It is hardly surprising that the food and beverage sector is part of a recently announced multibillion-dollar government masterplan aimed at transforming Singapore's industries. The F&B sector is a serial productivity laggard with an unsustainable appetite for cheap manpower. It totals more than 200,000 workers, including hawkers, consuming some 5 per cent of Singapore's labour force, and yet contributes less than 1 per cent to gross domestic product. If nothing is done, its relentless hunt for increasingly scarce sources of labour - for jobs such as waiter, cleaner, cook, bartender, coffee shop assistant and restaurant supervisor - may lead it to a dead end.
The observation that F&B is a brutal business is not far off the mark when almost a third of these businesses fail on average annually. Without a pa- radigm shift, the industry is likely to run itself to the ground as manpower dries up, its escalating cost compounded by steep rentals and prices of raw materials. Adopting technology in food preparation, distribution and customer service is inevitable if the sector is to be put on the twin tracks of better productivity and a more skilled workforce - the goal of other sectors too.
Naturally, there is always the worry that technology's disruptive innovations such as food-preparing robots in high-end restaurants may compromise a dish's quality. Automating the food preparation process, for instance, could potentially deaden a dish's original taste. But there is a chance that technology might widen culinary variety by allowing subtle changes to be made to re- cipes, under the guidance of food masters.
Singaporean tastebuds are paradoxically both discerning and adaptable. This should spur young chefs and aspiring hawkers to not just preserve much-loved flavours but also push the boundaries by creating dishes that taste great straight from a wok and also from a vending machine.