THE controversy over migrant workers being allowed to cook Penang hawker food is, like the banning of soup kitchens in Kuala Lumpur saga, a sad story bereft of fundamentals of reality, history, humanity and foresight.
Firstly, Penang’s hawker food has largely been the creative outcome and legacy of waves of migrant workers, creating grassroots cuisine like nasi kandar, mee jawa, Hainan chicken rice, roti bengali, roti canai, etc.
The business of street food vendors or hawkers was often denigrated and despised by the authorities during our colonial history but later became legitimised and subsequently celebrated as the wondrous smells, colours and flavours of the “Pearl of the Orient” and they are now among Penang’s leading tangible and intangible assets.
Penang has often been described as the “Street Food Capital of the World”. I have often challenged anyone to show me a place with better four-point “Street Food Index” measures – taste, diversity, cleanliness and economy.
If they show me any place better on these four counts, I will treat them to Penang laksa or pasembur for the rest of their life. No one has yet been able to come forward so far with anything better!
Secondly, we urgently need a new paradigm in the way we manage and treat migrant workers. We cannot deal with them as the new “coolies” subject to all the inhumanities of servitude of the slavery kind.
We should reach out to them as brothers and sisters and as human beings. The family of my friend, a former distinguished lawyer, treated their maid as one of them.
They taught her to drive a car, sent her for part-time courses in language and computer classes. The maid was ever grateful and will never forget the family.
There is now a United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families. Penang should take the lead and work with groups like JUMP (Jaringan Utara Migrasi dan Pelarian), the Northern Network for Migration and Refugees in Malaysia, and put that Convention into practice, at least in spirit.
That move forward will then be like the innovative Speakers Corner at the Esplanade and can be another one of Penang’s special public places and practices.
Thirdly, if the “crime” is that a migrant worker assisting or cooking at a stall is not skilled enough, we should recognise that some locals are not skilled enough too. The most unconscionable solution is to ban them from cooking.
Instead they should be taught the skills, the art and the science of these culinary delights. Schools of popular local cuisine like the amazing Nazlina Space Station in Campbell Street, George Town, the centre of the Slow Food Movement in Penang, stands out as a shining example of creative positive responses.
The Station organises daily tours, which involves marketing at the local wet market, getting to know herbs and spices, preparing and cutting the foods and then enjoying eating their “handiwork”. Hundreds of foreigners have gone through the culinary delights of Penang’s food and experience in this way.
We need more of such places. A project to set up in Penang a unique culinary campus in cooperation with the Slow Food Movement’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy is very possible and should be explored to champion “good, clean and fair” foods.
Fourthly, foreigners will create and enlarge the demand for our culinary delights, and Penang laksa and other great dishes will appear in the Asia Pacific region as in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and other places where Malaysian “outbounders” have settled.
I recently opened an International Exhibition on Street Foods in Penang, Malacca and Bandung by a leading architecture school based at the University of Singapore. The street food culture is amazing and needs much research and development.
What we must champion is an International Street Foods Institute located in Penang. This would put Penang on the world map as a leader in research and development of both a tangible and intangible culture.
Fifthly, punishing poor migrant workers and depriving them of opportunities is the way of inhumanity and pettiness. Penang is a place recognised globally by Unesco as a world heritage site for its universal values and its multiculturalisation and as a great learning centre.
The negative measure of banning immigrants from learning, assisting and cooking local hawker food will demean Penang’s reputation as a happy, caring, people-centred place.
The idea of prohibiting migrant workers from working as cooks at hawker places should be abandoned for more positive and creative solutions. We must not make Penang suffer the same international shame that came with the attempt to close soup stations in Kuala Lumpur. The greatness of any civilised people is in its care of “the other”. Penang has been special for that, including its iconic “Street of Harmony”, which the former President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, described as a magnificent school for the whole world for learning humanity and living together. Let us continue to be a beacon of compassion, caring and creativity and not degenerate into anti-migrant stances that are sadly no better than bigotry and racism.
Thankfully, Kuala Lumpur has announced it is withdrawing its proposal to close the soup stations. Penang should do the same with its attempt to restrict foreign workers from the street foods arena.
> Datuk Anwar Fazal, the writer, is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award popularly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”. He was President of Consumers International and the initiator of World Consumer Rights Day (March 15th) and International Migrant’s Day (Dec 18). He initiated the compendium “Understanding International Migration – a Sourcebook” while serving as the head of the United Nations programme for good urban governance in Asia and the Pacific.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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