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.
FIRST, Penang’s hawker food has largely been the beautifully enjoyable creative outcome and legacy of generations of waves of migrant workers, creating a grass roots cuisine: for example, nasi kandar, mee jawa, Hainan chicken rice, roti bengali and roti canai.
The informal business of street food vendors or hawkers, as they are more popularly called, 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”.
Now, the street food business is 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 with anything better!
SECOND, we urgently need a new paradigm in the way we manage and treat migrant workers. We can no longer deal with them as the new “coolies” subject to all the inhumanities of servitude of the slavery kind. We need to reach out to them as brothers and sisters and as human beings deserving our care and compassion.
I have a dear friend, a former distinguished lawyer, whose family treated their maid as one of them. They taught her to drive a car, and sent her for part-time courses in language and computer classes. The maid’s time in Penang became her liberation for a new great life back home. She was ever grateful and will never forget the family, the place and their kindness and help.
There is now a United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families.
Penang should take leadership and work with groups like Jaringan Utara Migrasi dan Pelarian (JUMP), the northern network for migration and refugees in Malaysia, and put that convention into practice, at least in spirit, until the Federal Government itself decides to accede to the convention. That move forward will then be like the innovative Speakers Corner at the Esplanade and become another one of Penang’s special public places and practices.
THIRD, if the “crime” is that a migrant worker assisting or cooking at a stall is not skilled enough, we should recognise humbly that so are some locals. The most unconscionable solution is to ban them from engaging in 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 involve marketing at the local wet market, getting to know herbs and spices, preparing food and then enjoy 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 and regular classes. 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.
FOURTH, foreigners will create and enlarge the demand for our unforgettable culinary delights. Penang laksa and other great dishes will start appearing in cities and villages all over the Asia-Pacific region as they have already done in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and other places where Malaysian “outbounders” have settled.
I recently had the opportunity to officiate the opening of an International Exhibition on Street Foods in Penang, Malacca and Bandung, Indonesia, by one of the leading architecture schools in the region based at the National University of Singapore.
The street food culture is an amazing story, locally and globally, and needs research and development. What we must champion is an International Street Foods Institute and what better place to locate it than in Penang. This would be an innovation and an investment for global leadership in the culinary area from bottoms up and put Penang on the world map as a leader in research and development of both a tangible and intangible culture.
FIFTH, punishing poor struggling migrant workers and depriving them of development opportunities is the way of inhumanity and pettiness. Penang is a place recognised globally by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as a world heritage site for its universal values, its multiculturalisation and as a great learning centre.The wonderful culinary experience must also be the essence of this great joy, diversity and beauty.
The negative measure of banning immigrants from learning, assisting and cooking local hawker food will only demean Penang’s reputation as a happy, caring, people-centred place. The idea of prohibiting migrant workers from learning and working as cooks at hawker places should, therefore, be abandoned for positive and creative solutions.
If not, this place of great migrant history will join the ranks of certain hypocritical governments of countries that colonised vast areas outside Europe, appropriated history and now, sadly and vindictively, have growing movements that demonise the so-called new immigrants. And tragically, many of these “new” immigrants come from conflict zones too often created or linked to the geopolitic interests of these very nations.
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.
Dato (Dr.) Anwar Fazal also 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.