With national elections looming, Prime Minister Najib Razak has sparked a populist backlash by admitting he prefers quinoa to rice
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcement last week that he preferred the expensive grain quinoa to rice has caused outrage among voters, who have pointed to the leader’s comments as evidence that he is out of touch with ordinary Malaysians.
During an official visit to a hospital last Thursday, Najib was heard saying: “I don’t eat rice. I eat quinoa. My son introduced me to it.”
Following fierce criticism on social media for his penchant for eating the pricey grain, Najib was moved to defend his culinary preferences a day later during a live TV session discussing the 2018 Budget at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysi.
Seemingly backtracking on his original comments, Najib explained that his doctor had in fact advised him to make the switch to compensate for a lack of exercise in his busy work schedule. Quinoa was preferable as it contained less carbohydrates and sugar than the country’s national staple rice, Najib said.
But Najib’s health claims weren’t enough to silence his critics.
On Friday afternoon, Mahathir Mohamad tweeted a meme of a beggar with the words: “what he eats costs RM15 [3.80USD] for 250g , what the people eat, rice, costs RM2.70 [0.70USD] for 1kg.” Mahathir added the caption: “I only eat rice”.
Democratic Action Party (DAP) parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang told the news site Malaysiakini that he did not know what quinoa was before Najib’s comments, and that the grain was “about 23 times more expensive than rice, which is eaten by 30 million Malaysians”.
After news of quinoa’s impressive nutrient profile spread beyond poor Andean communities to hipsters and health junkies around the globe, between 2000 and its peak in 2014, the average price of quinoa exports from Peru and Bolivia more than tripled to $6-7 a per kilogram.
Najib, who is expected to win a third term at this year’s upcoming general election despite the litany of graft allegations levelled at him, added insult to injury, therefore, when he advised Malaysians to “live within [their] means” during the live TV session.
That Najib’s son, Ashman Najib, who the prime minister initially said told him to try quinoa, is one of three directors of a company that produces Quib quinoa has also led some to insinuate that Najib was attempting to use his office to promote his son’s business ventures.
According to Lim of the DAP, Najib’s comments reflected the electorate’s choice at the ballot box.
“The 14th general election will be quinoa vs rice; clean government vs kleptocracy; and Najib vs people of Malaysia,” he said in a statement.