Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021
Madam Deputy Speaker sir, the deep reservoir of affection and respect that Singaporeans feel for our hawkers has been clearly demonstrated time and time again. In 2018, there was an outpouring of public concern over news of steep charges faced by hawkers in social enterprise hawker centres or SEHCs. In 2020 and 2021, there has huge public sympathy and concern for our hawkers due to dining-in restrictions; and concern over the news that some stalls had their rents raised.
And this affection that Singaporeans have for our hawkers recognises a deep reality. Most hawkers see what they do as a calling – a calling to provide good quality, cooked food that is affordable and which deliciously combines the very best elements of Singaporean heritage and innovation.
Hawkers work hard. Really hard. For those who want to catch the breakfast crowd, they may need to come to work at 3am. They spend hours chopping, slicing, parsing, peeling, boiling and marinating food ingredients before any customer shows up. And they may return home at 4pm. And they work often in non-air-conditioned environments, standing up much of the time. No wonder that attracting new entrants into the industry is an uphill climb.
I recall one story, told to me by a hawker industry veteran in preparing this Adjournment Motion. When he asked an elderly hawker why he did not raise his prices when selling to delivery apps so as to offset the app commission, he said “nar li, ker yi.” Meaning, I simply cannot bring myself to do that. Most hawkers feel a deep bond with their customers. And we to them.
Our hawker culture is a heritage stretching back to the mid-1800s when street cooked food first emerged; and to 1923 when the first hawker centre, at People’s Park Centre, was built, to widespread acclaim. And a milestone in that history was 16th December 2020, when Singapore’s hawker culture was awarded a place in UNESCO’s representative list for humanity’s intangible cultural heritage.
Workers’ Party members of this House, and members from the PAP, have often spoken about hawker issues. In researching this motion, I saw a speech made by a then young and new MP, Mr Low Thia Khiang, in 1995, asking MTI whether it foresaw the need to study the impact on hawker costs and food prices after the sale of coffee shops and market stalls in Housing and Development Board estates.1
In this motion, I hope to offer ideas to enhance this precious hawker industry. My speech will have three sections, three Ps, centred on the need to Protect, Professionalise and Promote the hawker industry – adapted from one of the mottos once used for the World Street Food Congress.
All of these ideas are centred on one simple assumption – that the hawker industry should not be regulated in the same way as other industries. As a nationally important industry and one that embodies so much of our precious national heritage, the government and all stake-holders bear a special responsibility to go the extra mile to ensure a thriving hawker industry that retains incumbents and attracts newcomers, that innovates and that continues to provide affordable food.
Above all, we have a responsibility to listen to the practitioners of the hawker craft in formulating and refining public policies.
First of all, to retain incumbents and attract newcomers, we have to create an eco-system that allows our hawkers to make a decent living. And the policy eco-system has to instil confidence among hawkers that there is a longer-term
commitment from the government to ensuring stable pro-hawker policies. Policies that seem to go against this commitment, like raising rents even if only for a small number of stalls during a pandemic, have an outsized demonstration effect and do nothing to instil confidence.
The first subject I would like to address is rents. Of the 20,000 or so hawker stalls in Singapore, around 6,000 are in NEA hawker centres or NEA HCs, several hundred are in SEHCs and the rest are in privately run coffee shops and food courts.
In its 2020 Manifesto, the Workers’ Party called on all hawker centres to eventually be brought under NEA control, as that would provide the necessary long-term assurance to hawkers that there are governmental levers of control over rents, not only today but also tomorrow; as social enterprises are not governmental entities and hence not accountable to the public in the same way that the government, in theory in any case, is. Be that as it may, I will discuss what we can do in policy terms for both NEA HCs, SEHCs and privately run HCs together.
Rents are currently negotiated in SEHCs, with an average rental per stall of around
$2,000 per month, as revealed in the reply to a PQ by my Parliamentary colleague Mr Muhamad Faisal Manap.2 For NEA hawker centres, non-subsidised rents range from
$640 to $3,900. Currently, apart from a small number of mostly older stalls in NEA HCs who are on subsidised rents, NEA hawkers tender for the rent for an initial period
and then the rent is adjusted up or down depending on a professional valuation that considers footfall, location and market conditions.
In setting rents in the public hawker centres, I would like to argue for two principles.
Firstly, we should err on the side of being too low rather than being too high. For government-controlled properties, we should never fear that some hawkers may “make too much money”. Top performers making a very decent living is a factor that attracts people into a profession. And it is hard enough – yet vitally important – to attract young Singaporeans into the hawker trade. And in any case, the top hawkers would have put in hard work and talent to get to where they are. This is not an industry where luck plays an outsize role.
Secondly, I want to address the argument that rents are a relatively small component of total costs. That is true, but the government should use whatever levers of control it has to improve the economic situation of our hawkers – and the levers are stronger for rents. Even a small difference is still a difference.
