Who wants to be a hawker?

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Earlier this year, the future of hawker centres was in the news. The chief concern was the sustainability of the institution (if one can call it that), but much of the discussion centred around how to keep food cheap. A side issue was the declining quality, for which a ‘Hawker Academy’ idea was floated. It struck me even then that insufficient attention was being paid to a much more fundamental question: where are hawkers going to come from in the years ahead? All the talk about pricing and training will be meaningless if not enough people want to be hawkers.

At a recent closed-door seminar, a paper was presented on hawker centres. Much of it focussed on its iconic value to Singapore, delivered with a good dollop of nostalgia, complete with scratchy old photos. But at several points, the unanswered question recurred to me: who wants to be a hawker?

The original hawker — you can see photos at this blog — was someone who pounded the streets with a pole on his shoulder, cooking pot and ingredients at either end of the pole. He mostly served menial workmen and labourers who needed a quick meal, e.g. a simple bowl of noodles, while squatting by the roadside. A few decades later, the poles gave way to wheeled carts, and some enterprising ones even offered stools for their customers to sit on.

pic_201306_02People became hawkers because jobs in the formal sector were scarce. They had no choice but to work long hours amid heat and steam or else their families would starve. Unemployment was a big problem until the 1970s, which is why many hawker businesses we see in our hawker centres date from that period. That was when, for reasons of public hygiene, hawkers were forcibly moved off the streets into roofed halls where piped water and sewer connections were provided. Until the recent announcement about the resumption of building hawker centres (ten new ones over the next decade), the government stopped building them after 1987.

Messy

Currently there are 112 hawker centres (listed in a National Environment Agency webpage) with about 6,000 cooked food stalls. The latter figure is my estimate; if anyone has a more precise figure, please let me know.

Ownership and operating arrangements have become quite complex over time. Messy, you might say. Some stalls are rented by the month (some at subsidised rates, others not), while others are on twenty-year leases. The latter are found at 15 hawker centres and encompass 1,956 cooked food and market stalls, according to media reports. These leases are going to expire between 2014 and 2017, after which the stalls will revert to the government. Leases will not be renewed; the stalls will be leased out monthly, it appears.

Over the years, many operators have sublet their stalls, some legally, some illegally. Migrants from China are said to be the chief subtenants, and there have been anecdotal reports of rents at stratospheric levels. The original tenants and lessees thus profit from the difference.

The government also experimented with tendering out entire hawker centres to private commercial operators, who immediately jacked up rents for their stallholders.

It is this escalation in rents that created concern about rising food prices.

In February 2012, a panel tasked to study the issue produced a set of recommendations among which were these:

. . .  new hawker centres could be managed and operated by a socially conscious operator, such as a social enterprise or a cooperative.

The focus of the operator should be on providing affordable food, in a clean and hygienic setting. This can be achieved through the operator’s tenancy arrangements with its stallholders. Stallholders could offer at least one ‘value meal’ or affordable food option. This would mean providing the choice of a meal which is priced lower than the majority of competing neighbouring coffeeshops or eateries.

The centre operator should also prevent profiteering by stallholders who do not intend to personally operate the stalls e.g. by restricting full day sub-letting and disallowing stall assignment except to immediate family members to preserve traditional or heritage food.

All very well, except that it doesn’t address the question: Where are hawkers going to come from?

The government’s Population White Paper, which attracted much controversy, noted that 70 percent of Singaporeans aspire to PMET jobs. I don’t know what the remaining 30 percent are thinking, but I can safely say that trimming pork, chopping onions and slogging it out over a stove 15 hours a day, seven days a week, is not high on their list.

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I am aware that there were a few stories in our mainstream media (in other words, propaganda stories) about sons and daughters of older hawkers being keen to take over the family business. But the very fact that our mainstream media had to go to this length to glamourise the idea tells us that for great majority of hawker stalls succession is a very big issue.

Three scenarios

So what does the future hold?

I can see three scenarios, of which the first is perhaps the most dismal. It is that nothing much changes, and young Singaporeans do indeed take up food stalls in enough numbers that keep the masses fed, and cheaply. But for this to happen, it must imply that many in a new generation are going to have their aspirations frustrated, and that social inequality remains wide. They have few other career opportunities, so they go into hawking like their parents and grandparents did. I frankly don’t want it to happen.

The second scenario is one where hawker centres still exist but there are too few Singaporeans wanting to take up the trade. The hawkers are mostly foreigners. This presupposes that the government is going to allow foreigners to take up stall licences. They may not want to, and a section of our population may protest, but when the stalls go empty and the remaining operational stalls raise prices in the absence of competition, there may not be much choice in the matter. In this scenario, food will remain cheap, though the menu will gradually change — not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I am not sentimental about local food; it is not that great. In fact, I can name several new dishes brought in by recent Chinese immigrants that I rather much prefer over local food. And I am still looking forward to pizza-by-the-slice and shawarma stalls.

