Nothing discriminatory about barring foreign workers from being cooks only at hawker stalls

The Penang state government is pleased that one of the world’s top leading web tourism guide, Trip Advisor, has placed Penang as the most affordable Malaysian island in South-East Asia. The results are taken from the second annual TripIndex Island Sun report, which compares the cost of a day out and an overnight stay for two persons in sixteen popular island destinations across Southeast Asia.

Penang island, with a TripIndex cost of RM1,183.96, is the most affordable Malaysian island at ninth place. Pulau Redang (#11), Pulau Tioman (#12) and Langkawi (#13) were the other Malaysian islands included in this study, with total costs of RM1,425.00, RM1,504.56 and RM1,587.72 respectively. Penang is also home to the most affordable stay in a 4-star hotel room, costing travellers RM395.98, while for the same in Palawan, it is more than three times the price at RM1,368.58.

This cost comparison report does not include the value and drawing power of Penang’s world famous street food. For this reason, the Penang state government has made tough pro-active decisions to preserve the unique heritage of our street-food by barring foreign workers as cooks in our hawker stalls and that it must be cooked by Malaysians. Hawker licenses throughout Malaysia are expected to be owner-operated because they are reserved for lower-income Malaysians. For this reason since Merdeka, foreigners are not given the privilege nor the right to be approved hawker licenses. However, allowance is given to foreign workers to assist these Malaysian hawkers.

There is nothing discriminatory about barring foreign workers from being cooks only at hawker stalls because hawker licenses are granted for lower-income Malaysians and supposed to be owner-operated, whilst this ruling does not bar foreigners from owning restaurants nor prevent foreign workers from cooking in restaurants. How can this ruling be undemocratic or discriminatory when it is intended to protect the uniqueness of Penang food, that hawker stalls must be owner-operated and that foreign workers can assist the hawker in other duties?

There is also no question of the human rights of foreign workers being denied their right to cook. Foreign workers cook or wash plates, regardless of whether they know or not know how to, only because they are ordered by their employers to do so. Telling foreign workers that they can not cook in hawker stalls is not denying their rights or depriving them of their passion for cooking because they are indifferent – it is a job not of their choice, but the decision of their employer. Further, any culinary skills these foreign workers acquire would be lost because foreign workers will have to return home after a period of time.

This ruling only bars foreign workers in hawker stalls, not in other job sectors like restaurants. This ruling does not prevent Malaysians from other states from getting hawker licenses and operating hawker stalls so long as they are Malaysian citizens.

It is ridiculous to allege double-standards that this ruling means that Penang hawkers can not then sell pizza, spaghetti, tomyam or sushi just because we want to maintain the local flavour of Penang food. Hawkers, but not foreign workers, can sell any food they wish. Everyone knows when you eat sushi or pizza in Penang, it is not cooked locally but there is an expectation that when you eat Penang famous street food in Penang, it should be cooked by locals.

We understand the opinion of those who wants market forces to decide by forcing out of business the hawker stalls, where indifferent foreign workers serve lousy food. However food is uniquely important in Penang, where it is rated as the best in the world, until it is one of the main if not the main attraction for tourists. Unlike other cities, tourists come to Penang for food, and the state government is not going to risk our tourism industry by allowing indifferent foreign workers to jeorpardise the branding of delicious Penang street food.

Ultimately it is all about the branding of Penang food. The unique taste and flavour of Penang food should not be put at risk by indifferent foreign workers doing a job instructed by their employer. If we want the unique taste and world-class quality of Penang food to be maintained, then we must start now to ensure that locals and Malaysians must take over as cooks, and not through relying on indifferent foreign workers, whose skills would be lost when they return home.

Hopefully this ruling to be enforced fully in 2016 after a one-year grace period, will give prominence and publicity to young Malaysians, that one can become wealthy and even famous if we master the culinary skills of famous hawker food in Penang.

Penang Chief Minister
Media statement by Lim Guan Eng in Komtar, George Town on Sunday, 26th October 2014