Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Food politics

My recent trip to Indonesia jogged some thoughts I had about certain policies employed in our capital city of Kuala Lumpur – specifically, those that affect street food vendors (penjaja).

Whilst Jakarta bustles with the heightened economic activity garnered from simple, cheap and delicious street food – most of which is clean enough for the “Mat Sallehs” – Kuala Lumpur is increasingly limiting itself to hawker centres and food courts which are both quantitatively and qualitatively distinct from days gone by when food was abundant on the streets of KL.

With the introduction of the policy of “penjaja sifar” in KL – and increasingly in other states like Pulau Pinang and Selangor – vendors are forced to apply for permits and licences to operate in food courts which are not nearly as popular as if placed along the streets off Jalan Sultan Ismail (read: Kampung Baru) or Jalan Ampang. In fact, if one were to go to Kota Damansara and Bangsar hawker centres, they are close to empty even during weekends. First and foremost, cleanliness, whilst an important requirement, is not guaranteed by limiting food outlets to within enclosed physical buildings – those who have seen kitchen in some hotels will testify to that. Conversely, street food often does not upset one’s bowels post-consumption.

Most unfortunately, these aforementioned licences are often scarce, reflecting the limited number of physical buildings the council can ever make available as food courts ala Rasta or Hartamas Square. Thus, we witness a huge employment displacement amongst principally low
income Malay and Indian city dwellers as many lose their source of income, needlessly so as anecdotal evidence suggests demand for cheap street food is as high as ever.

And when the council(s) do allow for street vendors to operate, they are limited to once-a-week night markets and 30-days-a-year buka puasa stalls which cannot possibly amount to much more than a side-business. As a result, eating out on the cheap is now increasingly synonymous
with “mamak” food, which are little more than glorified low-market restaurants. On this point too, we see that moving previously street vendors into “medan selera” (hawker food courts) defeats the purpose in more ways than one. The ones (un)lucky enough to get a spot in
these places realize soon enough that the number of customers drop, due partly to the increased food prices inevitable as a result of erstwhile non-existent rent and the necessity to keep prices
consistent when operating in a centre housing multiple hawker operators. In the end, neither the customer nor the operator wins.

I suspect when the Government and the councils decided to push through this zero tolerance approach to street vendors, they felt it justifiable by the argument that the character of the city were being compromised by the presence of street vendors and squatter areas (setinggan). Here is where the politics came in - authentic street food was replaced by arranged, organised food outlets that lose their character.

At best, I believe the Government made the error of putting both these distinct aspects – squatter areas and street food – under one category of “undesirables”. Whilst squatter areas don’t present the most pleasant sight, street vendors should be a celebrated dimension to
city life and character. It should be advertised as part of the Malaysian urban experience, and not relegated to the fringes, as though it is something we need to hide. Even on the Asian Food Channel (AFC), we see countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, The Philippines, Thailand and almost all other South-East Asian countries depict their street foods as an essential part of their culture. Here too, food is seen as something passed down through the ages – cendol, koay teow et
al – nothing less than our heritage. So why limit their exposure simply for the sake of superficial niceties?

To be sure, I am not promoting that we transform the entire city into booths, huts and hawker stalls – merely to designate certain areas to meet both the demand for, and supply of street food. Enforcement will also need to be heightened to ensure that food is prepared with utmost
care and hygiene. I am hopeful that this is one of the many creative ways for us to achieve multiple goals simultaneously – unemployment, crime, inflation and economic advancement for low-income city folk. If anything, that should be the politics of food - not to stuff
everything into a tiny space to emulate Singapore.


Arief said...

U are right, City/town councils make the penjaja's vote for tapak/space like a lotto bro. Kesian penjaja, getting pushed out further and further till they get extinct.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you. The poor malay folks cant afford high rents in the medan selera yang so tak menyelerakan. medan selera turn out to be white elephants and the penjajas end up not able to sell. Who losing out? EVERYONE!