Ask any Singaporean living overseas what he misses most about Singapore, and there’s a 90% chance he’ll say hawker food. Japanese sushi and American burgers are nice and all, but nothing beats a steaming bowl of laksa.
So the slow but sure death of hawker culture is something everyone is mourning. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen many of our favourite dishes grow blander in the hands of outsourced labour and cookie-cutter air conditioned food courts.
It seems like the death knell for Singaporean hawker trade will inevitably sound a few decades from now, when the current crop of hawkers retire and there are no young people to take their place. Are we doomed to having to go to Malaysia to get our hawker fix, or can anything be done to encourage motivated young hawkers to enter the industry?
Lower the rent
There’s a very simple reason nobody wants to be a hawker in Singapore—money is hard to make. The first generation of hawkers were able to make ends meet while still charging low prices because they were offered subsidies on their rent by the government.
Young hawkers entering the market aren’t entitled to these subsidies. It is obvious they won’t be able to compete with the hawkers who do receive subsidies and are thus able to charge lower prices for their food. Imagine a young chicken rice seller who is forced to charge $5 for a plate of chicken rice, while three stalls down a hawker enjoying subsidised rent can afford to charge $3.
The government has maintained that rent actually makes up only a small fraction of hawkers’ operating costs. 87.3% of hawkers in Singapore pay less than $1,500 in rent, while 11.8% pay between $1,500 and $3,000. Still, this is nothing compared to the subsidised rent of older hawkers, who pay between $160 to $320.
While the average rent paid by new hawkers is $1,260, it should also be noted that renting a stall in an air conditioned food court costs much more.
Introduce some safety nets for hawkers
As there are no unemployment benefits in Singapore, hawkers who fall ill or are unable to work get nothing. Add to this to the fact that being a hawker is extremely physically demanding work, and it’s not hard to see why many Singaporeans would not consider this career path.
With financial security being a huge concern in Singapore, many people are turned off by the fact that if they fall sick, they’ll be losing money. Sure, this goes for anyone who’s self-employed. But due to the relatively low profit margins of the average hawker in Singapore, losing money is an even more daunting prospect.
Many hawkers don’t make enough money to simply shut down the stall for two weeks and go on holiday. That means working all year round while people your age get to enjoy overseas holidays. Add to that the prospect of working at night and on public holidays, and the lifestyle trade-offs are just too high.
In order to incentivise young hawkers, the government could offer them monetary benefits that can raise their level of financial security, such as medical subsidies or a certain number of days for which they can claim unemployment pay.
The government has always been afraid of people taking advantage of welfare measures, but it’s safe to say that few would become hawkers in order to game the system.
Offer more avenues for training
Unless you have a parent who’s a hawker, it’s not going to be easy to pick up the know-how needed to run a successful hawker stall. While the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme was started in 2014 by the WDA, only 5 of the 46 who underwent training were still in the hawker industry after 3 years. It is unclear whether the low retention rate was due to the nature of the business, or the programme being inadequate.
What’s more, Singaporeans do not have much of a culture of cooking at home, with 65% in a 2014 survey saying their cooking skills were disastrous or limited, which further lowers the pool of would-be hawkers.
This article about a pair of Gen Y hawkers mentions that they went all the way to Kuala Lumpur for a six-month apprenticeship programme. It’s possible they felt that the few available courses in Singapore wouldn’t suit their needs.
The government has suggested that they might expand existing hawker training programmes. Let’s hope this encourages more newbies to take up the trade. Our stomachs are depending on it.
What can be done to encourage young people to become hawkers? Tell us in the comments!