Source: The Ritual / Instagram

What appeared to be an unassuming Instagram post introducing its new dish turned into one that stoked the anger of many after The Ritual, a cafe in the upscale area of Bukit Timah in Singapore, had advertised its self-styled “Nasi Padang” as one “without the nasties”.

The “nasties”, as described in its now-deleted Instagram post on Saturday (29 May), include ingredients such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and “additives”.

The Ritual’s offering could thus allow diners to enjoy the traditional Indonesian dish “guilt-free”, adding that the cafe only uses “Himalayan salt” in their version of the delicacy.

A beloved dish among the Malays and other communities in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, Nasi Padang originated from the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra.

It comprises steamed rice, eaten with an array of pre-cooked dishes. Such dishes include various types of meat or fish cooked in gulai (a rich curry-like sauce, often with coconut milk as its base) and terung balado (eggplant with ground red chili, stir-fried with shallots and garlic, among other ingredients).

The Ritual’s version is made of “Lemongrass Chicken or Beef or Impossible Patty, Potato Fritter, Eggplant Balado, Quinoa or Rice and egg”, according to its post.

Source: The Ritual / Instagram

The original post, which has since been deleted, primarily garnered comments from many Singaporeans who were unhappy with the use of the word “nasties” to describe the ingredients used in the authentic Nasi Padang.

Educator and Malay Studies Masters in Arts candidate Mysara A. tweeted on 28 May: “MSG is not even in Minang cuisine in the first place. And this is an insult to the Minang and Malay aunties who struggle to sell to earn a living.”

The incident involving The Ritual appeared to have prompted the Malay Heritage Centre to hold an online event called “Traditional Culinary Icons and Healthy Food”, in conjunction with the Singapore Heritage Festival this year.

Update on 7/6/21: The spokesperson of The Ritual noted that the programme had already been planned to take place ahead of the incident, and the timing was a coincidence. “For background, the Festival was ongoing from 3 to 30 May 2021, and programming had all been finalised ahead of the start of the Festival.”

In its sequence of Instagram Stories, The Ritual appeared to have apologised for its earlier post, stating that its team “wanted to recreate a healthier version in our own interpretation” and was “definitely not implying that the cultural dish itself is nasty”.

“Let’s not aggravate a mistake and let’s not spread any hate or negativity; we want to come together collectively to make it a better place for everyone,” said the cafe.

Source: The Ritual / Instagram

Cafe’s second apology fuels further criticism not only from Singapore netizens, but of those from Indonesia and Malaysia

The Ritual subsequently uploaded a new apology post, stating that it had “failed to articulate our original intentions and our respect for the culture and heritage of Nasi Padang as a dish” in its original apology post, which came after the Instagram Stories.

“It did not align with our team’s values, and we made the decision to remove it early this morning,” said the cafe.⁣

“We are extremely sorry for causing any hurt, anger or offence. We meant to convey our own cooking philosophy and selection of ingredients. We love Nasi Padang and we want to celebrate our love for it with our own interpretation to cater to friends and guests with dietary restrictions. ⁣

“We would also like to thank everyone who has come forward to express their views on this. We have a lot to learn and, moving forward, we will definitely be mindful of how we communicate and be aware of the impact it could have on the various communities around us. We are dedicated to being and doing better. Once again, we are truly sorry,” said the cafe.

Source: The Ritual / Facebook

On top of comments from Singaporean netizens, The Ritual’s second apology post attracted remarks from Indonesian and Malaysian netizens after mainstream Indonesian news outlets Kompas TV and CNN Indonesia as well as Malaysian news outlet Malay Mail and online portal World of Buzz had reported on the issue.

“Even in your apology you still have the audacity to assume that traditional Minangese dishes are using MSG. I bet you never even tried the authentic Nasi Padang. This is gentrification personified,” said one user.

One user asked The Ritual about concrete actions the cafe is seeking to implement in the wake of their error.

“Will you be proactively seeking out minority voices and opinions before deciding on modifying recipes from other cultures? … Will you be training your staff in cultural sensitivity?” They asked, among other questions they posed.

Another said: “Have you thought about doing more than an apology? What about donating all proceeds from the sale of your nasi padang to the Minang community? Now that’s an apology.”

One user criticised The Ritual for deleting the original post, as there was “so much education in the comments, that are all now lost”.

“Minorities are forever spending so much heart pain and brain space to correct and educate and for naught,” they said.

Another user challenged the myth that MSG is detrimental to health, saying that it “stems from racist propaganda against Chinese restaurants in the US” and “has been debunked time and time again”.

