The heated debate over the future of hawker centres here attests to the strength of the bond that Singaporeans have with hawker culture. In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore would seek to have Singapore's hawker culture listed as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). While Singaporeans welcomed the bid, some questioned how sustainable hawker culture is. Hawker centres were built from 1971 to house street hawkers. Once they were successfully rehoused, the Government stopped building them, in 1986. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there were periodic appeals from MPs and residents to build new ones. In 2001, $420 million was set aside to upgrade existing hawker centres. In 2011, the Government relented and said it would build 10 new hawker centres over 10 years. An issue then arose as to who should run the new hawker centres and how to keep hawker culture sustainable - a debate that continues today. One solution implemented was to have social enterprises manage them. Most of the 117 hawker centres are now run by the National Environment Agency (NEA).
The economics of hawker centres is complex. Hawker stall rentals for the first generation of hawkers were subsidised. This helped keep cooked food prices low, as 81 per cent of residents eat at hawker centres, foodcourts or coffee shops at least twice a week. The challenge facing hawkers and those who run the centres is that of striking a balance between the provision of affordable food and managing business costs. Should future hawkers enjoy subsidised rental? How do you attract a new generation of hawker chefs to enter a trade with long hours, hot work conditions and low margins? Will Singaporeans used to $3 noodle and rice dishes pay more for hawker fare?