KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak has hit out at criticism he is out of touch with the average Malaysian after saying he had switched from eating rice to the healthier but pricier quinoa, insisting that the grain was still cheaper than the horse feed for opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad's horses.
"Even my quinoa diet can become an issue. I still do eat nasi lemak and nasi vanggey ," he said on Monday (Feb 26), referring to the popular coconut rice dish and the dish of curry rice that is famous in Ipoh.
"But did Mahathir think about his horse feed which is more expensive?" he was quoted saying by the Sin Chew Daily newspaper at an luncheon with voters in Port Dickson. "A month's horse feed can buy me three years of quinoa. How many horses does Mahathir have?"
Datuk Seri Najib was likely referring to Tun Mahathir's penchant for rearing horses.
The premier had spoken about his preference for quinoa in a television interview aired last Thursday (Feb 22).
In the TV interview, he said he could not exercise as frequently as he wanted, so he watched his diet.
"Not as often I'd like to (exercise). I like to eat. My problem is I love food. Like most Malaysians. "But I have to control (my eating). For example, I don't eat rice, but quinoa."
"My son introduced me to quinoa, a food from Peru. It is protein-based, so it has less carbohydrates and less sugar content, so it is better than rice," he said in a live TV session discussing the 2018 Budget and how it helped the average Malaysian household.
The comments, made amid widespread complaints from Malaysians over the rising cost of goods in the country, were quickly seized on by the opposition.
Dr Mahathir had tweeted last Friday: "I only eat local rice". His tweet was accompanied by a meme showing a beggar, and the words: "What he eats costs RM15 for 250g (S$5.07), what the people eat, rice, costs RM2.70 for 1kg."
Opposition veteran Lim Kit Siang claimed he had never heard of quinoa until now.
He added, according to news site Malaysiakini, that "quinoa which Najib eats is about 23 times more expensive than rice, eaten by 30 million Malaysians".
Following the criticism, Mr Najib clarified that he eats rice too.
The Prime Minister's Office in a Facebook post explained that Mr Najib ate the Peruvian food as part of his healthy diet regime and on his doctor's advice. It also clarified that the premier "attends many events every week and is served various types of food including rice at those functions".