Leverage Gastrodiplomacy to Enhance Malaysia’s Soft Power Influence!

In addition to promoting cultural identity, drawing visitors, and strengthening diplomatic connections, gastrodiplomacy serves as an engine for economic growth.


Published by AstroAwani, BusinessToday & theSun, image by AstroAwani.

Amidst positive attempts to revitalise Malaysia’s vibrant tourism industry as one of the potent ways to strengthen Ringgit Malaysia, gastrodiplomacy presents a formidable opportunity, provided effective measures are taken to bolster and broaden it both domestically and internationally.

As a diverse, multiethnic, and multicultural melting point in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is known for its myriad cultures, heritage, flora and fauna, and, of course, its wide array of food choices.

In Malaysia, renowned as one of “Asia’s Food Paradise”, the food culture thrives, from bustling night markets and hawker stalls to upscale fine dining restaurants, offering the iconic national dish nasi lemak, roti canai, char kway teow to western, Peranakan cuisines and more.

This rich culinary landscape serves as the perfect canvas for the practice of “gastrodiplomacy”, a term coined by Paul Rockower, as a strategic diplomatic tool that enables countries to communicate culture through cuisine. It involves utilising restaurants as cultural ambassadors to share heritage with local and foreign audiences.

This approach is often used by middle-power countries like South Korea.

For example, in 2009, South Korea launched its gastrodiplomacy efforts by doubling the number of Korean restaurants abroad, mainly in America, with the goal of boosting its market reach.

Today, Korean cuisine has achieved widespread popularity not only in America but also globally, exerting a significant influence and making South Korea one of the top travel destinations for younger generations drawn to its rich culture, advanced sci-tech and vibrant pop culture.

Channelling food as a potent communication tool turns out to be crucial for advancing the state’s national interests and nurturing international relationships.

Gastrodiplomacy is a strategic instrument employed by nations to showcase their distinctive gastronomic heritage and specialties, enabling them to differentiate themselves in the global arena and reinforce their national brand. For instance, Japan’s Sushi, Korea’s Kimchi, and Thailand’s Tomyum exemplify this approach.

By enabling diasporic groups to spread cultural customs globally, gastrodiplomacy acts as a catalyst, promoting cultural identity, drawing visitors, and strengthening diplomatic connections. This culinary diplomacy stimulates economic growth even more, especially in the rapidly expanding tourist industries, as seen in South Korea.

A formidable opportunity for Malaysia’s tourism industry

Malaysia’s diverse gastronomic choices appear to be one of the important elements propelling its tourist sector forward in addition to being a source of income and an engine for economic expansion. 

In a survey conducted by the ASEAN – Japan Center, respondents gave a variety of reasons for choosing Malaysia as their travel destination, with “Scenery and atmosphere” ranking highest (36.0%), “Natural scenery” (33.3%), and “Food ingredients and cuisine” (33.1%) among the top three. 

As statistics by Tourism Malaysia indicate, from January to September 2023, Malaysia received 14,467,037 tourists and receipts of RM49,227.4.  For the year 2024, the Madani government is expected to attract 27 million tourists with receipts of RM102.7 billion to revitalise the tourism industry while boosting the national economic performance.

In terms of employment, the gastronomy industry significantly boosts job opportunities in the tourism sector. For instance, according to the latest Statistics of Tourism Satellite Account (TSA), in 2022, 23.4% (3.6 million) of the Malaysian workforce were associated with the tourism industry, with the food and beverage (f&b) sector contributing 35.1% of this workforce.

Opportunities to expand Malaysia’s halal economy

Positioned as one of the biggest halal hubs globally, Malaysia is known for its exceptionally high halal standards, overseen by JAKIM.

In general, there is a strong demand for halal goods and services across a wide range of sectors, such as food and beverage, personal care and cosmetics, textiles, finance, e-commerce, hospitality, and tourism.

Therefore, our halal economy should be positioned as one of our primary agenda to attract Muslim tourists. According to the Ministry of Art, Tourism and Culture (MOTAC), there were 2.12 million Muslim travellers that visited Malaysia in the previous year, and they spent RM5.37 billion in total.

In the global standing, the 2023 Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI) highlights Malaysia and Indonesia ranked first in the Muslim travel market as the preferred destination among Muslim travellers worldwide.

Malaysia’s challenges in navigating gastrodiplomacy

Notwithstanding the allure of Malaysian gastronomy, significant barriers loom in the way of this industry’s success. These issues often emerge at grassroots levels and have a significant impact on the culinary landscape of the nation-state.