The third scenario is when even foreigners don’t want to come in. Then we’ll need a clear-eyed rethink of the entire model, and not forget that cheap food is the real goal. Preserving the cultural relic of hawking and hawker centres may well prove inimical to it. I can envision cafeteria-like solutions with a high degree of automation: meals coming out of automated cooking tunnels, so to speak. This will mean a major overhaul of the menu, because hawker food in Singapore has generally been of a labour-intensive, individually-prepared kind.

The bottom-line is this: Saying we are building ten more hawker centres is hardly the end of the problem, nor is the (laudable) idea that they should be run on a not-for-profit basis. The question is: How do we provide cheap food on a mass scale when fewer and fewer Singaporeans want to be hawkers? Perhaps, after building these ten hawker centres, we should experiment with mass cafeterias, in order to go up the learning curve for an alternative model more suited to a different century.

29 Responses to “Who wants to be a hawker?”


  1. 1 bookworm 1 June 2013 at 20:56

    i think there are lots of people wants to be hawker, but getting a hawker store is very hard and very expensive. they should limit it to only singapore/pr, and also stop the transfer of ownership, cause ownership transfer could cost up to $100k.

  2. 2 SS 2 June 2013 at 00:42

    The ikea canteen model comes to mind. Highly efficient, but the workers are probably on fairly low pay. So being hawkers may yet be a better career than being an employee of food courts.

  3. 4 William 2 June 2013 at 09:46

    Interesting. It might be worth looking at how another country is faring with a similar problem: Bhutan.

    In the space of 30 years, it has revolutionised its education and healthcare. Whereas their parents spent their entire lives farming tiny plots of land for subsistence, most young people today have been to school and want something else. It is of course a huge challenge for the government to develop the country economically given this change, all the more so because Bhutan’s buddhist heritage is absolutely sacred (it’s in the first lines of the consitution) and the kind of environmental and cultural destruction you’ve had in say, China or Singapore are out of the question.

    Same kind of thing really: people want to protect their heritage and culture (temples, farmland, hawker centres) but that’s really hard to sqaure with an educated population that doesn’t want to do backbreaking manual work 15 hours a day every day for their whole life.

    • 5 octopi 4 June 2013 at 22:11

      To be sure, there are people who do backbreaking manual work for the rest of their lives, and are paid well for it. Examples include crane operators and surgeons.

  4. 6 Ace 2 June 2013 at 10:37

    The main problem is the high cost to run a hawker stall. If I rent a stall at $5,000 a month and hire 2 assistants at $1,000 each, my fixed over head is already $7,000 per month; that is $280 per day assuming that you work 25 days a month.

    Assuming COGS at 30% of selling price and revenue from each customer is $4.00, I would need 100 customers just to break even. If I have 150 customers a day, I make $140 or $3,500 a month working 25 days.

    You see it makes little sense to be a hawker (if other options are available) when I have to work every Saturday and Sunday and get only 1 day off a week to make $3,500 when the Landlord who does practically nothing get $5,000 a month from my rent.

    There is something wrong with society if income derived from rent (passive income) is much more that income from work. First, our tax system needs to change to differentiate income and tax it differently. Second, hawker stalls should be sold to hawkers on a 50 year lease so that a person who decides on this career path can have more certainty. Third, these hawker stalls must not be allowed to be sold in the secondary market.

    • 7 Wane 2 June 2013 at 17:46

      You made a good point. Rent seeking activities needs to be discouraged. The government should lead the way by imposing huge property taxes on residential properties that owners do not stay in and commercial properties that owners do not use themselves. People should be penalised for hogging these precious spaces and preventing others from using them in a way that would benefit the society most.

      • 8 kygoh2013 4 June 2013 at 03:11

        @Wane
        “The government should lead the way by imposing huge property taxes on residential properties that owners do not stay in..” Actually, the Government announced this during this year’s Budget. For residential properties which are not owner occupied (regardless whether they are rented out), property tax will be increased in staggered amounts up to the maximum rate of 20% (up from the current 10%). Nothing similar – yet – for commercial and industrial properties.

        Johor’s announcement on Monday that foreigners owning residential properties have to pay different and higher property tax is something that Singapore can do well to emulate.

