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If we want to keep hawker culture alive, put our money where our mouths are

Amid the recent debate over hawker centres run by social enterprises, it is clear that hawkers can be treated poorly by their operators. What is not so obvious is that we, the consumers, are also partly responsible for the plight of hawkers squeezed by rising costs.

The author, seen here on the right during a recent visit to Jurong West Hawker Centre, says that Singaporeans want our hawker food cheap and good, but have no qualms about paying a premium for cafe food and Starbucks drinks.

The author, seen here on the right during a recent visit to Jurong West Hawker Centre, says that Singaporeans want our hawker food cheap and good, but have no qualms about paying a premium for cafe food and Starbucks drinks.

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Stepping into Jurong West Hawker Centre during lunchtime on a recent weekday, I felt like I was entering a ghost town.

More than half of the tables were unoccupied. Hawkers lounged inside their respective stalls. No queues were forming. Even worse, the hawkers whom I talked to said this had been the norm for several months.

I found it hard to fathom.

Hawker centres are usually packed during peak periods for good reason. They are at the heart of our food culture — where else can you grab a full meal (with a drink to boot) for under S$5, outside of fast food chains?

Amid the recent debate over hawker centres run by social enterprises, it is clear that hawkers can be treated poorly by their operators.

What is not so obvious is that we, the consumers, are also partly responsible for the plight of hawkers squeezed by rising costs.

We want our hawker food cheap and good, so we complain bitterly if our favourite chicken rice hawker stall begins charging S$3.50 instead of S$3 for the same plate of roasted chicken rice we have been enjoying for years.

Yet we have no qualms about paying a premium for cafe food and Starbucks drinks.

Some of my friends and family members even start seeking out cheaper alternatives when the hawker stalls they frequent raise their prices by 50 cents.

This was a common theme among hawkers whom I spoke with.

A husband-and-wife pair at Old Airport Road Food Centre, who have sold beef dishes there since 2008, told me they had no choice but to raise prices by 50 cents a few years ago.

They ended up facing the brunt of angry regular customers.

Last week, founder of social media agency GOODSTUPH Pat Law posted a series of Instagram stories about her parents, who have been hawkers for more than four decades.

She alleged that Singaporeans would ask for 50 per cent discounts from them, or ask for chilli or soup without having ordered anything from their stall.

It is this mentality that we have to shake off.

Hawkers across the island — whether managed by the National Environment Agency or social enterprises — have to make a living.

This means factoring in the rising prices of raw ingredients, labour and of operating a business.

But how can they survive if they have to pay more for rental, dishwashing and miscellaneous fees, but are booed every time they raise their food prices a little?

Ms Joy Yeo, 40, who owned a noodles stall in Jurong West Hawker Centre till earlier this month, worked for about 10 hours daily and would struggle to get gross takings of S$200 to S$300.

After deducting the costs of her rental, ingredients and other miscellaneous overheads, she hardly earned anything.

On Monday, she re-opened at a coffee shop at Sin Ming Autocity, hoping to reverse her fortunes.

I had spoken to her on the tray return scheme at Jurong West where the hawker centre operator charged hawkers 20 cents for each tray used by a customer.

After my story was published, she revealed that she was the one who started the petition against the practice as she was tired of paying a big chunk of her earnings every month for customers to take trays.

This triggered the operator’s policy reversal last week.

A single mother with two children, her income sustains her entire household. She cannot afford to hire Singaporean workers and foreign workers are not allowed in stalls at hawker stalls, so she relies on her retiree mother to help out at the stall.

Hawkers like Ms Yeo are being silently squeezed, while we continue grumbling that hawker food should remain dirt cheap like it was in the good old days.

Of course, prices should not rise exponentially. But we should be realistic and not expect hawker food to remain at the same prices year after year. 

How can we expect hawkers to continue selling cheap food and earning the same amount of money, when we complain we cannot get by without annual pay raises?

Economists have rightly pointed out that instead of artificially suppressing food prices, the Government should intervene in other ways to keep food prices affordable for those in the lower income group.

Suggestions include providing rebates for the needy.

The recent public conversation has largely been about how social enterprise hawker centres are a failing model and do not benefit hawkers.

Beyond voicing disapprovals about tray return schemes, it is important to look at how the whole hawker industry is doing, and how we can sustain our nation’s “community dining rooms”.

With the median age of hawkers hovering at 59 years, the danger of the trade becoming unsustainable is real, too.

Of course, having to pay more for anything is never popular.

But in the end, if hawkers decide it is not worth beginning or staying in the trade, all of us lose out.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Louisa Tang is a TODAY reporter who covers health, security and environmental issues.

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hawker centre business

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