Next and more specifically, we should move away from the principle of tendering for stalls in NEA HCs. While it is said that tendering can result in extremely low rents, it does create uncertainty and can be a barrier to entry. Very low rents that may occasionally emerge from tendering also subject the hawker to a shock when the rents get raised based on the formula explained above. And if the tendering leads to high rents – well, that favours entrants into the industry with cash rather than those with great culinary skills who have less cash.
I would like to argue for rents being recalibrated and set at lower levels than currently for NEA and SEHCs – namely at levels close to the lowest end of what we see now at NEA HCs and SE HCs, and with reasonable variations based on location, footfall and food type; with the government using its control over SEHC leases to bring SEHC rents down over time.
Economic theory suggests that lowering prices below a so-called market clearing level tends to induce excess demand – meaning there would be too many hawkers bidding for the same stall. I would argue here that the solution need not be tendering, which favours those with more cash. Nor does it have to be random balloting, the mechanism used to allocate BTO flats and some types of subsidised hawker stalls.
Rather, given the national significance of the hawker industry, allocation of stalls where there are too many bidders can be decided by tasting committees. Such committees can bring together hawker industry veterans, enthusiasts, food critics and ordinary citizens to do blind taste tests, to decide who has the best culinary skills. The independence of these tasting committees could be assured by being organised under the aegis of a Hawker Academy, a subject to which I will turn to later.
Hawkers in private food courts and coffee shops
Next, I want to address the plight of hawkers who operate outside of the NEA HCs and SEHCs, in privately run food courts and coffee shops. In my Serangoon ward of Aljunied GRC, there are many hawkers in such coffee shops many of whom are truly excellent, to the delight of constituents, and their MP.
Hawkers in such private facilities make up the bulk of hawkers. Yet there is a perception that they do not benefit to the same extent as hawkers in NEA HCs and SEHCs from government schemes, such as NEA rental waivers. Moreover, the government has far less influence over the rents they charge.
I hope the government can study the plight of these so-called private hawkers in more details, understanding their rents, margins and overall economic situation, and devise tools to nudge private operators towards cheaper rents for their tenants.
Covid Schemes, JSS for hawkers
Next, ground feedback suggests that hawkers find the latest Covid schemes, such as CRG and CRG-T, confusing and not as effective as the earlier schemes such as SIRS. This should be looked into.
Specifically, I would also like to ask if the government would provide JSS to hawkers.
Hawkers are directly affected by dining-in restrictions. Most hawkers are
micro-businesses surviving on thin profits and JSS support would mean a lot to them. Not all use and make money from delivery apps, one reason being the reluctance of some hawkers to raise prices to cover the app commissions, as I alluded to earlier.
Apps are not a panacea for the hawker industry amidst Covid. Also, some stalls find that they have a less compelling value proposition on apps – like drinks and desert stalls, who depend more on dining-in. Hence, there is a case for JSS for hawkers to cover periods of dining-in restrictions.
SEHC low-cost food
Next, many SEHCs ensure that several stalls provide low-cost food. Anecdotally, it would appear that some of these low-priced food stalls struggle with the customer perception that the food is not that attractive.
Rather than requiring some stalls to keep prices low, which may result in lower quality, can we not consider instead providing discount cards to low-income Singaporeans – those living in rental flats, those on Com-care, Public Assistance and other similar schemes – so that they can obtain discounts at SEHC stalls instead? I believe there is such a scheme now in place, which is a special grant card for those on
Public Assistance only, which can be used at certain hawker stalls, but the reach appears to be very limited.
This tool can be expanded and made into a general policy tool to keep hawker food affordable to those on lower incomes. Such discount cards may be a way in which hawker food can be priced at a level which is fair and economically sustainable for hawkers, while still keeping hawker food affordable to the poor.
Permanent Hawker Ambassadors
I would like to move onto the second part of my speech, on professionalizing the hawker industry. In framing the matter this way, I do not mean to suggest that hawkers today are not professionals. Nor are they or should they be professional employees. In truth, they are entrepreneurs. So by professionalizing, I mean raising the status and standing of the hawker vocation, which also hinges on maintaining and raising business and culinary effectiveness.
My first suggestion here would be to create a permanent pool of Hawker Ambassadors. Right now, Digital Ambassadors under IMDA’s Singapore Digital Office are deployed to hawker centres and they focus on getting hawkers to get onto digital apps and e-payments. Anecdotal feedback suggests that the engagement of DAs with hawkers currently is not always very deep and is sometimes hindered by language barriers.
My suggestion here is to deploy a staff of permanent Hawker Ambassadors under NEA or perhaps MCCY (given the heritage angle), to be deployed to all hawker centres, be they NEA HCs, SEHCs or private HCs. The staffing ratio can be determined and it could be that some Ambassadors cover multiple HCs, food courts and coffee shop. The goal of the Ambassadors would be three-fold – first, to support hawkers in navigating the evolving digital business eco-system; second, to support them in navigating the plethora of government schemes; and third, to help hawkers market themselves online and offline. Help should be focused on those hawkers who need it the most.
On the digital front, Ambassadors can work with older and less tech-savvy hawkers to help them adopt innovations such as voice-activated systems to fulfil digital orders; and to consider getting onto apps that do not charge commissions.
