Singapore—While the country’s hawker culture has been recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO, the future of Singapore’s hawkers and hawker culture may still be in question.
The issue is one of sustainability, writes Ashley Tan in an article in The Diplomat this week, pointing out that the average age of hawkers in Singapore is now 60.
And although the recognition of hawker culture by UNESCO last month is an understandable source of national pride, Singapore is now required to prove every six years its efforts to protect hawker culture.
An existing problem is that fewer young people desire to join the industry, in part due to the delicate balance hawkers have to keep in offering affordable food versus increased costs of manpower, supplies and utilities.
Ms Tan emphasises the fact that Singaporeans are sensitive to rising prices of food, which means that hawkers are reluctant to raise prices as it may drive customers away. This has meant smaller profits for hawkers, some of whom make only twenty to thirty cents on the dishes they prepare.
Being a hawker also means working as many as twenty hours a day, which does not contribute to the work-life balance many people aspire to.
Additionally, unlike regular workers who get time off during the holidays, hawkers have to work even harder on days that most people have off.
Ms Tan added that the younger crowd in Singapore today prefer “hipster cafes” to hawker centers. Used to social media, they’re more likely to choose places they consider more “Instagrammable” than humbler hawker centres.
The ongoing pandemic has also hit hawkers particularly hard. Movement restrictions on Singaporeans imposed to prevent the spread of Covid last year meant that some hawkers saw a decrease in earnings of as much as fifty per cent.
The pandemic also meant that hawkers had to learn about digital technology very quickly, which was a challenge to many of those from older generations, which the Government, as well as private firms such as Grab, addressed with schemes to assist them.
Ms Tan writes, however, that inclusion in the UNESCO list is a welcome one, as it would mean more resources allotted to preserving hawker culture.
She quotes food blogger and author Dr Leslie Tay as saying, “UNESCO’s recognition of Singapore’s hawker is a very important milestone, and will be one extra step to helping preserve our hawker culture.”
Dr Tay added that citizens must also do their part, calling for ground-up efforts as well.
“As a society, Singaporeans need to value the hawker culture that we have. It needs to start with our kids by encouraging them to eat hawker food and be proud of our local cuisine.”
For her, it also includes a willingness to pay more for hawker food
“You can’t save an entire culture simply by giving incentives. In order for younger hawkers to feel that [running a hawker stall] is a viable business, Singaporeans must be ready to pay more for hawker food because it is valuable,” she said.
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