In a string of tweets on the issue, Twitter user @mdzulkar9 criticised “performative” aspects of The Ritual’s apology, such as pairing their apology “with pics of your Malay staff donned in tudung” in what appears to be an attempt to “absolve yourself from the god-awful copywriting”.

“And y’all still wonder why Malays were so pissed that we were singled out when the g0vt talked about diabetes?” He added.

Several Instagram users who commented The Ritual’s apology post highlighted that the depiction of traditional Malay/Indonesian food such as Nasi Padang appears to be rooted in a “colonial mindset”.

“Don’t like Southeast Asia food? Then sell the tasteless western garbage that you worship so much,” said one user.

Of ‘wellness’ as a colonial construct and the ‘cultural deficit theory’

A couple of Twitter users elaborated on this view — @nebulaboleh said that “the reality of SG’s violence against the Indigenous population cldn’t be more obvious” in the “casual conflation (of) Malay food w disease” as seen in The Ritual’s case.

@yongtaufoogazi highlighted the profiteering nature of “wellness” as defined through a colonial framework, which “waxes moralising, faddish rhetorics of nutritional purity & appropriates the cultures + labour of the global north + south”.

Ms Mysara made an argument for how the cultural deficit theory has shaped discourse around racial minorities in Singapore as seen through the lens of the State.

“It blames issues that minority faces as one caused by their culture and erases the reality of issues of underdevelopment, which are tied to socioeconomic & other structural inequalities and & historical factors,” she wrote, in a string of tweets on 22 May.

She added: “Ethnic cultural norms and values are to be blamed when we try to account for socio-economic inequalities and power imbalances.”

An example of the perpetuation of the cultural deficit theory, she said, is an article published by TODAY in 2017, titled ‘War on diabetes: Changing eating habits of Malay, Indian communities an uphill task’.

Coconuts Singapore observed soon after that the article in question had received considerable backlash for overlooking “other elements such as income levels, costs of living, portion control, education and the existence of unhealthy foods from other cultures”.

Such portrayal of the Malay and Indian communities’ eating habits, Ms Mysara posited in relation to the TODAY article, erases the nuances and complexities that influence both communities’ way of life such as socioeconomic conditions, social habits and other factors — effectively reducing them to a monolith.

“Brown Singaporeans, especially Malays, are over represented in poverty as compared to the Chinese. Which means they have little or no access to healthy food and healthcare,” she observed.

“Even “kampung spirit” has been reproduced in the media as a factor to justify the drug issue in the Malay community. Malays are reduced to being “communal” which leads to drug abuse and the issue of reintegration is never, like drug abuse, a socioeconomic issue,” Ms Mysara added.

Medical sociologist Humairah Zainal observed in her work, ‘Singaporean Malays’ Lifestyle Habits and Health Outcomes: A Gendered Perspective‘ last Feb that the Singaporean Malay community’s health issues “are often painted through ethnicised lenses by local mainstream media as compared to those of other ethnic communities”.

“Citing statistics from the National Disease Registry, reports from mainstream media frequently reveal that the Malay community suffers from the highest incidence of chronic diseases including strokes, kidney failures and heart attacks,” she noted.

“The National Health Survey in 2016 also reported that about 24 per cent of Malay adults are obese, compared with 16.9 per cent of Indians and 7.9 per cent of Chinese. In 2011, 439.2 heart attacks per 100,000 people occurred among Malays, compared to 421.5 among Indians and 173.2 among Chinese,” Dr Humairah added.

Dr Humairah argued that such ethnic-based explanations are “problematic”, as “they attribute the incidence of illnesses to the cultural deficit or failing of the Malay ethnic group, which in turn perpetuates negative cultural stereotypes about the community”.

“For instance, in an article published on 13 March 2010, The Straits Times attributed the high obesity rate amongst Malays to their perceived unhealthy dietary habits and sedentary lifestyle. It cited Malay overindulgence in fat-saturated diet consisting of high-calorie food like rendang and nasi lemak as the cause of obesity. Such generalised statements as “Fatty foods and a couch potato lifestyle have long been the Malay way” only serve to reinforce negative cultural stereotypes about the Malays,” she noted.

“Cultural events like Malay weddings and family gatherings are put under the spotlight without consideration that occasional festive indulgences are also common throughout many other cultures,” Dr Humairah added.

The Workers’ Party’s Fadli Fawzi, in a bid for greater data transparency from the government, argued in July last year that “releasing only one set of health data grouped by ethnic sets can be problematic”, as it “leads to the unnecessary framing of obesity as a “Malay issue”, while ignoring the important socio-economic determinants of health”.

“Making public more statistical data, especially those along the metrics of wealth and income, will help us more properly understand and respond to social issues better,” said Mr Fadli, who is also a lawyer.



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