      • 9 Wane 4 June 2013 at 16:41

        @kygoh2013,
        The government is doing too little. Up to 20% of annual value? I say, why not make it *at least* 50%? Why should we as a society benefit people who earn money by doing zero work? What happens to the virtues of hard work? Property investment should be completely discouraged in land scarce Singapore. Make these people put their money on stocks instead. Investing in companies and startups if you have the spare money is much better for the country to progress.

      • 10 kygoh2013 4 June 2013 at 17:30

        Wat do our multi-millionaire ministers and top echelon civil servants do with their money (other than going to Cordon Bleu for cooking classes and taking long expensive holidays)? Buy property of course. The ruling elite and their henchmen have vested interests in keeping their heirlooms for their dynasties, so it will never happen that property tax for non-owner occupied residential properties will go up to 50%! Not under the present government, at any rate.

  5. 11 georgia tong 2 June 2013 at 12:23

    Following up on the remark on Ikea. ….Ikea food is getting more and more expensive. It is no longer quality food at reasonable price. Even the place is getting messier though customers are returning their own trays. The trays at the collection points are not clear up in time. Things are piling up at the collection point.

    • 12 eve 2 June 2013 at 19:21

      Ikea tampines has renovated their cafe recently and the tray clearing area has been enlarged and the overflowing of trays and tray carts have improved as a result.

      The quality of their food has indeed went down; something that i felt started a few years ago. Food prices are also higher. But then again, which f&b vendor has not increased their prices?

      A McDonalds meal is now easily $8.

      Heard the food stall vendor pays $15k a month to rent her stall at Giant supermart coffee shop, next to Ikea. & her stall is not at prime location.

      Not only are the hours long, the fixed costs are staggering.

      Eve

  6. 13 dorothy 2 June 2013 at 13:46

    PAP trying their moral suasion strategy by discouraging people from taking up a degree. They are putting the cart before the horse. The reason why hawking is not attractive anymore is the same as the reason why construction workers no longer attractive. And this can also extend to the shortage of engineers. As lpng as the PAP opens the floodgate to cheap foreign labour, those jobs would become “jobs that Singaporeans do not want”. Come on, let’s face it. It is all about pay. Somebody has to earn lesser for others to earn more. Why don’t the government target those do nothing landlords whom ST Invest never fails to promote as successful people every week.

  7. 14 TC 2 June 2013 at 21:08

    I am not that sentimental about the hawker centres. As most of our (male) ancestors came on shore as manual workers, the extreme sex imbalance (some pre- stats put the male-to–female ratio around 9 to 1) led to the prevalence of eating-out. The same can be said about Hong Kong and Taiwan (after 1949). I actually want to see more households cook and dine at home, which can be cheaper and far more healthy.

  8. 16 Charles Haynes 2 June 2013 at 22:34

    Hawker food is too cheap. Let stalls close and prices go up until hawkers can make a decent wage. Sadly that will probably mean that cheap food with be boring and mass produced.

  9. 17 Mike S 3 June 2013 at 14:47

    Suprised that the obvious evolution of hawker centres has not been spotted. Food courts.

    Food courts are essentially air-conditioned hawker centres. There are many successful models in Singapore (as well as Thailand, Taiwan, the U.S., Switzerland, etc.), and they illustrate exactly where hawker centres will head under market conditions — prices go up to accommodate higher fixed costs, and the industry consolidates so you have chain brands employing wage-earning staff rather than owner-operators.

    I make no claim that this is a good (or bad) thing. But seems self-evident that, barring disruptive innovation in the food service industry, that is where we’re heading. Like all economic evolutions, regulation may slow it down, but won’t stop it, because running a hawker stall is a crappy existence when compared with alternatives.

  10. 18 BioVincent 3 June 2013 at 15:43

    The high rentals plus unfair leasing contracts are making hawking a high risks, no returns, bondage equivalent to “working free and paying dues” to these enterprises that capitalized on their chain food courts to command high rates.

    Those who have made it are the pioneers pass down from generations of secret home recipe and name branding.

    The next generation are mostly educated, most likely pampered lifestyle and trained to excel in the new world , definitely not in hawker food environment.

    Food costs is relative to quantity of sales and can be managed to keep food prices in check.

    The hours of work can also be flexible to meet the patrons traffic patterns. You work smart hours or longer hours, then the is a good chance to make good returns and reach breakeven point, faster.

    With regards to interests of being a hawker, there are many factors.

    The glaring costs of starting up a cooked food stall deters most entrepreneurs with the passion, but without the financial capacity.

    Then, what about social enterprise concept? Sound great, but there are also hidden agendas.

    Trying to juggle between being socially supporting start-ups in food industry and making returns for their investment and management costs , demands a very, long term business model.

