Robert Kuok.

“In Malaysia, that’s the default mode (when times are bad) and people start blaming other races. Whether it’s education, business or even entertainment, most people are thinking along racial lines,” said Ibrahim Suffian, who heads public pollster Merdeka Center.

The anti-Gardenia campaign, conducted online and mainly in Chinese, began a month ago, calling for a boycott of the breadmaker for allegedly discriminating against Kuok’s FFM on racial grounds.

The campaign also urged consumers to support rival brand Massimo, produced by FFM, which entered the market recently.

One email read: “Let’s support the new Massimo bread by Robert Kuok and boycott Gardenia bread owned by Umno crony, Syed Mokhtar Albukhary’s Tradewind group.”

Malaysians have faced persistently high inflation which first breached a two-year high of three per cent in March and continued to soar to 3.3 per cent last month.

Both Suffian and political analyst Khoo Kay Peng blamed top-down policies which continued to “base rights on ethnicity rather than citizenship.”

“It is inconsistent for us to have education and economic rights based on race and try to have a Race Relations Act. They just don’t go together,” said Khoo, who also noted it was easy for consumers to victimise market leader Gardenia as it has repeatedly raised prices in recent years.

Agus Yusoff, a professor of politics and history, said the key factors for consumers were affordability and value for money and, in this case, there appeared to be an agenda to “insert racial sentiment into the issue.”

Massimo currently offers a normal-sized wheat germ loaf and a longer white loaf at RM2.50 and RM3.40 while Gardenia’s equivalents are priced at RM3.20 and RM3.35 respectively. Both brands sell a normal white loaf at RM2.40.

Putrajaya will table a Race Relations Bill in March to combat racial extremism, regulate interaction among the races and foster mutual respect.

De facto law minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said last week the proposed law would be modelled on Britain’s Race Relations Act.

But opposition lawmakers said that legislation would not solve the problem and only confer more control to the government rather than facilitate interaction.

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