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The Big Read in short: Older hawkers struggle to press on

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the impact of the tighter Covid-19 community restrictions on hawkers, especially older ones who are not digitally savvy. This is a shortened version of the full feature.

After surviving the circuit breaker last year, many hawkers — especially the older ones who are not digitally savvy — are struggling to keep their stalls open under the Phase 2 (heightened alert) community restrictions.

After surviving the circuit breaker last year, many hawkers — especially the older ones who are not digitally savvy — are struggling to keep their stalls open under the Phase 2 (heightened alert) community restrictions.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at the impact of the tighter Covid-19 community restrictions on hawkers, especially older ones who are not digitally savvy. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • After surviving the circuit breaker last year, many hawkers — especially the older ones who are not digitally savvy — are struggling to keep their stalls open under the Phase 2 (heightened alert) community restrictions
  • For some, it’s not for the want of trying. Despite their best efforts, with the help of others in some cases, they haven’t been able to figure out a way to sustain their business  
  • Experts suggest designing apps for older, illiterate hawkers and taking a more hands-on approach in guiding them through digitisation efforts
  • But other observers point out that given the hawkers’ low profit margins, getting onboard food delivery platforms may not make sense
  • Government and food delivery firms have rolled out initiatives to help the hawkers. The community has also rallied around them but all these efforts may be insufficient for some 

 

SINGAPORE — Some 40 years after weathering the ups and downs of the hawker trade, an elderly couple selling wanton noodles at Tekka Market in Little India told TODAY they are facing their toughest crisis yet after new Covid-19 curbs kicked in two weeks ago. 

By now, Mr Goh, 69, and Mrs Goh, 68, of Chin Seng Cooked Food — who declined to give their full names — felt like they had done everything they could to change their fate.

They had showed up to work at 7am daily. They had ventured into the unfamiliar world of online food deliveries by becoming listed on the WhyQ platform during the April to June circuit breaker last year. And they had simply hung on when the crowds never returned for the rest of the year.

And when things are back to square one on May 16, as the month-long Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) that bans dine-in at food and beverage (F&B) establishments and allows only takeaways, among other things, kicked in to stem a worrying rise in the number of Covid-19 clusters and unlinked cases in the community, Mrs Goh was left blaming themselves for not having done enough.

Their business has nosedived to a point where they could foresee drawing a combined salary of only S$500 for this month.

“We don’t know how to use the internet. Anything also don’t know. We don’t have Grab. Anything also don’t have,” she said, pointing to the unusually quiet scene at the iconic food centre on a Monday morning, where there were more idling hawkers than hungry customers. 

Like the Gohs, older hawkers who are neither IT-literate (some are illiterate to begin with) nor social media-savvy have found themselves to be at a greater disadvantage this time round, given that the other segments of the food and beverage industry are better prepared to exploit the various digital platforms to keep the latest disruption to their businesses to a minimum. 

In fact, many hawkers have reported even poorer business compared to last year's circuit breaker, although the current curbs are relatively more relaxed. 

As well-known food critic and consultant K F Seetoh noted: “Last year, people were desperate. The authorities were clueless on what this virus was going to do to us, where it was going to take us. The first thing people went for was food, water and toilet paper, so people went out to buy.

“This time round, after one year, people are more cool-headed as they know that there are many delivery models, they know there are (vaccine) jabs going around, so all they do is they sit back and order online.”

When that happens, the “shinier hawkers, the glossier ones” get the business, as delivery platforms will naturally promote the popular bigger ticket items — the S$40 to S$50 sets, for instance — to earn more commission. 

“Can’t blame them. It’s their business model. But in the course of doing so, they overlook these humble and quiet hawkers, young or old,” Mr Seetoh said.

The latest round of restrictions on dining-in have seen hawkers operating in the once-bustling areas in the city centre or city fringes — which are heavily dependent on the working or shopping crowds — being among the worst hit. 

In some other parts of Singapore’s heartlands, while the impact is not as bad as the Central Business District, hawkers who rely solely on footfall have also seen a dip in their business, presumably because many of their regular customers are now turning to online deliveries. 

The latest round of restrictions on dining-in have seen hawkers operating in the once-bustling areas in the city centre or city fringes — which are heavily dependent on the working or shopping crowds — being among the worst hit. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Madam Sim Chee Moey, who is in her 60s, the lady boss of Xing Ji Rou Cuo Mian, one of the minced meat noodle stalls that were previously known for their long queues at Bedok’s 85 Fengshan Food Centre, said the lines that normally form in the evenings are gone. 

Her neighbouring hawker Goh Peng Huan, 61, said his stall selling fried oyster omelette, carrot cake, bak chor mee and handmade ngoh hiang is now making a loss as business has dropped by 50 to 70 per cent, partly as the supper crowds have thinned. 

If the period of heightened alert were to extend beyond June 13, he said he would consider closing his stall for a while, like the BBQ seafood stall nearby which could not even achieve sales of S$100 in one day earlier this month.

ALTERED CONSUMER HABITS 

Pandemic-related curbs aside, the older generation of hawkers must also grapple with the changing habits of their customers, especially the younger ones, who are now getting used to having food delivered to their doorstep. 

