There is a happy irony at work in hawkers from Old Woodlands Town Centre moving to Marsiling Mall. As Iskander Mydin writes elegantly in Pioneers Of The Streets, travelling hawkers were an integral part of social life in Singapore in the 19th century and well into the mid-20th century. From food and drinks to vegetables and poultry, the itinerant hawkers gave working-class Singaporeans affordable access to meals. The profession also played a significant social role by providing new immigrants with a foothold in the colonial economy if they were unemployed or had few skills.
Hawking has kept pace with the economic transformation of independent Singapore. Illegal hawking, and problems of hygiene and traffic obstruction associated with old ways of doing business were dealt with as the trade was modernised and hawkers were situated in clean centres that contoured the culinary map of Singapore. Hawker centres today embody the combination of continuity and change that marks the longevity of a popular institution. They have become such a fixture of a food-loving country that they are intrinsic to Singapore's evolving social history. The hawkers moving to Marsiling Mall are the inheritors of an irreplaceable tradition.
Yet, the profession faces a generational challenge. The young are not drawn easily to work that involves standing close to the heat of cooking for substantial periods of time. Small family-run businesses can die out literally in the process. While some hawker stalls appeal to the gourmet in the Singapore psyche, few cooks would be considered chefs. It would be a pity if these trends undermined the trade. Initiatives, such as the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee's recommendations, are important in ensuring that the profession offers a financially viable and socially recognised career path to younger Singaporeans. Hawker centres must remain a national asset.