PETALING JAYA: There is no clearer testament to the Malaysian preference for eating out than the thriving restaurant and hawker centre business.
In the urban areas especially, most people eat out at least once a day.
This is to be expected. No one has enough time to go home for lunch and return to work within the stipulated hour-long break.
Many also work late or prefer to wait until the traffic clears before making their way back home after work. Grabbing dinner along the way seems like the logical thing to do.
And while they chomp down on their fried chicken or slurp on their noodle soup, diners complain about the rising cost of eating out. This, for economy minister Rafizi Ramli, is deeply frustrating as evident in his comments on public ire over rising food prices recently.
However, he did acknowledge that Malaysians cannot be blamed for eating out.
In the city, where eating out has somehow become a necessity, food is also more costly. As economist Barjoyai Bardai has pointed out, it could cost an individual up to RM25 to eat out each day.
The food bill alone for an individual could come up to RM750 a month, and for someone earning RM2,000 or less, it means a huge chunk of his income is spent primarily on food.
Barjoyai told FMT Business that while it is all right to eat out if one does not work from home, it should not develop into a habit.
Rafizi said the “unhealthy practice” of eating out has also made Malaysians more sensitive to the increase in food inflation even though overall inflation has come down.
He attributed his analysis to records that had been compiled over the past 20 years.
However, his comments also drew criticisms from former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who claimed it would only have the opposite effect on people.
A habit that’s difficult to kick
Eating out is prevalent not just in Malaysia.
As economist Niaz Asadullah of Monash University Malaysia pointed out, there has been a rise in the consumption of ready meals at the restaurant or delivered to the office or home across the Asia-Pacific.
He blames rapid urbanisation, rising per capita income and changing lifestyle for the shift away from the consumption of home-cooked meals.
“Business owners are just responding to the growing demand by offering affordable meals,” he said.
While it may be difficult to persuade people to stop eating out, Niaz said the government could design policies or launch public campaigns to promote healthy eating habits among the working-class population.
“For such policies to have the desired effect, they must be multi-pronged, incorporating both short-term and long-term measures and be driven by theories and research on behavioural economics,” he said.
“Nobody expects to see an abrupt end to eating out. Sustaining behavioural change takes time.”
He also acknowledged that one can expect only a moderation in such habits even if effective policies are in place.
A Malaysian culture
Eating out regularly has become part and parcel of Malaysian life.
A total of 43% of respondents to a 2022 survey by pollster Rakuten Insight revealed they ate out several times a week. Another 19% said they dine out at least once a day.
Lunch and dinner are most frequently consumed outside of home. The survey showed that 61% usually had their lunch out and 73% said they ate out at dinner time.
The same survey also found that 73% of Malaysians usually ate out with members of their family, with the social aspect of dining out playing a significant role, particularly among white-collar workers.
For some, dining out offers them a chance to catch up and connect before the day comes to an end.