    The playing field is no more on grass patch, road sides, night car park stalls. Rentals starts from $2,000 , that does not include “other service charges” such as cleaner costs, 10% loyalty card discounts, credited daily sales, and even renovation costs.

    To make the long story short, its not a viable option, not much more than going for a Taxi driving vocational license.

  11. 19 tkh 3 June 2013 at 23:55

    At the end of the day, it’s all about the money.

    The real question is, for how much will people work (and be willing to pay) for in this industry.

    In Hong Kong and Taiwan, many young people do work in the food industry and contributing to the bustling scene. Food prices in HK are slightly more expensive, but their food scene is still around and alive.

    Singaporeans, just like HKers and Taiwanese, love eating out and that’s not going to go away just because food prices have gone up by a dollar or two.

    Wages are measly here, not helped by the tsunami of cheap foreign workers. Of course, given such circumstances, many people would not want to be in this trade for the salary and effort!

    Food prices have gone up because of high rentals (arguable caused by increasing overcrowding). Landlords – people who don’t work – have been the most obvious beneficiary for the past few years under Lee Hsien Loong. So much for expounding the virtues of hard work.

  12. 20 Yewey 4 June 2013 at 10:11

    The number of air conditioned food courts in residential area is also a threat to hawker centers. Many people are choosing the air-conditioned food courts over the hawker centers, even though the price is higher, and the hawker center have their business affected. When the stalls with cheaper food price close down due to this, we only have ourselves to blame.

    • 21 Mike S 13 June 2013 at 11:49

      I would argue, not so much a threat as an inevitable evolution. I think the trend towards hawker centres disappearing entirely from Singapore and being replaced by food courts is a racing certainty.

      To the extent that people working in the food service industry have more pleasant lives, it may not be a bad thing. Perhaps those looking for the cheapest food will need to switch back to cooking for themselves (which predates hawker centres in terms of tradition). But that may not be a bad thing either.

      If I were a hawker, rather than seeing this as a threat, I would be writing a business plan to build a chain franchise.

      • 22 yawningbread 13 June 2013 at 11:54

        I quite agree with the points you raised, though I would add that the manpower crunch isn’t just going to affect hawker centres. I’m pretty sure it is going to impact food courts too, albeit to a lesser extent for the time being. So, yeah, going back to cooking at home (TV dinners anyone?) may be the future.

  13. 23 Jeremy T 4 June 2013 at 17:11

    If the goal is to ‘feed the masses cheaply’, wouldn’t a system of food stamps achieve this better? I realise this would be inimical to the govt’s anti-welfare state stance, but this would surely cost the taxpayer less than the blanket subsidy of hawker stall rent. (Mei Ling Road, for instance, contains both the first HDB flat to be sold for over a million dollars, and Mei Ling Hawker Centre, which has been half-empty whenever I’ve been there — perhaps people who can spend that much on property are turning their noses up at $3 bowls of noodles?)

    I don’t have much nostalgia for the hawker centre. It’ll probably go the way of other ‘heritage’ institutions, leaving a few artificial ones like Lau Pa Sat. The institution in its present form, as Alex says, doesn’t present an enticing prospect for most young workers — despite the glamorised, meretricious version of the hawker lifestyle presented in the ‘Civic Life Tiong Bahru’ film. You could also argue that it creates an incentive against healthy eating, in that it’s pretty well impossible to cook a decent meal at home for less than $3 per head — so, perversely, it becomes cheaper to eat out. Yet even reduced-fat reduced-salt hawker food is not going to be as healthy as home-cooked.

  14. 24 octopi 4 June 2013 at 22:14

    The solution to this problem, assuming that the technology exists, is robots. It is true that processed food already exists today, but they are not up to the standards of hawker food. If you could invent a robot that makes your char kuay teow for you, and does it well, does it on the spot, your problem is basically solved.

  15. 25 nescafe 5 June 2013 at 13:30

    Today I paid $1.00 for my cup of Kopi-O at my neighbourhood S11 coffeeshop. The coffee auntie told me the price was raised last Saturday because the rental went up and proclaimed it can’t be help ?

    Rental goes up, food prices also go up. Catching up game huh? And our this so called traditional kopitiam kopi tastes like longkang water?

    Next time, i will bring my 3-in-1 nescafe satchet and buy a glass of hot water from them and make my own coffee. Do you think they will chase me away?

  16. 26 l'ingénieur 1 July 2013 at 20:02

    I think the question of demand for hawker food cannot be decoupled from a minimum wage discussion. How much of a $1,000 minimum wage earner’s income goes towards feeding the family with affordable hawker food? If we are to cap the self-catalysing increase of hawker numbers, how will the 400,000 Singaporeans eligible for Workfare Income Scheme be affected?

    Ultimate faith in market forces leads to rent-seeking, ultimately. This is a given in resource-scarce Singapore. The biggest gravy train is the lack of land, which leads to ever-increasing gains for landowners and middle-men.

  17. 27 Sg 25 September 2013 at 16:08

    A noble cause from the start. But the whole system just cannot keep up with reality. The dynamics are very different today as compared with the past.

    Costings are so different:
    Food cost has gone up leaps and bound. True that food prices has also increases over the years, but not matching that of food cost and labour cost. Inflation further erodes the healthy salary/profit that a hawker use to make. 15 years ago, making 2-3k net salary/profit for average hawkers is a good tiding/sum. This amount, taking into consideration inflation is not attractive and to an extent not acceptable in today’s/ times. Why so? Because we are looking at a more affluent population who has so many choice for jobs. And because living standard is so different now.

    Working conditions:
    Further, looking at the space of a hawker stall! It is inconceivably small! Imagine a 6sqm space to cook, for 2person occupying it. You need to cook, endure extreme high tempersture, move around, store lots of dry goods and perishables for your business and also stay inside for more than 12 hrs a day; this is more important than your home! To say its not a comfortable space and working condition is so an understatement. It is actually hazardous, as you can imagine! Why would youngsters choose and put their life’s to it?

    Changing competing conditions:
    Yes, the population today warrants more food business. But compare the increase in the number of food stalls, foodcourts, cafe and restaurants. We are spoilt for choices. Even within a hawker stall in a mordern hawker centre, the competition is just too much. Only the very best survive, competition with other hawker centers, eateries and for the limited sitting space in the hawker centre. The unique Singapore food media culture and Singaporean mentality also add complexities and difficulties for new hawkers trying out. They may not last the few months as the more established queue ridden stores and media publicized food receive all the attentions and business.

    Another interesting fact to note regarding the new hawker stall tendering. Good stalls and hawker centre are never returned to nea. They are simply sold for a high price. Even if they were to be returned to nea for bidding, we know that success rental price bid will not be cheap. Check out maxwell, golden shoe hawker centre etc. Look at others/those that were bidded at low rental rates in low demand/challenging area.. Some still did not open stall because they will never make money despite the low rental. Worse, waste time and maybe cost on raw material and labour that will never be utilisd efficiently.

    Time to rethink how best to support the noble hawker centre value. See this example: Sell a bowl of fish all noodle for $2.50. Have average 100 customers a day. Employ a helper. Pay rent, raw material cost, utilities, cleaning and washing fees, labour cost, work 12 hours a day in the cramped, hot and dangerous stall, 7 days a week, 30 days a month (and pray you don’t fall sick!). Make $3k a month. Not impossible. But then, what’s not possible?

  18. 28 Anon pQEw 30 September 2013 at 16:50

    I grew up in a hawker n i have been a hawker coming close to 30 years.
    To b honest, food price inflation in the recent years are mainly affected by the raising price of the basic ingrident such as rice , flour, noodles and etc.
    Rental for a hawker directly from nea dun pose much stress to the cost as it often remain constant.

    To start as a hawker, its like starting a business of any form. Yes u may loss out if u r new in the business, but how much are u willing to put in the effort to create your branding n building up ur customer base? I have been relocated n have to start my business afresh and my hardwork has paid off.

    Its not easy to b a hawker likewise in any other trade if u r a new comer. Wat it really takes is how u face n overcome ur challenges. If possible, get a mentor who is very expirence in this industry, ur life will b much easier.

    • 29 Sg 30 September 2013 at 20:38

      Hi Anon,

      I am a hawker as well but not with 30 years experience. The conditions for new entrants vis a vis seasoned existing hawkers are very different. You are probably paying rental that is at least 300% lower than new entrants be it those who rent from nea or are under sublet currently. I have a hawker senior friend who is there for the last 20 years. Their rental cost is so low that they can afford to sell less than $200 a day and then close for 3 days. Of course they are on a retirement mindset. But new hawkers are often paying at least 4 times ( to the private landlord) than first generation Hawker rental or at least 3 times more to nea under the current market price rule.

      The implications for our Hawker culture is dire if not well addresses. First, the working condition will not draw the majority of young ppl. Second, the reward/effort scale has tipped so unfavorably that it is not drawing talent. Many amazing hawker food are not getting new bloods to learn it.

      As a result, in years to come, if the conditions remain currently, it is almost inevitable that both quality and value and our hawker food heritage will be almost lost, guaranteed.


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