PETALING JAYA - The immense "star power" of Penang street food is reason enough for the state to do all it can to protect it, even if it means taking tough measures, said Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng.
In a lengthy statement yesterday, the DAP MP for Bagan argued that banning foreigners from being the chief or principal cooks for Penang street food by 2016 is neither discriminatory nor bigoted.
"How can this ruling be undemocratic or discriminatory when it is intended to protect the uniqueness of Penang food, that hawker stalls must be owner-operated and that foreign workers can assist the hawker in other duties?" said Lim in response to a barrage of criticism directed at his administration for the latest move to protect what is considered the state's cultural asset.
He argued that the prevalence of incompetent foreign workers serving "lousy food" could not be left to the market forces, given that hawker food is one of the main attractions in Penang.
"Unlike other cities, tourists come to Penang for food, and the state government is not going to risk our tourism industry by allowing indifferent foreign workers to jeopardise the branding of delicious Penang street food," Lim said.
He added that there was also a certain expectation, spoken or otherwise, that Penang's famous street food should be cooked by locals.
Lim did, however, then clarify that the ruling did not prevent Malaysians from other states from getting hawker licences in the state.
"If we want the unique taste and world-class quality of Penang food to be maintained, then we must start now to ensure that Malay-sians must take over as cooks, and not through relying on foreign workers, whose skills would be lost when they return home," Lim said.
He said the state government was pleased that a leading web tourism guide, TripAdvisor, ranked Penang as the most affordable Malaysian island in South-East Asia.
Penang was recently lambasted by critics for its increasingly high cost of living, partly due to high-end property developments coming up around the island.