A campaign to preserve Singapore's much-loved hawker heritage has taken an important step forward.
After six months, the first batch of 13 trainee hawkers has graduated from a pilot scheme designed to ensure authentic traditional fare stays on the menu.
The graduates will now run "incubation" stalls with a year-long lease, stay with trainers at their stalls or run their own businesses.
The graduates of the Hawker Master Trainer pilot programme showed off their skills at a tasting session yesterday by cooking for panellists of the CEO Hawkers' Guide published by The Business Times.
The programme, which started in October last year, has recruited "master" hawkers such as Mr Thian Boon Hua of Boon Tong Kee chicken rice fame and Mr Sulaiman Abu of D'Authentic Nasi Lemak to impart their skills.
Another 17 people are in training in the scheme, which aims to teach 50 fledgling hawker stall operators by November.
It is a collaboration between the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA), National Environment Agency (NEA), property firm Knight Frank and The Business Times.
With Singapore's hawkers ageing and few younger ones keen to take their place, the Hawker Master Trainer programme was started with the aim of training up the next generation of hawkers.
It aims to arm "hawkerpreneurs" with Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications in food and beverage, and equip them to work in the 10 hawker centres to be built here in the next three years.
Once they finish their training, one option for graduates is to rent a subsidised incubation stall from the NEA - and five of the new graduates will do so.
Mr Peter Mok banded together with three others to run an Amoy Street stall selling wonton mee and other noodle dishes.
Mr Mok, 54, a former quality assurance inspector, said it was faster to secure a guaranteed incubator stall than bid for an ordinary stall and wait for the results. "Time is not a luxury we can afford," he said.
Another Amoy Street stall by Mr Eng Joo Liang, 49, will sell char kway teow. The two stalls will open next month after renovations.
Five graduates opted to stay on at the trainers' stalls, while three others are bidding on the open market for stalls of their own.
Mr Cedric Ng, 45, chose to stay with Boon Tong Kee for an extra three-month part-time stint. "If you stay, you can learn even more," he said.
The graphic designer has no immediate plans to continue in the hawker business beyond his stint which ends next month, but has not ruled out opening a chicken rice stall here or overseas in future.
Others, such as Ms Noor Marina Salleh, 37, had some prior industry experience. Ms Marina, who trained with D'Authentic Nasi Lemak, ran a stall at Temasek Polytechnic and is bidding to run a hawker stall with a three-year lease in Sims Place.
She said the incubator stalls' year-long lease would not be long enough to recoup her investments in equipment and signage. "It takes money to start up a stall, and if you have to find another place after a year, that also takes money," she said.
High rents were also a concern among the trainees, particularly as news broke on Sunday of another eatery, Tiong Bahru's Hong Kong Jin Tian outlet, moving after a 50 per cent rent hike.
The WDA also announced yesterday that five more stalls have joined the list of master trainers: Casuarina Curry, Fatty Cheong Roasted Meat, Ha Ha Big Prawn Noodle, Hwa Xing Bak Kut Teh and Nam Kee Teochew Fish Porridge.