PETALING JAYA: The government has urged restaurant owners to be open to the idea of automation as a means of reducing their reliance on foreign workers.
Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed, who made the call in an interview with FMT, acknowledged that it would be expensive to make the switch, but he said this would be so only initially.
Explaining what he meant by automation, he said he visualised orders being placed electronically and food being served on conveyor belts.
Addressing those unwilling to invest in automation, he suggested that they operate as self-service restaurants.
“They can perhaps adopt a cafeteria style of service where customers place their orders at a counter, collect their orders when they are ready and return their trays after their meals.”
This would help them save on manpower and costs, he said.
Recently, a number of food and beverage associations called on the government to relax immigration rules barring foreigners from working as front liners.
This followed a statement from the Immigration Department reiterating that restaurants, including coffee shops, could hire foreigners only as cooks.
Nur Jazlan Mohamed said the policy would remain in place, but he added that the government was looking for ways to address the concerns of the restaurant business.
“We do recognise the grouses of business owners, but at the same time, we have to balance their demands with the sentiments of members of the public who are against having too many foreign workers in the country.”
He said restaurant owners needed to do more than they were currently doing to attract Malaysian workers, many of whom are working in eateries in Singapore.
“They should offer more than just better wages,” he said. “Businesses must also offer better working conditions and a more attractive environment.”
The president of the Malaysia-Singapore Coffee Shop Proprietors’ General Association, Ho Su Mong, said it would be ideal for restaurants to become self-service establishments.
“But Malaysians are used to being pampered and served,” he said. “We business owners also don’t want to depend too much on foreign workers because it costs us a lot of money, but it takes years for customers to change their habits.”
He noted that in some countries, such as Japan and Taiwan, customers would collect their orders themselves and clean up their tables after finishing their meals.
“The restaurants use high-quality disposable cups, plates and utensils, which make cleaning up easier and helps restaurants save on manpower and water.”
Ho said a member of his association in Ipoh was encouraging self service by reducing the price of beverages by 20 sen for customers who order and collect their drinks at the counter.
“Reducing prices is perhaps the most effective way to get people to buy into this idea, but for now, we still need foreign workers because this transition will take a few years,” he said.
Paul Selvaraj, the CEO of Fomca (Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations), said he would be against any move to force restaurants to adopt the self-service approach.
“Getting consumers to change habits and opt for self service will take time,” he said. “So we must be practical in dealing with this issue.”
He acknowledged that manpower problems had forced many restaurants to close down and said this was bad for consumers as they were left with fewer choices.
“At the same time, we must educate consumers and promote greater consumer responsibility,” he said. “When you go to a fast food restaurant, even though it is self service, you’ll find that many consumers still leave their trays on the table.”
He also said restaurants deciding to adopt the self-service approach should reduce their prices to reflect the savings on their overheads.