The rising incidence of illegal food hawking is borne out by the increasing number of public complaints about it - from 2,600 for the whole of 2013 to more than 3,300 from January to November last year. Why the complaints? Singaporeans have become used to a regulated environment for the hygienic preparation and consumption of food. Maverick hawkers might raise fears of food poisoning, although even a few long-time vendors in foodcourts have been guilty of this.
Unlicensed vendors who station themselves outside MRT stations and bus interchanges might obstruct traffic and could pose safety risks to the travelling public. This deflects from the purpose of having demarcated eating spaces that are safe to patronise. The National Environment Agency caught 600 of them last year, up from 550 the year before.
There is a socio-economic side to the issue which should also be considered. Hawkers are generally a boon for offering affordable and often tasty street food to all and sundry. Most are licensed but there are also hawkers who operate on the edges of the informal economy, offering their humble treats, from curry puffs and fruit to roasted chestnuts and otah. A few might even want to offer truly unique micro wares if they could do so with less risk. Like licensed hawkers, they seek to make an honest living, but the limited range of their products might not make it feasible for them to hire an entire stall. Instead, they are vulnerable to the cruel economics of rain, for a single large downpour might wash away the custom of half a day.
This is where social enterprises and non-governmental organisations could step in. They could provide legal outlets for the livelihood of people who, after all, are enterprising. Creating economies of scale by bringing them together, and providing micro-financing to help them upgrade, would enable them to enter the terrain of legal hawking, where they belong.