Also, while many customers may still want to buy from their favourite hawkers, it does not make sense for them to travel out of their way for just a takeaway, given that eating at hawker centres is not allowed for now and people are encouraged to stay at home as far as possible to break the Covid-19 transmission chain. 

The growing preference for online deliveries — spurred by the pandemic — has not only hit the hawkers’ pockets, but also undermined their autonomy, which is important to hawkers who are, after all, business owners who want to be able to control and steer their business, said psychologist Praveen Nair.

Pointing out that hawkers are used to operating independently — they take matters into their own hands by working hard and making good food, so as to make more money – Mr Nair said: “Imagine how difficult things might be for someone who likes to take things into their own hands when this needs to come to an end because of the pandemic.”

“Suddenly, they are at the mercy of Grab, Foodpanda, government handouts, and other platforms that they may not know about. 

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE 

The fear of losing control aside, many hawkers also have to deal with another major challenge: Digital technology, which entails some basic competence in logic and literacy – much to the horror of those who only received some primary school education, typical of the older generation of hawkers.

There are those who are keen to adapt, such as long-time hawkers Arthur Wong, 75, and his wife Loh Mei Ling, 70. With business at only 10 per cent of what it was pre-Covid-19, the couple are now a lot more receptive to technology than before, given that the pandemic is unlikely to blow over anytime soon.

They were entertaining the thoughts of joining WhyQ and starting a Facebook page for their hawker stall, Chinatown Sun Seng Gourmet’s Corner, which sells dishes such as fried rice, hor fun and sliced fish mee hoon. Their business started as a roadside stall in Chinatown before it was moved into the Chinatown Complex in 1983.

But despite being a little more digitally savvy than other 70-year-olds, knowing how to watch shows on video streaming sites such as Netflix or browse Facebook, the couple still had their reservations.

With WhyQ, Mr Wong said he was afraid that he would not know how to use the system, and might even mess up processes if he and his wife have to manage on-demand delivery orders while taking orders from the walk-in crowd simultaneously. They don’t have a stall helper.

In the end, the semi-retired couple pushed aside those digital thoughts for now, and decided to extend their operational hours by one-and-a-half hours to 6pm to see if more people would patronise the stall.

Long-time hawkers Arthur Wong, 75, and his wife Loh Mei Ling, 70, were entertaining the thoughts of joining WhyQ and starting a Facebook page for their hawker stall, Chinatown Sun Seng Gourmet’s Corner, which sells dishes such as fried rice, hor fun and sliced fish mee hoon. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

Mr Yeo Cheng Poh, 74, and Madam Toh Bong Chee, 73, who sell S$3 char kway teow and carrot cake at their stall, Fried Kuay Teaw Mee, at Seah Im Food Centre in the Harbourfront area, had also resorted to working longer hours to make up for the shortfall in income. 

Mdm Toh said they are at their stall at 7.30am and close it after 8.30pm daily, with no rest days. 

Asked if they had thought about going on delivery platforms, Mdm Toh said that the only mobile phone they have is an “old man’s phone” — a Samgle-brand keypad phone — which they mainly use to call suppliers. 

The only mobile phone Mr Yeo Cheng Poh, 74, have is an “old man’s phone” — a Samgle-brand keypad phone — which he mainly use to call suppliers. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

BRIDGING THE DIVIDE 

As the urgency grows to bridge Singapore’s digital divide amid the ongoing pandemic, Singapore Management University sociology professor Paulin Straughan said society’s first mistake is to look at education as the “magic wand that solves everything”. 

“We give the elderly the hardware, and the information download which is often heavy. And we expect the elderly to make the link and connection between the two,” she said.

But a more hands-on approach to familiarisation, in dealing with hawkers requiring immediate help to onboard smoothly onto the platform and tweak their operations accordingly, would be a better approach.

“Have proper infrastructure to support them. Have a good help source (hotline number, for example),” Prof Straughan said.

Assoc Prof Tan Ern Ser, from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Sociology department, suggested designing apps catered for those without a basic level of literacy, pointing out that these would preferably feature no text-only icons, with highly visible symbols and few steps. It would also help if hawkers can organise their menu into different sets, A, B or C, with no complicated configurations, he said.

NUS senior lecturer Natalie Pang Lee San said it may be useful to consider community-based approaches to support elderly hawkers to digitise their businesses. 

This can be done by incentivising fellow elderly hawkers who have successfully digitised their businesses to mentor and impart working knowledge to others, she said.

However, Singapore University of Social Sciences’ economist Walter Theseira said policymakers should be careful about pushing all forms of digitalisation on business. He pointed out that some of them offer very little benefit to these hawkers at present. 

For example, he cited the push for e-payment. “Their customers all carry cash. The hawkers are used to operating with cash and transact with their suppliers with cash. Their job frankly is not made any easier on a day-to-day basis by accepting e-payments. So why should they be asked to?” he said.  

“There must be real benefits, from being able to access more customers, or reduce costs of cash management. Otherwise, this is an example of adopting a technology that offers no benefit and poses great learning cost, especially if a hawker fails to get paid.”

Mr Jonathan Lim, founder and chief executive officer of Oddle, which helps restaurants build their own online ordering systems, said that not all hawkers can benefit from being on food delivery platforms, as delivery is really a “premium service”. 

Oddle charges merchants a 10 per cent platform fee, and there would be another delivery fee component set by its logistics partners Lalamove, GrabExpress, Zeek, and Pandago, which is more like a taxi meter charge.

“For it to make business sense, the business owner has to make enough to want to deliver to you because you’d order enough, or the customer got to pay a large enough premium. But there seems to be a disconnect in the market right now,” he said. 

HELP FROM GOVT, DELIVERY FIRMS 

Amid the pandemic last year, hawkers were able to tap the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (Sirs), which handed out a total of S$9,000 over nine months. They also benefited from rental waivers and subsidies for table-cleaning and centralised dishwashing services.

On top of that, there was a one-time funding of S$500 for cooked food stallholders operating in hawker centres managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) or NEA-appointed operators to engage food delivery platforms to deliver food to their customers.

This time round, while there is no more Sirs, the Ministry of Finance announced on Friday that hawkers would be part of the group of workers who will receive an additional one-off support under the Covid-19 Recovery Grant (Temporary)

NEA will also waive rentals again while fully subsidising table-cleaning and centralised dishwashing services.

Meanwhile, Enterprise Singapore announced a food delivery booster package that will fund 5 percentage points of the commission cost charged by the three food delivery platforms — Deliveroo, Foodpanda and GrabFood from May 16 to June 15. 

Separately, Grab had announced that it will provide full commission rebates for stall owners operating in NEA-managed hawker centres during the period of heightened alert. For other food outlets, it will give a 50 per cent rebate on commissions for more GrabFood orders as compared to their current level of sales or previous month's sales.

Foodpanda is also offering zero commission on delivery orders for hawkers operating in centres managed and regulated by NEA till June 13.

Deliveroo said it continues to work closely with all restaurants and hawkers to understand their concerns and how best to support them during this period.

NEA told TODAY that last year’s funding assistance had benefited more than 1,300 hawkers, including some 500 hawkers aged 60 and above.

Compared with last year, NEA noted that new forms of online food ordering services have emerged, and some of these services are available to hawkers with no commission fees, and do not require hawkers to use digital devices to process orders. There have also been recent ground-up initiatives to publicise hawkers who may require more support and patronage.

NEA said it has worked with hawkers’ associations and other stakeholders to spread the word on the options available. 

The Ministry of Finance announced on Friday (May 28) that hawkers would be part of the group of workers who will receive an additional one-off support under the Covid-19 Recovery Grant (Temporary). Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

COMMUNITY EFFORTS

Just like during last year’s circuit breaker, Singapore’s various food-related online spaces are once again abuzz with rallying calls to help hawkers in need, be they in the form of photo posts, bulk group buys or Facebook Live shoutouts.

Many new initiatives have also popped up to consolidate lists of hawkers who are not on the delivery space to let netizens discover them. One of them is the Oldie Hawker Pickups Google Form, started by marketing consultant Melissa Koh, 40. 

Collecting over five days the details of hawker stalls that could have fallen under the radar as their owners might not be tech-savvy, she released on May 26 the user-generated list that contained more than 160 entries of hawkers who are not on any delivery platforms.

Another pair of netizens had started a similar initiative by coming up with a Google map of these spots, and Ms Koh has since appended it to the list as well, so that people can search for the hawkers by their exact locations.

“People do want options. This shows that we don’t need delivery services to increase sales,” said Ms Koh. “When ordering food from apps, you don’t really know where your food comes from anymore. We see the cheapest delivery, we just buy.” 

Another effort is a Telegram bot called @SaveTheHawkersBot, which helps match people who are physically buying food from the hawker centre with other consumers living nearby who are looking for someone to help them buy food from the same hawker centre as well.

Social media executive Jocelyn Ng, 24, also started an Instagram page, @wheretodapao, to capture the stories of the elderly-run hawker stalls. Just a week since its inception on May 21, the page already has a strong following of 28,900 accounts. It allows users to send in pictures and stories of their favourite hawkers through a Google Form.

Ms Ng said that the elderly hawkers whom she has interacted with have “kind hearts, care for their community, are very understanding and have a selfless attitude”.

“If we don’t give them our support, it might discourage them from helping us preserve their traditional way of cooking,” she said.

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh once remarked that the hawker centre “saved Singapore” as it is one place ordinary Singaporeans can go to have a good meal at an affordable price.

Speaking to TODAY, he offered a simple suggestion: Attach young IT-savvy volunteers to the older hawkers to grant them the help that they need.

Prof Koh said: “My wife and I still go to the markets and hawker centres. We patronise the older hawkers who are not active online. I urge Singaporean to join me in supporting them through this difficult period.” 

Mr Seetoh added: “If you feel that this hawker food culture of ours deserves longevity so that your children, your grandchildren, who won’t be millionaires down the road, can still afford to eat cheap and affordable hawker food, then start doing something now.”   

Related topics

hawker digitisation market food delivery hawker centres coffee shops

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