Singapore is well known for its hawker food stalls, which are indeed considered a national treasure. They were prominently featured in this year’s summer Hollywood blockbuster hit, ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ and, even more importantly, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on August 19 that the country’s hawker culture would be nominated for inclusion in Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
But there may just be a disconnect with the elevated concept of “hawker culture” and the harsh realities of hawker life. The fact of the matter is that hawker food is cheaper in Singapore than in both HongKong and Malaysia, and Singapore’s hawkers face gruelingly long hours of work for relatively little pay.
Little wonder then that the median age of hawkers today is 60 years old, and very few young people are joining the industry. If these conditions go on, preserving the hawker culture will end up becoming a challenge for the next generation of Singaporeans.
While seven hawker centers have been endorsed to private companies in order for fresh concepts to emerge that would help revive the culture, critics have called these concepts, among which are decreased working hours, fees for returning trays and other ideas as exploitative.
Reports have also emerged that hawkers have entered into contracts without understanding the language in which the contracts were written, or have been made to shoulder the legal costs of the contracts.
Singapore’s hawker culture is part and parcel of everyday life, with the South China Morning Post reporting that over twenty-five percent of Singaporeans in one poll said food had a higher significance for them than traditional performance arts or festivals. Moreover, 8 out of every 10 Singaporeans eat in hawker centers at least once every week.
The roots of hawker culture go back to the middle of the 19th century, and the industry’s focus has always been serving delicious food at affordable prices.
This is exactly the problem today since keeping prices low has resulted in attracting fewer and fewer younger people.
Tommy Koh, the country’s ambassador-at-large, encouraged Singaporeans early in December to pay higher prices for hawker food, saying “Our hawkers are hard-working people and they work very long hour. They deserve to make a decent income.”
According to industry expert Wong Chiang Yin, “We cannot divorce economics from culture. For a modern day culture, the economics must work out.”
He compared the prices of hawker food in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia.
“The price of a plate of chicken rice or wanton mee is S$4 (US$2.90) in Singapore, in Malaysia, it is easily 5 ringgit (US$1.20) or 6.5 ringgit in Kuala Lumpur. In Hong Kong, the cheapest meal you can get is HK$30 (US$3.80) to HK$35.
So in terms of ratio of median household income to hawker food price, Singapore is the lowest, compared to Hong Kong and Malaysia. In other words, we are comparatively underpriced, and hence margins are also lower.”
Wong believes that hawkers should be earning around S$6,000 a month, which would allow the industry to be as attractive as it has been in Hong Kong and Malaysia. “If we truly love and support hawker culture, we must put our money where our mouth is,” he said.