Friday, 21 August 2015

Singapore Hawker Centres and Culture - Hard Truths about the Future? JK1222


Disclaimer: Before you read any further, please note that I am just a casual observer, a Singaporean man in the street. I have never worked in the food and beverage industry. I have no affiliation with any corporation or government agency. But, I care passionately about our food heritage. I do write a food blog and in the process interact daily with hawkers, foodies, restaurateurs, and others who know a lot than me about F & B. Bearing in mind my limitations, here are some of my uninformed thoughts on the future of Singapore street food and the hawker scene.

A dispassionate look at the interests of the key stakeholders may shed some light on the discussion. The key stakeholders are the government, hawkers, food corporations and the public.

The Government


One of the government's most important responsibilities is to ensure that the people are fed.

To a government, as long as the general public has access to affordable and safe food, their duty is done. Hence, to a government, it is more about 食 (basic food) and less about 美食 artisanal food. Heritage and nostalgia come into play only after the priorities of access, affordability and safety for everyone are met.

In today's context, reasons of heritage and nostalgia are thus unlikely to be sufficient to convince the government to grant major support like rent subsidies.


The Public - Eat to Live or Live to Eat?

I noticed that two types of food stalls have long lines - one type is average tasting food at affordable prices, and the other is outstandingly delicious food. 

My observation is most of the general public are satisfied when their basic needs of affordable and safe food conveniently available are met. There is another group of public where outstanding tastes, flavours, heritage and nostalgia are important. These are the people who are willing to travel long distances, and pay a bit more for better food. This is a smaller "live to eat" group compared to the majority "eat to live" public who see food as a basic need.


Hawkers - Pioneer or New Gen?

To hawkers, their aim is to earn a fair income for a fair day's work. But, that is hard for new entrants - a low ceiling price is a main factor. 

During the inception of hawker centres, the government had housed itinerant street hawkers into these centres at subsidised rent (e.g. SGD160 per month). These pioneer hawkers could therefore serve their food at affordable prices and still make a decent living. (The best hawkers even prospered and became celebrities in their own right.) The public has also been conditioned to expect delicious food at rent subsidised prices at hawker centres.

The existence of pioneer hawkers with subsidised rental who can thus set a lower price for their food has led to a low price ceiling. New entrants (New Gen hawkers) do not enjoy the same subsidised rent as the pioneer hawkers. With higher cost of rent, raw materials, cleaning services, utilities and labour coupled with a low price ceiling, it is very difficult for a new entrant to make a decent profit. This is especially so, if the new hawker wishes to use old school recipes, and labour and time intensive methods to prepare their food.

The Corporations

To F & B corporations, it's about earning a fair profit for their investment. This is mainly achieved by economies of scale with mass production and mechanisation at central kitchens and/or factories. Technology and large scale production help to keep the price of each serving low - able to match the price point of pioneer hawkers and lower than most new "old school" New Gen hawkers. But, the generic food is not comparable in taste to artisanal foods which our pioneer or New Gen hawkers serve. It does however meet the needs of the "eat to live" public, which I suspect is most Singaporeans.

Trends - The Hard Truths?

Two streams of hawker food are emerging.

In the future, for their daily meals, most of the public will be fed with affordable and safe food served by entities which are able to capitalise on economies of scale. These include corporations and also hawkers who serve generic factory supplied food. This type of generic food is acceptable to most of the general "eat to live" public.

Then, there is the "live to eat" public which is the main clientele of artisanal hawkers. Hawkers who serve food using old recipes, fresh ingredients and old school, manual methods of food preparation will have to charge a higher price than generic food in order to make a decent living. This will cater to the section of the public which prefer and are willing to pay more for this artisanal food. But, this group of "live to eat" people will be relatively small. They (foodies) are also more discerning and demanding, so this market segment will be very competitive.

Many Singaporeans like myself are passionate about our hawker food. I welcome your comments and hope to have an enlightening discussion :-D Please be gentle with Tony, he is just a blogger :-D

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  1. Good analysis and likely future of hawkers in Singapore.

    1. Thank you. Give them our fullest support :-D

  2. Well written, totally agree with you. I belong to the 2nd group: live to eat. I strongly support local hawkers. Jia you !!!!

    1. Me too. Live to eat :-D Let's do our little bit to help our food heritage thrive and support all with the same goal especially our New Gen hawkers.

  3. This is an interesting observation. Sometimes, when the food snobs get bored, basic hawker food is actually really tasty. They just won't admit to that!

    1. yeah when I am not on a deliberate food hunt, have to admit that most times I feel bliss with any random bak chor mee.

  4. However there is this worrying trend of mediocre hawker emerging, serving averaging food.


I share hoping that everyone will have a good time but your experience may differ from mine. I love to know how you enjoyed yourself or if you didn't.

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