GEORGE TOWN (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Penang Government's move to ban foreigners from being the main cooks of local hawker fare, effective from Jan 1, 2016, received the thumbs-up from the majority of hawkers and related associations.
Penang Consumer Protection Association president K. Koris Atan said he supported the effort and urged the state government to immediately enforce the ban.
"Why does the state need to give a grace period? When the foreigners are brought into the country to work, they are categorised as cleaners, construction workers or even cooks.
"The authorities must conduct regular checks and penalise those who disobey the ban," he said when contacted yesterday.
Penang Hawkers Association chairman Lam Tong Ying also supported the ban.
"Penang is a preferred destination when it comes to hawker food. Tourists from all around the world travel to Penang for its local food so we must maintain the standard.
"The ban will help maintain the standard of our local food, unlike in Kuala Lumpur where foreigners are mainly the cooks," he said.
Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said the move was to preserve the authenticity of the state's local flavours.
Mr Lim added that all hawkers operating at coffee shops, hawker complexes, shopping mall food courts and roadside stalls should do away with employing foreigners as their main cooks and ensure that "only locals or Malaysian citizens" cooked their fare.
"Foreigners can still be hired to do the washing, handle orders or assist in preparing ingredients, but not to do the cooking," he told a press conference in Komtar yesterday.
Mr Lim said hawkers would be given a one-year grace period starting from Jan 1 next year, to enable them to adjust to the new regulation.
"This period is also to enable the Penang and Seberang Prai municipal councils the time to study and refine the implementation of this new regulation," he added.
He said the regulation was to maintain and ensure that the unique tastes and flavours of local food would be retained to safeguard Penang's food heritage, and to help ensure that foreigners would not take over Penang's hawker food business.
Mr Lim also said the local authorities would issue special stickers for hawkers to display at their stalls to prove that their food is authentically cooked by locals, and not foreigners.
"Most visitors would not want to come to Penang to taste food cooked by foreigners. Only when you maintain the original taste of flavours can you feel the warmth of Penang."
State Local Government, Traffic Management and Flood Mitigation Committee chairman Chow Kon Yeow said a survey conducted by the Penang Municipal Council (MPPP) from July 25 to Aug 31 on the proposal to ban foreigners from cooking local fare saw 14,810 respondents, where 55.85 per cent were Penangites while the rest were from other states or countries.
"From the survey on the island, we found that 87.45 per cent were in favour that local fare should be cooked by the locals while 86.02 per cent also agreed that the licences of the hawkers should be revoked if foreigners are employed to cook," he said.
Mr Chow said the same survey conducted by the Seberang Prai Municipal Council (MPSP) involving 1,591 respondents found that 85.3 per cent agreed to the move, and 85 per cent agreed that hawkers who failed to comply should have their licences revoked.
An informal survey on The Star Online's Facebook page showed that 80 per cent of 55 respondents supported the ban.
Only 9 per cent disagreed, while the rest did not mind whether their food was cooked by a local or foreigner.
Facebook user Rubz Loh said the ban was a great move to retain the consistency and special flavours of Penang food.
KS Chen believed that the ban was necessary to preserve our national heritage.
"What if you see a hawker stall owned by foreigners claiming to sell original Penang char koay teow or original Ipoh chicken rice? The future generations and even tourists will be confused," he said.
Ho Xiaojun agreed with the ban because she believed that "the essence of food comes from the culture".
"How can you expect a Bangladeshi who may have never tasted char koay teow to cook as well as a local?" she questioned.
Rais Redwan said authenticity was the key and only a local would know the taste.
Harry Oh said he could taste the difference in the local food cooked by foreigners.
"In Selangor, if a hawker is a foreigner preparing local food, especially bak kut teh, char koay teow and Hokkien mee, I can tell the difference," he said.
"They sort of bastardise the ingredients," he explained.
Kien Seng also agreed with the ban and believed that it should be carried out nationwide, rather than just in Penang.
However, some netizens felt that it did not matter if the cook was a local or foreigner.
Mei-Xian Shee said she did not mind if a foreigner was the main chef, just as long as the food was good and authentic.
"Food can only taste authentic when it comes from the heart. It's more than just kitchen and wok skills," Shee said.
Zoey Vz believed that if a foreigner had the talent to match a local cook, he or she should be allowed to take up the position as the main chef.
Nehru Sathiamoorthy did not agree with the ban and felt that the best man should retain the position as a main cook.
"May the best man win. But under the Penang meritocracy, to be the best you must obviously speak Hokkien and be born and bred in Butterworth," Nehru said.
Wong Seh Ho had this to say: "The point is the quality of the food. If foreigners can cook as good as the locals, then why not."
While Susan Lim preferred locals to cook her hawker food, she said she had eaten hawker food prepared by foreigners and it was not too bad.
"But given a choice, I would choose food cooked by a local," she said.
Mr Lim had first made the proposal in July and it met with mixed reactions from the public.
Renowned Malaysian celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan, had called the proposal ridiculous, saying that such a strange ruling would only serve to make Malaysia the laughing stock in the eyes of the world.