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Why Malaysian food keeps losing to Singapore internationally

Why Malaysian food keeps losing to Singapore internationally

“Singapore ranked the best place for street food!” headlines read, and Malaysians have once again gathered to complain about it.

Much like how Netflix’s documentary on Street Food Asia included Singapore and Indonesia but left out Malaysia, CEO World has also ranked Singapore as the world’s best and conveniently left out the place where all Singapore’s “good” food originated from.

Putu Piring from the Singapore episode of Netflix’s Street Food.
(Picture credit: Netflix)

But why?

Is it just because Singapore is better-known overseas? Well, in a nutshell: Yes.

It’s not about who you know, it’s about who knows you.

Most Malaysians who have gone overseas understand how rare it is for foreigners to know of Malaysia. Most Malaysians have to explain the country as “south of Thailand, north of Singapore”.

While we know and fiercely protect Malaysia for its food, it’s not the same globally. Further West, the concept of “Southeast Asia” is just as a collection of small countries with yummy food without real identities.

Singapore, however, has been fighting since Day 1 to make its mark on the global stage, which is probably why they’re so kiasu all the time.

Singapore’s food is clearly highlighted on their official tourism site.
(Credit: Visit Singapore)

Singapore is ruthless in marketing themselves as the go-to country for all things Asian. Whether or not the dish originated from the streets of Orchard Road, they’re claiming it.

The Singapore tourism website gives you a whole list of recommended dishes as well. A quick look can tell you that they dug through the Malaysian food menu to fill up the space.
Credit: Singapore Tourism

Singapore isn’t alone in fighting the food fight. Our Southeast Asian neighbours are all clamouring to push their local cuisines to the global travellers, enticing them with reviews, food tips, and a foodie experience.

Likewise, Thailand’s official tourism website lists restaurants for visitors to browse from.
(Picture credit: Tourism Thailand)
Vietnam also promotes its food culture on the landing page of its official tourism website.
(Picture credit: Travel Vietnam)

In contrast, Malaysia fails to highlight one of the best things about the country. The depth and variety of our food is conspicuously missing from the official tourism website.

Malaysia’s official tourism website has ONE brief sentence about being a “gastronomical paradise” in the About page.
(Picture credit: Travel Malaysia)

The government’s tourism efforts are concentrated on shopping malls, architecture, and nature. Yet if you try to look at other tourism guides online, what stays with tourists who have visited Malaysia are always our food, our people, and our culture.

Under our “Culture & Heritage” section, the aforementioned “gastronomical paradise” is markedly absent.
(Picture credit: Travel Malaysia)

There’s a strange dissonance between what the tourism board is trying to sell and what the tourists actually want.

According to think tank PEMANDU Associates, tourist demands are changing. Travel destinations are now chosen by the activities and experiences available, not landmark hopping. More than 40% of tourists under the age of 33 prioritise “Instagrammability” when choosing a holiday destination.

If you search the #MalaysiaFood hashtag on Instagram, you get 257k tagged photos. You may think that’s a lot, until you search #SingaporeFood with a staggering 791k tagged photos. On Instagram alone, there’s triple the amount of internet clout for Singapore.

Chili Pan Mee was birthed in Chow Kit, so at least Singapore can’t claim this one too.
(Picture credit: TRP)

If we want to reach a global audience, Malaysia is still sadly struggling to be heard. We can shout ourselves hoarse about how good Malaysian food is, but if there’s no one to hear us, what’s the point?

Until the day Malaysian cuisine can stand solidly apart from Singaporean food, we’re not even in the running to be ranked.

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