Consumers are loath to fork out more for hawker food but the price is the loss of the taste of home
Three years ago, Mr Douglas Ng set up his hawker stall The Fishball Story at Golden Mile Food Centre where each bowl of his fishball noodles sold for just $3.
Being a new entrant, the 25-year-old had to compete with other hawkers who already had reputations and decades of experience behind them. He estimates that only 15 per cent of what he earned from selling a bowl of fishball noodles actually went into his pocket. About half was used to pay for raw ingredients while the rest went to rent and operating costs.
He wanted to be price competitive but found it hard to make a living. When he raised the price to $3.50 a bowl, he saw business drop by 30 per cent.
He has since moved to Timbre+, a new-generation hawker centre at one-north, where he sells his fishball noodles with premium ingredients for $6 a bowl. In July, Mr Ng received a Bib Gourmand award in the inaugural Michelin Guide Singapore. The award is given to eateries that offer quality food at affordable prices.
"Why is hawker food deemed cheap food?" he asked, adding that if he did not sell his noodles at $6 a bowl, he would earn little.
He is not alone in feeling that way. Given rising operating costs, it has become increasingly difficult for hawkers to find a balance between price and quality.
Low profit margins also hold back potential new entrants to the trade, even though such renewal is urgently needed as the average age of hawkers is 59. Singapore is also building more hawker centres, with 17 new ones expected by 2027.
The Government has even convened a Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee, which has come up with a host of ideas, including rebranding the hawker profession and having more amenities near hawker centres so patrons would be drawn to dine there.
What is needed is also a re-examination of the role of hawker centres. Is it realistic to expect all food at hawker centres to be both cheap and good?
That is a matter which needs careful consideration as many heartlanders still flock to hawker centres for such fare. The Government is also exploring alternative management models for hawker centres to ensure more affordable dining options. But with rising levels of affluence, Singaporeans must also do their part by being prepared to pay more for good hawker food. Otherwise, they risk losing a tradition that has kept alive dishes and tastes they grew up with, as ageing hawkers retire with no one to pass on their skills and secrets to.
Singapore's hawker culture, which dates back to the 1800s, has been celebrated by scholars and writers both local and foreign.
Today, the city state has more than 14,000 licensed hawkers across 110 hawker centres and markets, with about 6,000 cooked food stalls in hawker centres.
And by-and-large, hawker centres are still dishing out tasty meals at relatively affordable prices.
According to a survey of 584 hawker food stalls by the Consumers Association of Singapore last year, commonplace hawker dishes such as chicken rice and fishball noodles were mostly sold at $3 in 2014 and last year. The survey noted a rising number of hawkers charging consumers more for the surveyed items, but overall, prices were largely unchanged.
But selling food at such low prices hurts the prospects of younger hawkers new to the profession. Unlike first-generation hawkers - who were resettled from the streets to hawker centres in the 1970s - these new entrants are not eligible for government rental subsidies.
Hawkers who enjoy these subsidies pay an average of $200 a month, against an average of $1,250 for other stall-holders.
Besides rental, hawkers also feel the squeeze from rising costs of raw ingredients that go into making that delicious bowl of laksa or fishball noodles.
And economics is almost everything when it comes to attracting new hawkers to the trade, said the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, Dr William Wan, who is also on the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee. "Given that our youth are better educated, getting a job in an air-conditioned (environment) trumps standing in the heat for a good 10-12 hours - unless, of course, there are other incentives, like making a little more," he says.
"Operating a hawker food outlet is hard work and also a gamble due to location, human traffic, competitors and the capriciousness of the tastes of patrons," he added. "If we want to attract younger people, we need to give some assistance to help them hedge the chances of success, or give them a leg-up to ensure better chance of success."
One proposal is for the Government to subsidise rentals for new entrants. Food blogger Leslie Tay, who runs the website ieatishootipost.sg, supports government intervention to level the playing field for new hawkers.
