Malaysians act like good food and freedom are both an inalienable right by birth.
Forget about slapping two slices of bread around some slices of processed meat and calling it an acceptable meal. We demand—and deserve—only painstakingly made curry and rendang, with at least a dozen other condiments and side dishes, available anywhere, at anytime. Oh, and it's got to be dirt cheap too. Thanks.
As free citizens, we take for granted this heady combination of good food and liberty. Some people, though, have had the unfortunate experience of being robbed of both good food and freedom in the fight for liberty: political prisoners.
Mohamad Sabu, who is today Malaysia’s Minister of Defense, knows a thing or two about this. Branded an enemy of the state just 20 years ago for allegedly stirring up anti-Christian sentiment, he’s taste-tasted the grub at a variety of detention centers, from small police holding cells to the infamous prisons like the Kamunting Detention Center.
“Food served in Kamunting gives you energy, but not satisfaction," he told VICE. "But it's slightly better than police lockup."
As one of the mass arrestees under Operation Lalang (or "Weeding Operations," a crackdown that resulted in a mass incarceration of politicians in order to, supposedly, prevent a race riot) in 1987, Mat Sabu, as he is known, was first held without trial for 60 days in jail. A detention order then extended his life behind bars for another two years, a sentence which he served at Kamunting.
And that was already the second time he was imprisoned under the Internal Security Act 1960 (the first time was because of his alleged attempts to import the Iranian revolution to Malaysia), Mat Sabu knows what it’s like to have the full might and force of the state shoved down his digestive tract.
“There’s no fish, no beef, no chicken every day," he told VICE. "Yet, we know there is [money] allocated for this."
The 2013 viral video between him and Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, another former political prisoner, may show both men laughing and in good spirits as they recall their time in prison and the fish head curry dish Mat Sabu used to cook for the other inmates. But the reasons why they were behind bars—the consequences arising from their unjust incarceration—were anything but laughable.
Ops Lalang is arguably Malaysia’s grossest violation of human rights. In an orchestrated mass arrest between October and November 1987, more than one hundred politicians, civil society leaders, and activists were “weeded out” for supposedly being “threats against national security." Forty of them ended up imprisoned in Kamunting for as long as two years without trial, and the last of the detainees was freed not until April 1989.
The government wasted no time using food to dehumanize the arrestees from the get-go.
In between the interrogations by Special Branch police officers and the time spent in solitary, the detainees were fed what is known as “lockup food," which usually consisted of weak tea or coffee with diabetes-inducting levels of sugar and stale bread for breakfast.
The lunch and dinner that followed were equalyly sordid affairs consisting of rice and suspicious-looking meat and vegetables, despite the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners stating that every prisoner has the right to “food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served.”
In his book 445 Days Under Operation Lalang: An Account of the 1987 ISA Detentions, another detainee, the activist Dr Kua Kia Soong, described the usual breakfasts sent to his 2.4 meter-by-2.8 meter jail cell as little more than “flavored slush” masquerading as coffee or tea—that was never hot enough—plus six slices of white sliced bread, which were a chore to get through.
“They must have employed a specialist who knew how to spread margarine and jam as thinly as humanly possible!” he wrote.
Any story about Malaysian prisons won't be complete without a substantial look into the kinds of food they serve and if there is one place where food is even more political than it already is, it’s here in Malaysia.
Prior governments were able to use food as a means to punish and humiliate prisoners without have to worry about too much public backlash, explained Gaik Cheng Khoo, an associate professor at Nottingham University in Malaysia and the author of Eating Together: Food, Space and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore.
“Prisoners seem to have forfeited their basic human rights when they enter prison and no one cares if their human rights are violated," she said. "So it’s easy for them to be mistreated or abused without any recourse or avenue for complaints, and for their complaints to be taken seriously by authorities and general society due to this stigma.”
But Kamunting was different.
For one, the living conditions were as good as it gets in a Malaysian prison, at least compared to the other detention facilities in the country. Detainees lived in actual rooms and used actual toilets. After 60 days of trying to glimpse the open sky through the tiny ventilation slits of his solitary confinement cell at a different detention center, Kamunting’s garden compound and its unfettered view of the sky were a welcome reprieve, Kua wrote in his book.
And for all the shackles on their liberty, Kamunting was also a place of brotherhood, racial camaraderie, and a fish head curry so good you remember it 20 years later.
In Kamunting, there is solidarity among men who would not, in euphemistic terms, have seen eye-to-eye with each other on the other side of the barbed wire fences that held them in. Yet, during a week-long hunger strike on the one-year anniversary of their incarceration, and despite being in a state of starvation, they sang songs, protested together, and supported one another.
They traded their favorite dishes too.
Mat Sabu, who worked as a cook in the prison then, told VICE that he used to source recipes from other inmates. After their protest, food rations for the inmates improved notably, according to him.
“If I’m making curry, I’ll ask my Indian colleagues," he said. "If it’s Chinese food, then there’s [late Democratic Action Party veteran] Lau Dak Kee. If it’s Kelantanese food, there are others to ask. They found what I came up with tasty. There’s no secret recipe."