Any news of a rise in hawker centre prices touches a raw nerve in Singaporeans. Unlike food courts, to say nothing of upscale restaurants, there is a sense of public ownership over hawker centres. They are viewed almost as a gastronomical essential service, an everyday institution run by ordinary people for the masses. That they occupy this special place in the public imagination bears witness to the combination of good, safe and often extremely tasty food, proximity and affordability that they offer. Hence the dismay, if not ire, that is likely to greet the higher prices of hawker fare revealed in a survey released by the Consumers Association of Singapore.
Yet, the public needs to empathise with hawkers. Hawker centres are a social institution, but they are not therefore exempt from the laws of the market. From the higher prices of ingredients, rentals and transport, to the difficulty of hiring helpers in a tight labour market, hawkers have to deal with the same economic realities as the rest of the population. Admittedly, there are some who make it into the big league, but many more live with mundane profits. Those who rightly bemoan the income gap in Singapore must not exclude hawkers from their calculus of caring.
Indeed, given their long hours, tiring work and issues of social status, hawkers often carry on working merely because they have inherited a family business or cooking is the only trade they know. These factors will recede in importance as better education opens up more employment pathways for the next generation in hawkers' families. There might even come a time when the craft will become an exotic one. The challenge is to attract newcomers to the profession, those who can view cooking as an art more than as a craft. But this is unlikely to occur if the profession is not even minimally profitable. Hawkers, like everyone else in Singapore, wish to provide for their families. So long as any food price rise is reasonable, most Singaporeans will not begrudge hawkers a better living.