One of Singapore's best-loved features, the hawker centre, is also having to contend with an ageing workforce and changing work routines. With fewer younger hawkers stepping up to the plate and greater efforts to centralise tasks and standardise supplies, will hawker food lose its handmade taste and idiosyncratic charm? What if, say, good Ipoh hor fun is hard to find here and drives foodies elsewhere to savour its original taste?
Singapore hawker masters excelled because of their single-minded effort to perfect signature dishes. Hawkerpreneurs who buy an old recipe and aim for mass production might find it difficult to replicate that old taste. What hawker centres need more is a steady supply of chefs who can whip up tasty and affordable fare with the same dedication of their predecessors. They are the ones who will keep hawker centres a part of Singapore's everyday culture and even draw tourists from afar.
The challenge faced by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee was to renew the industry to make it sustainable while keeping alive the best aspects of the old. With that in mind, it imagined hawker centres as spaces hosting a variety of events. Improving footfall will improve business for hawkers and help them to keep prices at moderate levels. The tougher task is to persuade the young to join the industry. The idea of incubation stalls is a practical one. These would allow aspiring hawkers to experience both the stresses and the rewards of the business and to gauge if they have what it takes to succeed. Not everyone can become a great hawker - of the kind whose reputation can create snaking queues at his stall. But a good number might demonstrate mastery in different ways. They, too, deserve to be treated like stars. Recognition and customer support can help to develop a dynamic and diverse hawker food scene here for more decades to come.