Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Singapore based personal blog of true stories by johorkaki@gmail about best food, people & places around the world

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Is Singapore Hawker Food Too Cheap?

Is Singapore Hawker Food Too Cheap?
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Bumped into the famous Dr. Watch while having brunch at Havelock Road Hawker Centre in Singapore. He is one of the watch experts Singapore courts tap on when they need a professional assessment on the authenticity of ultra luxury watches. He said that it is very difficult for a layman to discern between a $250,000 watch and a $500 clone.

Is Singapore Hawker Food Too Cheap?

Chewing on a tenderly springy hand made fish ball, I wondered if the situation is similar between artisanal hawker food and their clones.

In recent years, more and more Singapore luminaries such as Professor Tommy Koh have added their voices to the opinion that Singapore hawker centre food is too cheap and that that is the cause of the decline of Singapore hawker culture.

Is Singapore Hawker Food Too Cheap?

One school of thought posits that there is a kind of cultural snobbery among Singaporeans who think nothing about paying $25 for a serving of ramen but balk at paying $15 for bak chor mee. Bak chor mee goes from $3 to $8 today depending on serving size and location (of the hawker centre).

Is Singapore Hawker Food Too Cheap?

Other experts expressed that Singapore hawkers are unfairly shouldering the social burden of keeping cooked food affordable for the masses (which is the raison d'être of hawker centres at its inception in the 1960s).

“The price of a plate of chicken rice or wanton mee is S$4 in Singapore, in Malaysia it is easily 5 ringgit or 6.5 ringgit in Kuala Lumpur” said Wong Chiang Yin, who served on a public consultation panel for Singapore hawker centres.

Is Singapore Hawker Food Too Cheap?

If you go to a Singapore hawker centre today, you will find two types of food - artisanal hawker food and clone hawker food with mass produced, factory made bulk ingredients. The balance between artisanal hawker food and clone hawker food has been tipping in the clones' favour steadily for years.

Examples of hawker dish ingredients which are often factory produced include all forms of noodles, fish balls, pork balls, chee cheong fun (rice rolls), pre-mixed sauces, pre-mixed spices, factory fried shallots, synthetic flavourings etc. 


My observation is that it is the availability prevalence of clone hawker dishes that is depressing the price of artisanal hawker food in hawker centres.

The prices of food at Singapore hawker centres are benchmarked at the level of clone hawker dishes (the floor price, so to speak). The profit margin is attractive for clone hawker food vendors but less profitable for artisanal hawkers as hand made food is hard to scale i.e. mass produce.

The thing about staple sustenance food (which is what hawker centre food is about) is, given a choice of a $8 artisanal dish and its $3 clone, many people will just take the $3 option because for most of us it suffices that it fills the stomach, is safe to eat and affordable.

Right now, the problem is many people are not willing to pay more for lovingly hand made artisanal food with better ingredients - that is a nice-to-have luxury, the important thing is to fill the stomach within budget.

Is Singapore Hawker Food Too Cheap?

My concern is the louder and more frequent calls to rise the price of hawker food may lead to raising the price of hawker centre food across the board - clones and artisanal in one fell swoop.

Raising the price of clones (mass produced, factory made food served at hawker centre) deprives many people of affordable food sustenance. It is also not the solution to our declining hawker culture but may instead hasten the demise of artisanal hawker food by making selling clone hawker dishes more lucrative.

To answer the question, is Singapore hawker food too cheap?

For artisanal hawker food, it is indeed too cheap.

For clone hawker food, it is definitely not cheap.

We need to find a way to pay our artisanal hawkers more to preserve our heritage hawker food (and it is also what they deserve). But no, paying more for clones, mass produced, factory made bulk food sold at hawker centres is not the way.

What others say about price of Singapore hawker food 👉

Cultural snobbery 👈 click
Culinary Prejudice 👈 click
Social burden 👈 click
Mental block 👈 click
Hawker food must be cheap mindset 👈 click
Hawkers underpaid 👈 click
Hawkers underpaid 👈 click
Hawkers and related workers underpaid 👈 click
Social enterprise model 👈 click


What do you think?

11 comments:

  1. I noticed that some of the so-called artisanal hawkers have been quietly raising their prices recently. For e.g. Ah Hoe Meepok (the Blk 501 one)and Macpherson Bak Chor Mee. Will be interesting to study whether this is the beginning of a trend, and how the higher prices have impacted their business.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Time to revisit some of my favourite bak chor mee hawkers :-D

      Delete
  2. When listening to people talk about the price of hawker food, the most important question to ask is, what is their agenda and from what direction are they asking that question.