One of these challenges is poor hygiene and food safety standards enforcement, which also lead to foodborne diseases such as food poisoning. Evidently, based on the Ministry of Health (MOH) report, the incidence rate of food poisoning has doubled in just a year. In 2021, the incidence rate was 18.40 per 100,000 population of Malaysia, while in 2022 it escalated to 43.77 per 100,000.

The rise in food poisoning incidents is a serious sign and indication that food handlers have been neglecting or allowed to neglect the significance of adhering to proper food handling protocols and standard, or if there were other factors involved this need to be ascertained.

Moreover, the unfortunate practice of scamming foreign tourists has unfortunately become increasingly widespread in our society today. There have been several incidents where foreign tourists have been overcharged and scammed, leaving an unfavourable experience for them. Just recently, it came to light when a tourist (YouTuber) was overcharged (RM10) for a regular beef burger in the city centre.

Given social media’s significant influence, such incidents demand serious attention. When showcased on social platforms, they not only reflect poorly on Malaysia but also adversely impact the tourism industry.

Besides, gastrodiplomacy allows countries to market agricultural products through nation-branding.

However, this effective measure is still being underutilised in Malaysia. Malaysia boasts a rich variety of tropical fruits, spices, and other agricultural commodities that hold significant appeal to international markets.

Through the strategic marketing of these items as an extension of its national brand, Malaysia has the potential to further solidify its standing as a premier supplier of exotic produce and draw in more global importers and customers.

Unfortunately, we are losing it to other nations because we are not doing this successfully.

The access to the international market to export its gastronomic products and services can be challenging for Malaysia. Some of the reasons are limited brand recognition, limited market development, quality and consistency of products or services, and most importantly, the competition with neighbouring countries that are furthering much better in terms of their national food security strategies.

While positively, the current government has introduced the visa-free scheme for travellers from India and China and the latest CityPass initiative to boost its tourism industry, these measures should also serve as the benchmark for Malaysia to enhance its competitiveness in the region.

Following are the proposed policies presented by EMIR Research to relevant stakeholders aimed at enhancing Malaysia’s gastronomy industry from the grassroots level:

  • Enforcing regulations on rising food prices – this involves monitoring, educating consumers, conducting inspections, legal enforcement, collaborating with stakeholders, and ensuring transparency. These efforts, which aim to prevent price gouging, empower consumers, and ensure fair access to affordable and nutritious food, require a comprehensive and coordinated approach by enforcement agencies.
  • Supporting small-scale producers as the key drivers of national food security and, therefore, sustainable gastrodiplomacy by offering seminars, training courses, technical support, viable financing options and other incentives like rent ceiling and permanent rental contracts to small-scale producers to boost their adoption of 4IR aggrotech (refer to “4IR Enabled Farmers: Solving National Food Security” and “Reinventing Malaysian Food Security Framework—Part 2” for comprehensive recommendations) and improve their knowledge and abilities in areas like product development, marketing, and food safety regulations.
  • Introducing a public-private marketing approach to facilitate access to markets and promote small-scale producers’ goods by organising events like food festivals and farmers’ markets that attract both domestic and foreign consumers. Marketing campaigns highlight their unique stories and flavours, attracting tourists seeking authentic culinary experiences. In addition, collaboration with tourism agencies and hospitality establishments should integrate small-scale producers into tour itineraries, further stimulating demand for their produce.
  • Expand the reach of Malaysian goods worldwide by making them more widely available in restaurants outside of the country, especially in China and the Middle East. Creating Malaysian-themed restaurants in cities like Beijing not only encourages cultural interchange but also generates curiosity and enthusiasm for Malaysian food. While this may be a long-term strategy, the benefits are substantial. Countries like South Korea and Thailand have successfully implemented similar approaches, resulting in robust gastrodiplomacy policies and support for their currencies.
  • Extend support and provide assistance to Malaysian delegates, as well as Malaysian student and youth councils operating abroad, in their efforts to showcase Malaysia’s rich culture and diverse specialties, encompassing cuisine, traditions, landmarks, and more.

In summary, the significance of gastronomy’s role in shaping Malaysia’s nation-branding should not be underestimated, overlooked, or neglected. South Korea dedicated over two decades to reach its current success in gastrodiplomacy.

Thus, this represents a long-term strategy and involves the implementation of proactive measures to elevate our nation’s profile through gastrodiplomacy.

Jachintha Joyce is Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research. 

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