Is the smoking ban burning away our makan culture?

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Adrian Lee wonders if we are losing a part of our eating out culture.

Much has been discussed about the smoking ban.

Those not in favour claim that the ban violates their constitutional rights, is discriminatory and makes smoking seem deviant. They do not want or need to be told where they can or cannot smoke.

Non-smokers, however, want to eat in an environment free of second hand cigarette smoke. As a non-smoker, I realise that I am able to better smell my food as the steady stream of second-hand smoke snaking its way into my nostrils from a cigarette from another table has gone.

I won’t discuss the pros and cons of the ban or the rights of smokers and non-smokers here. Enough arguments have been made online and offline about lung cancer or how cigarette taxes supposedly help build the country’s economy.

Instead, I will look at how the smoking ban is quickly eating away at a culture that has been practised for generations. I wonder if this ban should be called off so that the culture of smoking at makan places won’t go extinct.

Firstly, the smoking ban has resulted in the sight of individuals lighting up at the dining table quickly fading away – save for an errant few. For generations, we have become accustomed to seeing individuals lighting up during or after a meal. Some of my smoker friends call this “having dessert”.

Often, those who are health conscious skip dessert. A moment on the lips, forever on the hips, as they say. For smokers, a moment on the lips, a cloud of smoke it emits.

For many years, Malaysians have also become so accustomed to seeing and smelling a thick cloud of cigarette smoke that lingers so stubbornly in the air.

What is also quickly disappearing is the smell of cigarette smoke that sticks and lingers onto one’s clothing, skin and hair. For so many years, this smell had become part and parcel of our cultural experience of eating out.

With the ban, the atmosphere at makan places no longer has the cloud of stubborn second-hand cigarette smoke but only clean air. Everyone – including infants, toddlers, children and smokers themselves – shares this fresh air.

Also vanishing are the awkward moments of having to inform smokers that their second-hand smoke is bothering others. Also almost gone is the awkwardness when smokers at the same table ask for permission from non-smoking diners to smoke.

In Indonesia, I once glanced at an individual who stood beside me and lit up. The individual put his hands together, apologised and walked away. I wonder if this form of non-verbal communication could ever be practised in Malaysia?

Secondly, the smoking ban has led to cleaner floors. To get to an empty table at coffee-shops, mamaks and hawker centres, I had for years had to navigate past cigarette butts and ash strewn over the floors to avoid stepping on them.

It was also common to see a cigarette butt left to burn out in ashtrays or flattened on the floor. Also almost gone are crushed cigarette boxes or the gold-coloured foils from these boxes left on tables or on the floor.

But none of the above beats the classic sight of a cigarette butt dumped into the soup of an already eaten bowl of noodles or into a cup as putting out a cigarette in the ashtray can at times be too inconvenient.

With the smoking ban, such sights are almost gone and we are now left with only seeing used tissue papers on the floor or dunked into leftover bowls of soups – which may be mistaken as “wan tan”. Would this too disappear in time to come?

Lastly, to order our food at makan places, we’d give our orders to the boss/taukeh/uncle/aunty. Sometimes, we’d inform them to “add or remove” certain ingredients to our liking.

With the ban, it is now rare to see the boss/taukeh/uncle/aunty taking an order, preparing and cooking with a cigarette in the mouth. At times, the lit cigarette is skilfully placed at the corner of a table or counter to be later reunited with the owner.

This art of cooking with a cigarette has been practised for ages; but now the sight of a long bit of burnt ash at the cigarette tip threatening to drop is quickly vanishing. Has anyone ever seen it actually drop?

We now only get to witness how money is collected and without the washing of hands, the same hands would then continue to prepare ingredients and cook.

The smoking ban is indeed leading to a loss of culture at our makan places. The culture of smoking at makan places that has been practised for generations has literally gone up in a puff of smoke, almost vanishing into thin air.

In recent years, the call to preserve cultures has become even more urgent than ever as we see these practices that have been carried out for generations rapidly vanishing.

We need to think about whether we’d want our children and their children’s children to witness and experience the smoking culture at makan places and if this culture should be preserved.

So we need to ask if eating at cleaner, healthier and more hygienic eateries is a price worth paying – or should the culture of smoking at makan places be preserved by lifting the smoking ban?

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Edward Joseph
Edward Joseph

Let’s not blame the smoking ban, folks. Much of the atmosphere of popular supper joints came from the noisy interaction of their patrons; now lost to the selfish and silent surfing and staring of “social” media …