How will it benefit Malaysia?

By R. Nadeswaran, The Sun

ONE of the principles of this column’s longevity is that there is no compulsion to agree with the writer’s views. Everyone has a right to disagree with his opinions. Another is that of an inherent right to reply to any individual or corporation that feels that it has been aggrieved by the contents. On more than one occasion, this right was accorded with questions, and in some cases, with a rejoinder to put matters in the right perspective.

On Sept 27, I raised the issue of the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) organising an “authentic Malaysian Pasar Malam” at Trafalgar Square in London where 20 stalls from Malaysian restaurants sold their food. Among others, I asked: So, you want the Brits to enjoy and savour Malaysian food, right? You want them to know about Malaysian food, right? Good, but who is the end beneficiary? What benefits do they bring to Malaysia and its people?

Matrade is tasked with promoting trade – our goods and services from Malaysia – not promoting restaurants or helping foreigners to add different flavours to their taste buds. Therefore, the inevitable question is: Has Matrade got its priorities right?

Almost immediately, Matrade’s CEO based in Kuala Lumpur, Noharuddin Nordin responded and his reply was carried the following week. Among others, he said: “By driving patronage of Malaysian restaurants overseas, familiarity and affinity with Malaysian food will be enhanced and exports of Malaysian processed food, ingredients and ready-to-eat meals will benefit from the demand created.

“This strategy is already showing results. Encouraged by the demand created by the campaign, a major up-scale retail chain in the UK is, for the first time, promoting 84 product lines from 16 Malaysian food manufacturers in its outlets in London, Birmingham and Manchester. An upscale supermarket chain in the UK is introducing its own lines of Malaysian food under its private label. These food products are sourced from Malaysian manufacturers. Another major UK chain of department stores with global presence has enquired about several of Malaysia’s food products.”

I asked Matrade to tell me the name of the “major upscale retail chain in the UK” and supermarket chain so that I could verify the claims. No reply was forthcoming despite THREE requests.

The impression given was that Malaysian food products are readily available in supermarkets or retail chains, but this has not turned out to be the case. Over the past eight weeks, whenever possible, I have been visiting the big supermarket chains in and around London and even went as far as Reading and Chelmsford. Yes, I did find ONE – instant noodles made by Nestle Malaysia but other than that, I found nothing. I also found packets of “Malay Briyani Sauce” made in Pakistan.

Last week, I was at the Malaysian pavilion at the World Trade Market where I discovered the name of the “upscale retail chain”. It’s an Asian grocery shop with two outlets in London and one each in Birmingham and Manchester. But Wing Yip has not just started selling Malaysian products. It has been the “Asian grocer” for 40 years. In my student days, when someone was craving for a can of Yeo’s soya bean milk, belacan or Lingham’s chilli sauce, someone else would yell: “Go and get it at Wing Yip.”

Wing Yip describes itself as widely recognised as the UK’s leading Chinese and Oriental supplier to the majority of Chinese restaurants and take-aways. It says on its website: “With over 40 years experience in the Oriental food trade, we have developed an enviable network of Far Eastern suppliers and manufacturers which enables us to source quality and innovative products for our customers.”

Going by Matrade’s theory, someone from Bournemouth or Norwich, who is fascinated by the food he ate in a Malaysian restaurant, is going to drive for two hours to pick up food ingredients in London. That surely is far-fetched. How can exports of Malaysian processed food increase when it is only available in four outlets in the UK?

Having said that, let me congratulate Laut, a Malaysian restaurant which recently was awarded a Michelin star. This indeed is a huge culinary honour. Michelin star associated with a restaurant means that the restaurant is not only among the best in its city, but also in the world. It is a mark of consistent excellence across all categories and it is based solely on the quality of its food. Two other Malaysian restaurants in New York City, Nyonya and Fatty Crab have been acknowledged in the 2011 Michelin Guide for New York City Restaurants. All three restaurants are participants in Matrade’s Malaysia Kitchen Programme.

But please for the sake of our taxpayers, do tell us how these awards will benefit Malaysia? And by the way, if Matrade is interested, I found packets of Baba’s and Alagappa’s curry powder in a Sri Lankan kedai runcit in East London. Hooray for Malaysian products!