I was planning to write something about this ban, but a Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil beat me to it in this piece published in Malaysian Insider.
I just want to add two more points to what Kamal has written: the skills that foreign cooks pick up here will not be lost when they return to their home countries. Who knows, they might set up stalls selling Penang nasi kandar and Penang Char Koay Teow in places like Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam. Couldn’t we see these cooks as potential street food ambassadors for Penang, when they return to their home countries and perhaps start promoting Penang street food over there? Wouldn’t the customers in their home countries be curious to find out what Penang char koay teow actually tastes like in Penang? That would be akin to us visiting Italy and once over there, being curious enough to sample the pizza there to see if it is anything like what we find in Malaysia.
The other point is that we are on the verge of realising the Asean Community in 2015. Why confine Penang street food to just Chinese, Malay, Indian and Indian-Muslim varieties? Shouldn’t we be encouraging foreign cooks to broaden the variety of cuisine offered in Penang? Wouldn’t locals here want to savour Vietnamese and Nepalese street food, for instance? After all, as Kamal points out below, that’s how we started in Penang: as a melting pot of cuisine brought in by settlers especially after the 18th century. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Penang is known not just as a haven for a special kind of Malaysia street food but a paradise for South-East Asian or even Asian street cuisine, with a special Penang twist to it (just like how we modified Chinese and Indian-Muslim dishes to come up with popular local versions like Penang char koay teow and Penang nasi kandar in the past)? Why limit the opportunity to “innovate”, to evolve and come up with new local versions of popular Asian dishes?
And what kind of message does this ban send out: that foreign workers are only good enough for washing plates and clearing tables, but cannot learn skills like cooking Penang street food?
This ban also makes it difficult for older Penang cooks who are reaching retirement age and would like to step back and assume the role of mentors. They could otherwise train other workers, whether foreign or local, to carry on their thriving businesses while passing on their culinary skills to a new generation of cooks, never mind if some of them are foreign.
Okay, this is the Insider opinion piece by Kamal:
Dear Sir, your article made me ponder on five themes.
Allow me to elaborate below:
First, where did the unique Penang food originate?
Second, your statement on Japanese, Italian and other foreign food cooked by locals is not accurate. A lot of these restaurants hire foreign cooks from Bangladeshi, Myammar, etc as cooks. The food turns out great in many instances.
Third, you say that these foreign workers have no choice but just to follow what the stall owners or their employers tell them what to do.
You said: “Telling foreign workers that they cannot cook in hawkers stalls is not denying them 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… any culinary skills these foreign workers acquire would be lost because foreign workers will have to return home after a period of time.”
The statement reflects a shallow generalisation. Foreign workers experiences and interests are diverse. So are treatment and relationships they share with employers. While there may be such low standards for respecting foreign worker rights, many employers have good hearts. It is not uncommon to see foreign cooks in quite jovial interaction with their employers.
And, since when is any skill set, particularly, culinary skills not useful anywhere in the world?
Fourth, Penang food is the greatest?
“Unlike other cities, tourists come to Penang for food.”
This statement does not do justice to your outward personality as intelligent and urbane. I assume as chief minister, you do see the world quite a bit. But this statement unfortunately, reflects a katak bawah tempurung.
Just for your benefit sir, let me share a little from my experiences in travelling: people go to Melbourne, Sydney, London, Paris, and the list goes on, because of their cuisine.
Penang is not special in that regard. Even by local standards, not so special. Locally, people go to Sarawak for their kuih lapis, kolo mee, etc.
They go to Ipoh for food, they go to Bidor for the prawn curry mee, and the list goes on. In fact, people travelling to eat is not that novel a concept.
Final point on your say: “Malaysians must take over as cooks, and not through relying on indifferent foreign workers, whose skill would be lost when they return home… (the ban) will be refined to exempt foreign wives of hawkers and other circumstances from this ‘no foreign workers’ ruling.”
I don’t even know how to respond to this. First, you fall back on the oft-heard (but seldom qualified) statement blaming the foreign worker for everything.
But that doesn’t even take the cake, the next statement is classic. Are you suggesting that at this point, the state ruling on foreign cooks in hawker stalls extends to include a ban on foreign wives from acting as cooks? Are you serious (since you plan to refine it once implemented)?
Lim Guan Eng, it goes without saying that I expected much more from you. I did not expect this shallow response to justify the ruling against foreign workers as cooks in hawker stalls.
If really there is a drop in food quality, why not look at how local hawkers train their cooks, look at the ingredients they buy and look at their recipes.
As you said, hawker food is diverse. Well so is quality. But the assurance for quality lies not with a resident status, but with skill transfer, training and monitoring quality assurance.
These are all transparent and structural – it can be taught and quality monitored. Lay blame where it should be and stop scapegoating migrant workers.
On that note, let’s revisit the first theme: where did Penang street food originate? The answer should be obvious enough; our common heritage as migrants.
The famous “local” Penang cuisine, nasi kandar, or laksa or what have you is probably a blend of migrant recipe adapted to local ingredients and tastes.
In a nutshell, isn’t it ironic, that we are now gentrifying “local” cuisine and denying its migrant “melting pot” heritage while thumbing our noses on people who come to do an honest day’s work?
If this isn’t discrimination, perhaps a stronger word is needed. Bigotry anyone? – October 28, 2014.