GEORGE TOWN: A Penang assemblyman today decried the state government’s “tidak apa” attitude in getting local hawker fare nominated under Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH).
Lee Khai Loon (PH-Machang Bubok) said it was particularly disappointing as he had made an urgent call for Penang to apply for the listing earlier this year, only to be told that “a letter was sent to the tourism ministry”.
“Look at how Singapore is fighting to have its hawker culture listed. Their community is excited to have their hawker food recognised.
“We, on the other hand, appear to be not bothered. We are falling behind. We need to do something, we cannot be so meek. Let us not forget we received Unesco status for George Town.
“Six months ago, I raised this. And yet only one letter was sent. This is as if the state government is so complacent or confident that a Unesco nomination could be easily obtained,” he said when debating the 2020 Supply Bill here today.
In March, Singapore had formally nominated its hawker culture to be listed under Unesco’s ICH.
The republic backed its nomination with letters, photographs and videos, including pictures of hawkers preparing briyani and chicken rice, as well as a family enjoying cendol.
If the nomination is successful, the food items will join Japanese cuisine and Belgian beer, which are listed as a cultural heritage by Unesco.
Lee said the tourism, arts and culture ministry had sent a letter to the state government on May 31, stating it required more preparation before submitting its nomination.
He asked if this letter was ever followed up and if the ministry’s requests were ever answered.
Lee said the Unesco nomination would do a lot of good to the tourism sector and benefit Penang hawkers.
“The hawker economy is an important source of income for Penangites. If the state clinches a Unesco nomination, this would be a long-awaited international blessing for our street food, which has won so many awards,” he said.
Lee said to show some seriousness on the matter, the state ought to set up a committee under the state assembly to constantly monitor efforts to accede to the Unesco listing.
Weighing in, Daniel Gooi Zi Sen (PH-Pengkalan Kota) said the Unesco listing might not be a boon for all.
He said the popularity of being Unesco-listed might have adverse effects on some.
Giving the example of the Siam Road char koay teow pushcart stall, he said after rave reviews online, the shop was unable to cope with the demand and had to close momentarily.
“While I support the nomination, we must also check how it would impact on our culture and hawkers.”
Deputy Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik had proposed that Malaysia join Singapore in getting “joint nomination” for Penang’s street food.
However, Singaporeans were against this joint nomination idea, with food critic KF Seetoh telling The Straits Times that it would only confuse the public.
Seetoh said the hawker cultures of the two countries were “not two peas in a pod” and were in fact as different as hockey is from football.