Malaysia needs a plan to make hawkers and hawking sustainable

Hawkers and hawking, is a Malaysian culture, which is both a boon and a bane.

Studies and reports have indicated that itinerant hawkers existed in the Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka, and Singapore, as early as the mid-19th century.

Today, hawkers continue to play an important role in keeping the cost of living (not restricted to urban areas) low.

Hawkers ensure people have access to affordable meals. Hawking provides a source of livelihood and is a sector that creates entrepreneurs.

Many hawkers use their own savings to start their businesses. Many also rely on family members to help run their stalls, but there are also those who employ workers to help manage their business.

It is a business that requires no paper qualification and is also one that offers flexible working hours.

Hawkers and hawking are however, synonymous with causing obstruction, poor hygiene, and food handling/storing practices, not to mention bad waste disposal habits.

Safety is another issue associated with hawkers, many of whom run unlicensed businesses. Over the years, hawker stalls have also been operated by undocumented immigrants.

Issues related to hawkers are the same everywhere – the authorities want them to be relocated to permanent spots, including markets and food courts, but hawkers are often reluctant.

These hawkers insist on operating from their existing locations due to accessibility and the foot traffic. These excuses have led to many newly-built food courts turning into white elephants.

Over the years, many hawkers have also lamented that they are unable to earn a living, as nearby competitors sell the same items.

These are familiar arguments that we have heard over the years.

At a time when every sector and industry wants to be sustainable, one wonders where the Malaysian hawking sector will be in the next 50 years.

In 2020, our neighbours down south successfully inscribed ‘Hawker Culture’ as Singapore’s first element in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Having evolved from street food culture, the UNESCO recognition simply means that dining and mingling at hawker centres over food prepared by hawkers is an integral part of Singapore’s multicultural way of life.

Famed for its hawking culture, the Penang government tried to do the same, but the state soon learnt that only Malaysia’s National Heritage Department could submit an application for UNESCO listing. However, the department must first list the activity as our national heritage.

Perhaps, this may be one of the reasons why Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim raised the issue of the future of hawkers in Kuala Lumpur when he visited the Kuala Lumpur City Hall on Dec 22 last year.

During his visit, Anwar gave the local authority three months to develop and improve facilities for hawkers in the city.

Ultimately, such a plan cannot be one which is done just “for the sake of it”. It must be a holistic plan to ensure that hawking and hawkers can be brought to the next level as they contribute to the tourism sector, as well as the national economy.

In a 2019 study, the Penang Institute found there had been a gradual decline in the number of food hawkers in the state since 2014.

The study noted that with only 20 per cent of respondents having a definite succession plan in place, Penang will see a sharp decline in the number of hawkers in the next 10 years.

Arguably, such findings would also be applicable in Kuala Lumpur and other states. The same would also apply to petty traders at day and night markets, and tourist spots like Chinatown in Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur.

With an ageing population, who will take over hawking in the future? How do we make hawking sustainable with many hawkers being against the idea of their children taking over the family business?

The time is right for a national roadmap on hawking to be drawn up. It must also detail how Malaysia plans to position and brand its hawking sector.

Like it or not, street hawkers must gradually move into designated trading lots.

A ‘graduation scheme’ for hawkers will ensure progression for the sector and allow others the opportunity to trade.

Street hawkers cannot continue to insist on trading at a particular spot till the end of their lives.

Instead, they should be allocated prime lots to trade for three to five years. They can use this time to create awareness, as well as build on customer loyalty. When the time is up, they should move into designated food courts to make way for new hawkers to earn a living.

Hawkers must also have the mentality that if their food is good, their customers will follow them wherever they go.  As an incentive, local councils can offer cheaper rental rates and also work with local food merchants to help promote meals offered by the local authorities’ food court vendors.

However, such a graduation scheme, if considered, must ensure sustainability for all, including local authorities who will have to fork out money to build permanent food courts.

In order to preserve Malaysia’s hawking culture, culinary schools focusing on traditional food from all ethnic groups should also be set up.

It is not easy these days to find hawkers who sell good char koay teow, nasi dagang, and puttu mayam. One can only wonder what the hawker food sector will look like in the next 10 or 20 years, if nothing is done to preserve our food culture.

Malaysia must think big. While we often take pride in our food, how long can we hold on to our national treasure, before we start losing our identity?

We must, like our neighbours down south, start taking steps to position and preserve our brand as a global gastronomic hub.

This will only happen if we start taking our hawkers and the hawking scene seriously.

Tagged with: