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The Activist Who Founded Vegan District

The Activist Who Founded Vegan District

To truly learn about Vegan District, Malaysia's very first fully-vegan grocery store, it makes sense to learn about its driving force - Ratnasingam, the founder and managing director of Vegan District who has been vegan since 2009.

"I was vegetarian for ethical reasons until I learned that the dairy industry and the egg industry are no different from the meat industry in the sense that all the animals in these industries also suffer tremendously and are all killed, so it made no sense to consume these products that are inherently the result of so much cruelty or continue to support these industries." - Ratna on why he went vegan.

Through the lens of a new Malaysian vegan in the late 2000s to early 2010s, vegan-labelled products were impossible to find here and even the word "vegan" was almost unheard of in most parts of Malaysia.

"But once you realise something is not right, there’s no way you’re going to be a part of it anymore, so I put in the effort to learn about the vegan alternatives I can find, on reading ingredients, asking restaurants questions [about catering to vegans], and also doing my own cooking. While it was not as easy as it is these days, it wasn’t impossible." - About how his determination for the animals kept him going as a vegan.

Contrary to popular belief, the 37-year-old never thought that being vegan is hard at all, especially nowadays when there are way more vegan options. 

Instead, the hardest part of being vegan for him is figuring out how to end the suffering of all these innocent animals who are being harmed and killed needlessly.

This matter has been on his mind since day one of going vegan, thus sparking his decade-long work in supporting the animal rights movement and vegan community, with his earliest initiative being the Malaysian Vegan Facebook group.

The Facebook group serves as a platform for vegans to share and learn from one another, but the bigger motive behind it has always been what we vegans can do together to help the animals.

"I firmly believe that by going vegan you stop the harm that you are directly doing to the animals, but to help the animals, we have to do so much more." - About a vegan's role for the animals.

Leaving no stone unturned in his resolve, he expresses gratitude for other vegans who feel the same way about animal rights and have been working with him on several projects, including but not limited to:

"At one point, I tried to convert an old restaurant belonging to my family from being non-veg to vegetarian and then eventually to being vegan. Unfortunately, after a year of effort, we ran into some issues that forced us to close this business. It was then (around the same time) that we started the idea on Vegan District." 

Perhaps, it's worth noting that he rescued a dog named Bear back in his hometown of Seremban in 2018 when he found out about Bear's misery as a stray. This was how Ratna described the impact rescuing and adopting Bear had on his life and worldview:

"I think one of the reasons people can’t relate to the suffering of animals is because we are so out of touch with the rest of the animal world. All we seem to be doing is following what others before us have been doing, which is to see how the animals can be used for our benefits or amusement. This is true for both farm animals and those we call pets."

"But is this the right relationship to have with those we share this earth with? As a vegan, I can never buy an animal which means to support commodification of animals, but sadly the byproduct of the pet trade is homeless animals."

"This is how I met my furry friend, Bear. To spend time with him and other animals taught me that they all have their own will, they know happiness and pain, and they wish to live their lives for their own reasons. As animals have no say in this matter in this human world even though it's their lives, as a vegan, I feel the need to lend my voice for them."

After testing out a number of activism efforts, he found that the simple, straightforward and serious Cube of Truth method by Anonymous For The Voiceless (AV) is really effective. This led him to volunteer as the organiser of the AV KL chapter.

"With AV, we take the direct method of simply showing the public what goes on behind the scenes in animal agriculture, and ask them if they really want this to continue. We do have many positive conversations every time we do this. The reason I feel this is a really effective method is because the focus is on individuals who are paying for this to happen."

 

"Just like me and all other vegans, we used to be non-vegans until that point when we realised it was wrong and stopped. So our goal is to share this truth of animal abuse with the public so they can realise for themselves that this needs to stop."

Ratna has also been able to use Vegan District as an activism opportunity. "While doing the Cube of Truth answers the question of why, Vegan District serves to answer how. We have a large selection of vegan products from as many categories as a showcase of the large number of vegan options available to consumers in Malaysia."

His intentions to show people all the vegan options available and support them with their choice to be vegan inspired him to open Vegan District. He attributes this need for a homegrown vegan grocery store to his experience as a vegan in most supermarkets, which many other vegans can relate to. 

"Firstly, of course, you have to read all the ingredients thoroughly, and secondly, it is disheartening to see products that contain animal parts as ingredients or to go near the fresh meat aisle."

"As an activist trying my best to help the animals, I felt we needed a vegan store where animals are no longer the ingredients."

Throughout the past 5 years of juggling his responsibilties to both Vegan District and AVKL, Ratna himself has been surprised to learn that Malaysia has a large range of products that are suitable for vegans.

And despite the struggles of the current economic situation, Ratna keeps his eyes on the goal of animal liberation and remains hopeful and determined to weather the storm and continue striving without compromising on ethics.

"Anything is possible if you put your heart and soul into it. When we see the importance of doing something, we make the time for it. To help the innocent animals, we do have to do our best." 

Dhanhyaa Phillipson

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