Next-generation hawkers: A new recipe for success

Design the hawker centre around the life of the hawker; get diners to eat off trays; and have training with set-ups like those for hawker centres, not fancy restaurants.

For every six hours that a hawker stands by his stall to sell his fare, there are another six hours involved for marketing for his ingredients, preparation work and setting up the stall. Then, at the end of the day comes cleaning and preparing for the next day. It is a long day's work.

In contrast, a person working in an office will have tea breaks and a place where he can walk away from his work station to take a breather. There will be a pantry where employees can have snacks and a cup of coffee.

Unfortunately for hawkers, the only walk they can take is the one in front of their stalls. There are few hawker centres with communal facilities for hawkers.

Instead, what planners and policymakers should do is to design the hawker centre around the life of the hawker. Provide a communal room where hawkers can rest and interact with other stallholders; include shower facilities, a library of cookbooks, and even a meeting room where classes can be conducted.

As executive director of a social enterprise that helps disadvantaged individuals train to become hawkers, I got to thinking about how to improve the lives of hawkers following the release last month of the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee report.

The report looks at sustaining the hawker trade, improving productivity, enhancing hawker centres as social spaces, and promoting graciousness.


Another way to improve the lot of future hawkers is to get diners to clear their own tables and trays. A tray-return policy at hawker centres is just part of the process.

Participants learning how to make siew mai and rojak at a workshop held last year by Dignity Kitchen, a social enterprise that helps disadvantaged individuals train to become hawkers. The writer says the profile of the next generation of hawkers is changing, and so must the training approach. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

If you visit the canteens in some international schools, watch the students having their meals - they eat off the tray. Or watch South Indian people eating - they eat within their trays, and I believe this has to do with their habit of eating food off a banana leaf.

In Singapore, hawker centre customers sit at the table and remove their noodles or rice dishes from the tray and place it aside. They place their food waste, such as bones, either on the plate or mostly on the table where they sit. After finishing their meals, some will scoop their waste onto their plates or trays, but most simply leave it on the tables.

They do return the trays - but leave the tables dirtied. The cleaners then come to clear the leftovers and clean the tables.

The issue is the eating habits of our customers. Solution? Educate the public to eat off the tray.This makes for a cleaner, less messy hawker centre.


There are several organisations conducting training for hawkers.

To cater to the next generation of hawkers, you need two key elements. One is the curriculum for hawker training, and the other is the physical hawker entities, or equipment, for the training.

As the profile of the next generation is changing, so will the training approach.

When Dignity Kitchen first started its hawker training in 2010, its curriculum focused on people with disabilities. It later evolved to what is called its hawkerpreneur programme.

There was no training curriculum for hawkers back in 2010. There was no Workforce Development Authority (WDA) Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) framework for the hawker trade, so Dignity Kitchen had to base its curriculum development on the hotel and restaurant trade.

Take the WSQ Hot and Cold Beverage curriculum, which was developed mainly for hotel food and beverage outlets and does not align with Singapore's "kopi-O" or "kopi C" coffee culture.

After a series of discussions with WDA, Dignity Kitchen set out to develop a Hot and Cold Beverage training curriculum for the hawker coffee trade. We went back and forth with the good people in WDA to develop six curriculum units as part of the WSQ requirements.

After hundreds of hours of development work, we finally got approval to provide a WSQ standard of vocational qualification. We went on to develop 18 more modules for culinary hawker skills and management of hawker stalls, such as in how a hawker processes payment, monitors income, does the signage, and cooks noodles and desserts.

Having the curriculum itself, however, is still inadequate to develop the next stage for hawkers. You need the equipment and infrastructure to support the curriculum.

Many hawker training centres recognised by the National Environment Agency and WDA are based on a restaurant kitchen set-up, with its expensive and impressive equipment, but which is not suited for hawker students to train for their real-life environment.

Hawker training is in culinary skills. It is vocational training. It is about food. Hence, as part of the training, there is a need to understand what food they are going to sell at the end of the training.

To understand hawker food, it is useful to classify it into groups:

•The main course: Food you consume every day as part of your main meal, such as economical rice, noodles and nasi padang.

•The accompaniment: Side dishes that you order occasionally to accompany the main course, such as rojak, ngoh hiang and popiah.

•The dessert: Snacks for after-meal occasions (or sometimes, before or without the meal), such as cheng tng, fruit and goreng pisang.

•The beverage: This exists in all food outlets. On average, for every $3 the customer spends on a meal, another $1 will go towards a beverage like coffee, tea, herbal drinks brewed in-house, juices and canned drinks. Over the years, this classification has evolved, with many food items crossing over to other categories.

Popiah, for example, is now a main course for the health-conscious. Some food served for breakfast many years ago is now served at lunch and dinner time, such as nasi lemak, kaya toast and fried bee hoon - which can be served the whole day and even for supper.

Each of these food types requires different skills training.

Brewing kopi-O (coffee without milk) or teh C (tea with evaporated milk) requires a skill base and knowledge different from those for cooking nasi lemak. Hence, the WSQ training is based on culinary skills and not on food type or recipe.

For example, in the WSQ Moist Heat class, the trainee learns the skills to poach, simmer, boil, blanch, steam, braise and stew food. The food type or recipe is secondary.

The training is on the culinary technique, developing the culinary base that the hawker can use across the food range.

In conclusion, in the design of future hawker centres, factor in the well-being of the hawkers; educate the public to eat off the tray, and go beyond any "tray-return" policy. And when it comes to training hawkers for the next generation - bear in mind that hawkers are better educated and so expectations are different.

For producing the next generation of hawkers, you need a curriculum that goes beyond following recipes to teach culinary skills, and you need training set-ups with equipment that approximate those of a hawker stall, not a commercial kitchen in a restaurant.

•The writer is executive director of Project Dignity, a social enterprise that helps disadvantaged individuals train to become hawkers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 03, 2017, with the headline 'Next-generation hawkers: A new recipe for success'. Print Edition | Subscribe