Hawkers, restaurateurs in uproar over new policy to drop foreign cooks by year-end

Emmanuel Santa Maria Chin
F&B business owners said it would be near impossible to staff their kitchens with just locals within the given timeframe.

KUALA LUMPUR, June 22 — The domestic food and beverage industry was thrown upside down today after being told they have just six months to replace all foreign cooks with Malaysians.

Those in the business, from streetside hawkers to restaurateurs, told Malay Mail that it would be near impossible to staff their kitchens with just locals within the given timeframe, in response to the government’s move to ban foreign cooks nationwide from January 1, 2019.

“When there are not enough workers, the business still has to run,” Kuala Lumpur Hawkers and Petty Traders Association president Datuk Ang Say Tee said.

He hinted that some businesses may be forced to fold if they were unable to replace their kitchen staff by the deadline.

“Locals will not be kitchen helpers. Some even leave the job after working for a few days. They want an air-conditioned working place,” he added.

Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran told the Bernama News Channel in an exclusive interview released today that the government only wants local cooks and that local food operators must get rid of their foreign cooks by December 31.

Ang asserted that employers hired foreigners because of a labour shortage among locals.

According to Ang, Malaysians did not want to work as cooks, which they see as a menial job.

He suggested the government allow only permitted migrant workers to be employed in the industry rather than enforce a blanket ban on foreign cooks.

Ang was not alone in that view. Malaysia-Singapore Coffeeshop Proprietors’ General Association president Ho Su Mong said a blanket ban is not workable.

“First of all, the minister wants to emulate the Penang government, but that law affected only hawkers. For restaurants, no locals are interested in taking the job,” he told Malay Mail.

In 2014, the Penang government introduced a new rule that forbid 10 state iconic dishes like char koay teow, Penang laksa, Hokkien mee, nasi kandar and curry mee, sold by street hawkers from being prepared by foreign workers to protect the cultural palate.

Penang hawkers found flouting the rule would have their licences revoked.

Ho said there were good foreign cooks with the expert technical know-how on how to prepare certain foods, and added that it would take time to recruit qualified Malaysians who are up to par.

He noted that six months is insufficient for F&B business owners to find suitable kitchen staff and suggested the government implement a quota system to accommodate the domestic need for foreign labour.

“I hope the minister will consider the difficulty in trying to hire local cooks,” Ho added.

Federation of Malaysian Hawkers Association president Datuk Lee Teong Chwee said both cooking and training a chef is not something that can be achieved from just reading instructions from recipe books.

“Cooking is something you need to experience. Some restaurants have standards to maintain, they would need Michelin star chefs, so you cannot be rejecting a world-class cook just because he is from a different country,” he said.

Like Ho, Lee said there were restaurants serving specialised cuisine that needed expert cooks hired from abroad to maintain their taste and standards as advertised.

He suggested the government provide some leeway in such cases with neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia.

As with the other F&B industry players, Lee said the January deadline is near impossible to achieve.

All of the representatives said two years would be sufficient notice for business owners if the government wants to have only local cooks.