A dispute over bread has become a minor source of friction between Chinese and Malays in Malaysia.
The peculiar controversy began following an online campaign of emails asking the Chinese community to boycott the consumption of Gardenia bread, Malaysia's most popular brand..
Gardenia, whose major shareholder includes Syed Mokhtar al-Bukhary, a prominent Malay tycoon, faced allegations that it received directions from its major shareholder to stop buying flour from Federal Flour Mills, owned by a Malaysian-Chinese tycoon, Robert Kuok.
As such, Malaysian Chinese are urged to stop eating Gardenia bread but turn to Kuok's new bread brand, Massimo, instead. The Massimo bread is manufactured by Federal Flour Mills.
Kuok, who is on the Forbes list for being the richest man in Malaysia, made his fortune from commodities such as sugar, flour and palm oil as well as major investments abroad, believed to be out of discontent with the government's ethnic-centric policies as well as the rise of other opportunities.
Grocers said the boycott had gone viral with some Chinese consumers believing that they would turn out to be supporting cronyism in Malaysia if they bought Gardenia bread. Some grocer stores also cut the prices of Massimo bread to encourage consumers to buy bread under this brand, instead of Gardenia.
Grocery shop owners said sales in Gardenia bread have dropped significantly over the past few weeks as a result of the boycott. “On some days, sales of Gardenia bread could be as low as just two to three loafs, which amounts to less than RM10 (US$3.30). I was shocked myself as Gardenia bread is traditionally the market leader of bread,” a grocer who only wants to be identified as Wong said.
Both the bread manufacturers are dragged into the controversy, even though the companies have denied that it was at loggerheads with each other. Federal Flour Mills have also refuted allegations that it was behind the anti-Gardenia campaign.
Faced with a virulent online campaign calling for the boycott of its products, Gardenia made an unprecedented move by placing advertisements in English and Malay newspapers to clarify that it has not received any directions to stop buying flour from a Chinese-owned company and that it is “everything a good Malaysian company should be”.
The bread maker also said it bought flour from other manufacturers for commercial reasons. “This envy has resulted in the circulation of many malicious rumors and falsehoods," the company said in the ad. “We all should not be party to this exploitation and manipulation to serve some narrow agenda,”
The effectiveness of damage control efforts by Gardenia management has yet to be seen as some shops continue to record fall in sales of the Gardenia bread, while Massimo bread received brisk sales.
The management of Gardenia and Massimo could not be reached for comments despite several attempts made by VOA.
Not all consumers, however, switched over to Massimo bread, to show support for the boycott. In fact, consumers of both brands say they prefer one over another mainly for taste and pricing reasons, rather than over racial grounds.
Jessica Lee, 29, said she liked Massimo bread as it tasted better and is cheaper compared with Gardenia. “I did not bother with the boycott campaign as I found it to be malicious and the allegations unfounded,” she said.
On the other hand, the Malay community is seen to be less affected by the boycott. They are not major consumers of bread, preferring to have rice and noodles for their breakfast meals instead.
A Malay grocer known as Zul Ibrahim said he was not aware of the boycott until he was alerted by his Chinese neighbors, because the boycott campaign was circulated in Chinese.
“Yes, sales of Gardenia have dropped, but I have assumed that it's because people like to try out new brands when they first came out, as that tends to happen,” Zul said, referring to more consumers buying Massimo bread.
Another Chinese consumer who only wants to be known as Tan, said the boycott campaign is likely to end soon, as he believed consumers are rational. “We have better things to do than fight over which bread to buy,” he said, while putting a loaf of Gardenia bread on the counter.