you're reading...
Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Let’s Talk Food – Across Religious Divides


By Ooi Kee Beng

Editorial, November 2016, PENANG MONTHLY

Most religions are defined by their rituals and by the regimenting the collective behaviour of its followers. That is what ultimately defines a “religious establishment”.

During this process, things tend to get misunderstood and become issues for contestation despite starting out as rather rational and practical matters. That is how things work when mass culture and mass communication are involved. Apparently, the masses need huge simplifications in order to understand anything at all.

We see that in politics all the time, now more so than ever. This is where fundamentalism starts. The form quickly erases the original reason for an action. And old discourses – like religion – exhibit this the most clearly.

It is thus up to every new generation to seek out the wisdom behind the words, the reason behind the rituals.

I was recently reading about and watching videos on organic halal farms in the UK. Controversies about halal food are of course an endless matter in the UK as in most countries where Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side. But if misunderstandings persist or are encouraged, then people will unavoidably start to live less and less side by side, as has been happening in Malaysia.

Transparency and a willingness to discuss matters are of course the key to minimising misunderstandings across ethnic and religious lines. Perhaps more important is the readiness to couch things “in other words”; in words that others are able to digest.

I am convinced that diverse human ideas and behaviour are not as esoteric or cryptic as we make them out to be. Both insiders and outsiders do tend, for their own collective processes of “excluding” and “othering”, to be impatient and to turn their back quickly on discussions that get too exasperating or too close to the bone.

Rational Eating

Patience and a willingness to understand reasons rather than rituals are necessary for inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue. And if there is any concern today that is common to all peoples, especially the young, it is food.

The world is approaching a food industry crisis – if it is not already there – as its population rises to reach eight billion by 2024(!). (There were only four billion of us in 1974, 50 years ago). I don’t know about you, but I do consider most days what feeding so many people, who eat at least three times a day, reveals about how the food production industry works or is forced to work.

We humans eat animals, of course, aside from harvested fruits, herbs and vegetables; all the time, be this in a recognisable form or not.

And so ethical worries about what we eat and how healthy what we put into our mouths actually is, what the food industry that our consumption supports actually does, what corners it cuts, and what lies it tells; and the environmental costs of such gargantuan food production and the incredible logistical arrangements needed to move food across the world all come up.

And we worry about the growing perception that all living things are sources for human nourishment.

It does not require a lot of imagination for anyone to see that there is much room for agreement between religious logic and non-religious logic where the food industry today is concerned. Crises always provide opportunities and encourage more openmindedness – especially as our choices and time run out.

Some links that are worth a look:






About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: