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.
People 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.
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.
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.
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.