Economic, societal benefits to preserving hawker culture

It is good news that hawkers are being consulted about the future of this industry ("Adding spice to hawker culture"; yesterday, and "Hawker Centre 3.0: Whipping up tasty ideas"; last Friday).

It is my hope that this will be the start of hawkers having greater involvement in shaping the future of the industry.

The humble hawker showcases the spirit of entrepreneurship in its most rudimentary form.

It is hard work, but it is an accessible industry to break into and make a decent living, especially for people who lack comprehensive educational qualifications in a paper-chasing world.

This can be seen by the number of senior hawkers today, many of whom did not have an opportunity to get a formal education, but have made a name for themselves, with two even getting a Michelin star ("Michelin-starred stall to open restaurant"; last Saturday).

Considering that the average age of a hawker is 59, it is timely that steps are taken to preserve our distinctively Singaporean hawker culture.

For a long time, hawkers have taken it upon themselves to pass on their business to future generations. This has achieved limited success, as younger Singaporeans have received better formal education, which has allowed them to consider more career options.

Rather, we could consider focusing on improving hawker centres in a way that makes the job of being a hawker more senior-friendly and less physically demanding.

This can be done by improving the physical infrastructure and social attitudes towards the job.

The recent initiatives involving tray-return stations and robots are a good start, especially during busy periods at lunchtime ("Finished eating? Robot will pause for your tray"; Sunday).

Ensuring that anti-slip tiles in hawker centres are in good condition, for example, will minimise the risk of falls. Building more toilet spaces specifically for hawkers will go a long way in improving their welfare at work.

The Japanese concept of ordering via vending machines to relieve hawkers of the job of collecting money could be explored.

However, this adoption of innovation should not be used as a reason to immediately push up rents, because this will discourage new entrants and put much pressure on existing hawkers.

The preservation of our hawker culture generates plenty of economic and societal benefits over the long run, especially with the rising popularity of experience-based tourism. Our hawker culture is unique within the ranks of developed countries. Making all effort to promote it will ensure it remains sustainable.

Lionel Loi Zhi Rui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline 'Economic, societal benefits to preserving hawker culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe