“To keep Singapore’s hawker culture strong, a committee has been set up to help hawkers and hawker centres evolve” (Serving Up Help For Hawkers And Better Hawker Centres, Samantha Boh).
A 14-member committee has been set up “to keep Singapore’s hawker culture strong [and] to help hawkers and hawker centres evolve” (ST, Apr. 13), yet it is less clear whether the composition of the committee is adequately representative of the over 14,000 licensed hawkers operating in 109 Singaporean hawker centres, if the committee is even cognisant of the needs of hawkers – after all it can be argued that without a sustained hawker trade, the other three objectives of improving hawker centre productivity, enhancing the centre as a social space, and promoting graciousness would not even matter – especially in the long run, as well as the extent to which costs feature in these hawker challenges.
While its members should reach out to hawkers in its review process, the committee itself is made up of bureaucrats or politicians, representatives from the private sector, and a food blogger, and as such the exclusion of actual hawkers or even those who work in the hawker centres is glaring. Given that the median age of the 6,000 cooked food hawkers, it would have made sense to include those from different age groups and areas.
And even if hawkers are excluded from the committee, some form of needs assessment should be carried out to pinpoint challenges faced on the ground. The current recommendations such as “structured training programmes for new entrants”, “centralised dish-washing systems”, or “buying and preparation of cooking ingredients in bulk” may appear constructive on paper, but are unlikely to go according to plan. The cooking of ingredients in bulk, for instance, would be resisted by those with family recipes or special cooking techniques. Soliciting and aggregating the perspectives of hawkers across locality and demographics should therefore be central to the review conducted by the National Environment Agency.
Above all, a discourse over costs seems necessary: first, in terms of how cooked food hawkers manage overheads, manpower, and ingredient expenses; second, how costs – and along this tangent, poor compensation or remuneration – may deter young Singaporeans from entering the industry; and third, how hawkers might have struggled in recent years. Much has also been made of the unfair disparity between hawker centres and other dining establishments, in which fusses are often kicked up with price increases in the former but not when the latter does the same, and facilitation of such conversations will be helpful too.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.