Hawkers I spoke to have shared that there are too many distinct government schemes. This is confusing, especially to hawkers who are less literate in the English language. Ambassadors could help them identify and apply for relevant schemes.
Ambassadors should also help our hawkers tell their stories and weave narratives about their history online and via events and promotions, to make their products more appealing to customers – as some larger and more organised local eateries do. They could also help hawkers to connect with shared service providers who offer services such as food ingredient preparation.
One major obstacle is the mistrust that many especially older hawkers have towards outsiders coming along and telling them what to do. Permanent Ambassadors who can speak vernacular languages and dialects would fill this gap by building relationships with hawkers and winning their trust.
The cost of employing such Ambassadors would not be huge, in the context of the national significance of the hawker industry. Ambassador jobs could also be outsourced by the government to NGOs, social enterprises or community groups with an interest in the well-being of hawkers, of which there are a number now, such as, for example, Hawkers United and Hawker Cart. Over time, as a more digitally savvy generation of hawkers takes over, permanent Ambassadors could be phased out if there is no need for them.
Role of CCS in monitoring competition in the Delivery App industry
I would also like to call for the Competition and Consumer Commission to take pains to act as a good watchdog over the delivery app industry, to ensure fair competition between the big app companies and smaller ones that charge low or no commissions.
My second suggestion here, sir, is the creation of a national Hawker Academy, that could be linked to an existing think tank or university for infrastructural synergies. Right now, there is a hawker course run at Temasek Polytechnic and a course at ITE. These could be consolidated under a single Hawker Academy, which could become a focal point for the hawker vocation.
An independent Hawker Academy could be a one-stop shop for training of various kinds – culinary and business. It could be a think tank that supports research into hawker-related policies and issues. It could support the efforts of hawkers to innovate and create new dishes or business models. It could also, being seen to be independent, be tasked to convene and supervise the tasting committees to allocate stalls when there are excess bidders.
Such an academy could even aspire to play a leading role in organizing events and research for the global Street Food industry, which could yield soft power and economic benefits to Singapore.
Lastly, sir, I’ll move to third section of my speech – on the need to Promote. We should do more to support and nurture the best-performing and most innovative hawkers to go global.
Some hawkers are more successful and ambitious, operating multiple stalls across the island. It would be a huge boost for our hawker culture, and for Singapore’s soft power, if these hawkers could set up successful eateries abroad. This would raise awareness of and esteem for Singaporean culture abroad, which can only be a good thing. Also, some of these more ambitious hawkers could obtain economic benefits from overseas operations, resulting in multiplier benefits back to the Singapore economy.
Why isn’t Singapore food as widely enjoyed around the world as say Japanese or Thai food? Not for any reasons to do with quality, I am sure. In fact, I understand that the late global celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain wanted to bring some Singaporean hawkers to New York for a global event on street food and I am told that he felt that the Singaporean hawkers were among the best practitioners of street food in the world.
There could be other underlying issues, like the supply chain for local ingredients that are hard to obtain abroad. I suggest that economic agencies like ESG make it a priority to identify the more promising organised hawkers and support their move abroad aggressively, helping them to troubleshoot whatever impediments exist.
With the proper support system, and with the support of the over 200,000 Singaporeans living abroad, I don’t see why we can’t have Prata in Paris, Lontong in London, Bak Kut Teh in Belgrade or Rojak in Rio De Janeiro.
Saving heritage recipes and “endangered dishes”
Sir, my next suggestion would be for the government to make an effort to document traditional recipes that are held in the memory of older Singaporeans. This may come under the purview of NHB and MCCY.
There are dishes that have been created and enjoyed in Singapore, that are a part of our Singaporean heritage, but are in danger of being forgotten. NHB could work on
creating oral histories that document and “save” the recipes for these “endangered dishes”; and make such recipes publicly available, like open-sourced software – to be used and enjoyed by chefs at home or, who knows, maybe taken up by a hawker one day.
This is currently being done to some extent under the Singapore Memories project (SMP) and other NHB initiatives but this can be scaled up and more of the recipes thus discovered should be made publicly available, with the consent of the person providing it of course.
Lastly, sir, I would like to propose that we designate the 16th December, the day we obtained UNESCO recognition for our unique, world-class hawker culture, as Singapore’s Hawker’s Day.
All of us could make the effort to remind one another on this day to partake of hawker food, especially with younger family members and friends, to help keep this love of hawker culture alive.
In conclusion Mr Deputy Speaker sir – our hawker food is a national institution that is much loved by all Singaporeans. It arose organically in the 1800s as
micro-entrepreneurs saw a market need and filled it, as entrepreneurs should. It is a deep part of Singapore’s heritage – and now the world’s as well.
In moving this motion, it is not my intention to say that we have not made progress over the decades in nurturing this industry. It is to point out gaps and offer suggestions for how we can do right by this nationally important industry – and the hawkers whom we all care about, who work so hard to bring us this incredible, delicious food at affordable prices day after day.