    Hawker food is cheap because of subsidized rents, especially to first generation hawkers. It creates a market distortion that runs through the entire F&B industry. From coffeeshops, food courts, fast food and casual dining restaurants.

    Who wants hawker food prices to rise the most? Landlords do, because their rent to the above F&B establishments can go up if the F&B operator can make more money. Simple economics.

    The question then remains, should there be market distorting subsidies to cooked food?

    That is a political question as much as an economic one. Because access to affordable food is a political issue. Who needs cheap hawker food the most? Low income workers. The ones working in supermarkets, in the bargain $2 shops, the hairdresser that charges $4, etc.

    Raising food prices cannot be looked at without looking at raising the income for a large segment of the population, relieving the burden on hawkers will place the burden on these other low income workers.

    There is nothing stopping the office manager from eating at the hawker for the same price as the factory worker, unless differentiated pricing is implemented. Hawkers are too busy to do that differentiation, so the other alternative is food credit or coupons. Food stamps for the low income, or maybe a CHAS card for food. Which is politically and socially hard to swallow, not to mention that it would be public tax payer's money. If an increase in tax revenue is required to support this, it might end up that the low income worker is being taxed to feed the low income worker.

    Wealthier hawkers do not really boost the economy, their population is too small for that. A strong economy that boosts everyone's income will bring the hawker's incomes up at the same time.

    Not charging rent to the hawkers will boost their incomes. There are a few component to the cost to a hawker: Labour, Rent, Utilities, Materials.

    For Labour and Materials, hawkers are competing for these with the rest of the F&B market.

    Coffeeshops sell similar food to hawker centres, and they charge a higher rent than hawker centres. The price of food at coffee shops cannot go any lower, so if hawker centre rents go lower, their selling price can maintain and their income will increase.

    But that is an even greater distortion to the market. How much of the population gains from low priced food being available? How much of the population gains from low priced food being not available? The question really is, should there be subsized cooked food in Singapore?
    If the answer is yes, then they should be subsized more, so that the hawkers can earn a better living.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, rising hawker centre food prices across the board simply shifts the cost to the lowest income groups which depend on low price hawker food for sustenance.

      Delete
  3. Hawker Centre Bak Chor Mee $3.50-$4
    Coffee Shop Bak Chor Mee $4.50-$5
    Food Court Bak Chor Mee $5.50-$6
    MBS Food Court Bak Chor Mee $7-$10

    Does a hawker make $2 more per Bak Chor Mee if he opens in Food Court? We all know that they do not, that $2 more goes to the operator and landlord, otherwise all the famous hawkers would be in food courts.

    The hawker centre is not the only party depressing the income of the hawkers.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Michael Sng - You sure know your Bak Chor Mee :-)

    ReplyDelete
  5. There is no such thing as hawker culture.

    There's just hawkers and the food they make.

    There's no 'need to find a way to pay hawkers more.' Hawkers are free to raise their prices any time .

    It's not a matter of cultural snobbery. It's a matter of value.

    If one pays $20 for a bowl of ramen, one expects service, air-conditioning, nice bowls and cutlery, music and atmosphere.

    One does not pay $20 to do self service and sweat in a hawker centre.

    I would point out that boon tong kee charges $10 or $20 for chicken rice. And Singaporean pay for it .So it's not about snobbery, it's about value for money and it's about marketing.

    If the artisanal hawkers don't move with the times, nobody will find any reason to pay them more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If we don't pay artisanal hawkers in hawker centres more, they will simply die out - replaced by clone hawker food vendors.

      Fishball Story's Douglas Ng sold his hand made fishball noodles at $3 when he opened in Golden Mile Food Centre in 2013. When he raised his price by 50 cents, his business dropped by 30%. Most people when given a choice, will go for the cheapest option. This is understandable as for most people, hawker food is simply sustenance. Most people are not foodies.

      Delete
  6. What are the factors that are giving pressure to the hawkers? Rent and the consumer's attitude.

    Compared to Malaysia etc., SG hawker food is actually very cheap relative to income. Taking quality aside.

    So, I think it is right fot hawkers to charge more as a whole and those people who are unwilling to pay can just cook themselves

    ReplyDelete
  7. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesn't disappoint me as much as this particular one.

    After all, Yes, it was my choice to read through, but I
    truly believed you'd have something helpful to talk about. All I hear is a bunch
    of moaning about something you could possibly fix if you were not too busy seeking attention.

    ReplyDelete
  8. A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. There's no doubt that that
    you ought to write more on this subject, it might not be
    a taboo matter but usually folks don't talk about these subjects.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

    ReplyDelete

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