"At the end of the day, it all boils down to whether hawkers can earn a living," he said. "Right now, the price of hawker food is artificially low because many of the pioneer hawkers are still paying heavily subsidised rents. New hawkers who have to pay higher rents find it difficult to compete."
Mr Ng agreed, saying the Government could help by providing subsidies on electricity bills, for instance, if they want hawkers to keep prices affordable.
The Government has taken various measures to moderate hawker stall rentals, including disallowing the practice of sub-letting stalls, said a spokesman for the National Environment Agency (NEA). That is despite rent not being the main driver of food prices, he added.
Non-subsidised hawkers pay the tendered or prevailing market rent, as assessed by professional valuers appointed by the NEA.
A survey by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 2014 found the cost of raw materials made up more than half of hawkers' operating costs.
Besides costs, another obstacle in young hawkers' paths is consumers' expectation that hawker food prices should be kept low.
Mr Philip Tan who sells fishball noodles at a hawker centre in Bukit Merah said the word "hawker" is associated with cheap food. "We need to use another name instead of 'hawker' centre. It (implies) that the profession has a low image... That way people won't complain so much when we raise food prices."
One way to strike a better balance between the need to provide affordable cooked food and the social good in keeping alive Singapore's hawker heritage is to take a tiered approach.
At one end, there would be hawker centres run by social enterprises such as NTUC Foodfare, where the focus is on affordability. At the other end would be upscale, air-conditioned food courts in downtown malls, where traditional hawker dishes easily cost double or more.
What's missing is a middle tier for younger hawkers with a passion for good food but who also need to make a decent living if they are to stay in the trade.
Summing up the challenge, Professor Ho Teck Hua, another member of the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee, said: "Hawker centres should be venues where people can eat cheap, affordable food. At the same time, we must ensure that hawkers can earn enough from their efforts in order to survive and even thrive. This is the only (way) that young hawkers will take over their parents' stands, or even start their own."
Prof Ho is deputy president (research & technology) and Tan Chin Tuan Centennial Professor at the National University of Singapore. On social enterprise hawker centres, he said: "These centres require that vendors provide a number of low-cost dishes... The centres may also help vendors by purchasing in bulk basic foods used for cooking in order to reduce the cost of raw materials, which are usually a hawker's biggest expense."
Of the 110 hawker centres managed by NEA or agents appointed by NEA, there are three new ones managed by agents on a not-for-profit basis. They include Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre which started operations last year, and one at Our Tampines Hub managed by OTMH, which opened this month. OTMH requires stallholders selling local dishes like noodles to each sell two items priced at $2.80.
The agency has said that it will continue to explore such alternative management models for hawker centres, to widen the diversity of affordable food options and enhance dining experience.
Still, it is heartening that some Singaporeans are willing to pay more for hawker food.
One example is Sumo Big Prawn Noodle at a hawker centre in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4. Although one bowl of lobster noodles can cost as much as $24.90, the stall still attracts long snaking queues that start even before the stall is open for business.
This shows that customers do appreciate quality food and the amount they pay is also an indirect recognition of the hours of work that go into preparing good food, whether it be laksa or mee pok.
Hawker centres are a vital part of Singapore life. But given the difficulties of the profession, ways must be found to support and encourage a new generation of hawkers so as to sustain this rich tradition of street food.
As Singapore Management University Provost Lily Kong put it: "We have come to expect a great deal from hawker centres: affordable food, emblematic food, tasty food, employment, traditional skill transfer, social leveller, community interaction, symbol of multiculturalism, site of social innovation, and even architectural distinctiveness.
"Indeed, we are proud that our hawker centres have hitherto been able to perform and deliver all these functions. But as circumstances change, new models may need to be considered."
Prof Kong, who wrote a book on hawker centres, added: "From an individual hawker's perspective, hawking is a livelihood first and foremost, and it must allow him or her to earn a living...
"If there are larger societal and political goals of ensuring food is kept affordable amid rising costs, then the burden cannot reasonably fall on hawkers."
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2016, with the headline 'Saving Singapore's street food'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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