Few concerns command public attention as palpably as the fate of hawker fare. The fear is genuine, as food quality is slipping and there is no reliable pipeline of next-generation hawkers, especially among millennials, to keep much-loved tastes alive. That pipeline is vital, given the fact that low-cost fare at hawker centres, food centres and coffee shops is a national staple. It gobbles up more than a third of an average family's food bud- get and close to half where low-income families are concerned. Hawker food also unites Singaporeans from all walks of life. That makes it doubly precious.
The problem, of course, is that today's hawker masters, with an average age of 59, are slowing down or retiring quicker than they are being replaced. But there is no proper policy in place to address the attrition, compared to efforts to maintain hawker fare affordability. Steps to grow a new generation of hawkers are recent and ad hoc. The results are discouraging. For instance, only five of 46 trainees of a pilot batch have persevered with the trade, a dropout rate of some 90 per cent.
The outcome is unsurprising. Cooking up a storm is a tough slog - a job with fluctuating income, no CPF, and 10-hour work cycles. In the minds of younger people, the payoff might not adequately compensate them for the effort that is called for. Youngsters seeking, or forced into, a career switch might think they can earn as much, and with less hassle, by becoming a hire car driver.
Uber's gain would be Singapore's loss. Hawker masters are a national treasure, giving pleasure to locals and visitors alike. Whether seen as hip cooks or food centre uncles, they can enhance the liveability of a city and serve as tourism icons.