Kangkung, or water spinach, has been trending in Malaysia since last week after Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak cited it as an example of a commodity that has become less expensive over the course of his administration.
Najib was responding to protests against rising prices caused by the government’s decision to cut subsidies. During the New Year celebration, thousands joined a street parade in Kuala Lumpur to denounce the increase in prices of basic goods and services such as petrol, sugar, and toll fees.
Najib complained that the government is often blamed for rising prices – but ignored when prices go down.
“When the prices come down, why are there no praises for the government? When it goes up, the government gets the blame. This is unfair because [such issues are determined by] the weather condition,” Najib said in Bahasa.
Then, he highlighted kangkung’s cheap price in the market: “I read in the newspaper that some prices have come down. Kangkung prices once went up and now it is down.”
This remark ignited an uproarious public reaction. It unleashed a kangkung meme which quickly went viral on social media. Najib’s enemies used it to criticize the government’s economic policies, in particular the slashing of subsidies for sensitive consumer goods. They painted Najib as a clueless leader and insensitive to the worsening situation of the poor.
In a subsequent speech, Najib was unapologetic for his kangkung remark. He clarified that he merely used the green vegetable as an example to explain the economic principle of supply and demand. He also added that kangkung and sotong (squid) are his favorite foods.
But Najib was reminded by critics that people are not complaining against price increases in all products but only those which are subject to government regulation or price controls such as petrol, sugar and toll rates. They added that no one is blaming Najib for the fluctuating price of kangkung, the humble vegetable of the masses.
It is also misleading to use kangkung as a price index of consumer products since households spend a paltry 2 percent of their monthly budget on buying vegetables.
Indeed, Najib could have used better examples to assure the public that food prices have remained stable. But the humorous reaction to his kangkung gaffe could be a reflection too of the rising public dissatisfaction with Najib and the ruling party, which has been in power since the late 1950s.
Perhaps ordinary Malaysians, burdened with economic difficulties such as high prices and depressed wages, were simply expressing their frustration through humor. Instead of being sympathetic, Najib appeared to be mocking the plight of his constituents when he delivered his now infamous kangkung remark.
Thanks to the kangkung-loving Najib, the opposition now has a symbol to rally more Malaysians against the government. If the Bersih (clean) election reform movement has the color yellow for its symbol, perhaps the Reduce Cost of Living Movement (Gerakan Turun Kos Sara Hidup) or Turun could further popularize the green leafy vegetable as a new protest icon. Kangkung is rich with meaning: it’s cool because it’s green; and it can represent all Malaysians because it grows nearly everywhere in the country.