'We have a culinary prejudice': Dr Leslie Tay on the future of hawker culture

'We have a culinary prejudice': Dr Leslie Tay on the future of hawker culture

Author and food blogger Dr Leslie Tay's passion for food goes beyond hunting down the best dishes - he hopes Singapore's food heritage is here to stay. Dr Tay goes On the Record with 938LIVE's Bharati Jagdish on the future of hawker culture in the island-nation.

SINGAPORE: Food blogger Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost often castigates Singaporeans for not being willing to pay more for hawker food in order for the business to be viable for our hawkers. The author of The End of Char Kway Teow and Other Hawker Mysteries goes "On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish with more ideas for preserving our culinary heritage and explains how he first became interested in Singapore’s food heritage.

Leslie Tay: It’s been almost ten years since I started – it’ll be 10 years in August. Looking back, at that time I had just started my clinic, so it was a little bit quiet, and I was looking for something to do, and the internet wasn't what it is now. So I was looking for good food, and in those days, what you needed to do was to go to forums, or you had to ask your friends. Blogs were in their infancy.

So I started to ask friends where the best char kway teow, where the best Hokkien mee is, and then I made it my mission to go and try all this food. Because I had stayed overseas for about ten years, I came back and realised that Singapore is such food paradise, and everybody talks about this Hokkien mee, that char kway teow, but I hadn't actually tried it. So I made it my mission to go and try it. And somebody just said: “Why don't you just blog about it?” So every Hokkien mee stall I went to, I just wrote the story and it just went on like that.

Bharati: You lived in Australia for many years. You were studying there. To what extent was living overseas the reason for your added interest in Singapore food? Were you as interested before?

Leslie Tay: As they say, you don’t know what you're missing until you lose it. I was living in Sydney and to get a roti prata there is so difficult. It is possible. Now it's more common. But in those days, we're talking about over twenty years ago, you have to go down to Chinatown and one prata cost A$4 (S$4)! So if you want two pratas, it's A$8, you know. With the curry, it was A$15 just to have a prata meal.


Bharati: And I'm sure it didn't taste right.

Leslie Tay: It doesn't have that feeling when you're in Singapore and you're eating prata, and it's in a coffee shop ...

THE ORIGINS OF CHAR KWAY TEOW

Bharati: Some have the impression that being a food blogger isn’t really all that challenging. As long as you like food, you have time for it, you can go out, take pictures, videos, put them on social media, and that's that. But you said it requires quite a bit of research. What exactly does doing the research entail? Writing about it, developing the vocabulary and the knowledge of food. What does it all entail?

Leslie Tay: Well, when you think of a plate of char kway teow, you think, “Oh, it's very simple. It's just noodles. It's the fat noodles, the rice noodles, and the yellow noodles, and then you've got the soy sauce, you've got the cockles.” But when you go in a little bit deeper, you realise hey, actually, the rice noodles are Teochew in origin. The Teochew always say 'Teochew kway teow'. Hokkien mee means that the yellow noodles come from the Hokkien, a different part of China, a different dialect group. It's only in Singapore where the Hokkien and Teochews come together that you have this marriage of the white rice noodles and the yellow noodles. If you go to Penang, for instance, their char kway teow is really just char kway teow. Here in Singapore, char kway teow is actually char kway teow mee.

Instagram photo: Char kway teow, Singapore-style

You need a little bit more research to get into it a little bit deeper. And then you ask yourself where does it come from? Was it invented by us? Do they actually have it in China? Or how it has changed? Then you look at the evolution from Penang, coming all the down to KL, to JB, to Singapore. And in that way, you realise the sort of lineage and evolution of this particular dish that has become, over the last few years, the icon of disappearing hawker food - which is the main concern when I published The End of Char Kway Teow and other Hawker Mysteries.

Instagram photo: Dong Ji Char Kway Teow

The repository of information is the minds of all these people who actually run the hawker stalls. So you have to talk to them, and then you try to tease it out. The problem with this form of information collection is that not everybody tells you the same story. So it's always quite frustrating. You'll have two or three different theories about how certain dishes come about. In the old days, when I was younger, I was more black and white. As you get older you get more mellow, and you're able to hold two facts together and the contradiction, and to be sane, you really have to just accept two or three different theories or stories and just say I'm happy with that.

Rather than pulling out your hair and saying there must be one true theory of char kway teow, and I'm hell-bent on trying to tease it out. There's no point, because you'll never get there.

Bharati: Some people might say why even bother knowing all of these things? I'll just eat the food. But it's important to you, isn't it?

Leslie Tay: I think it is very important especially for Singapore where everything moves and changes so fast. The one thing that we have that is constant is food. Buildings go up, come down, places get changed, even schools get torn down, so you have nothing to root yourself with your ancestors. Really, if you think about it, what is the one thing that you, your grandfather, and his father, have in common? It's that all of us enjoy char kway teow. Not everybody can say we've all been to the National Library, or the National Theatre. But we all can say that we all enjoy bak kut teh for example. So it's something that links us to the past and it's a very important part of our history. The reason I write about it so much is because nothing much had been written about it before I started.

Instagram photo: Bak kut teh

PRESERVING FOOD HERITAGE

Bharati: When you first started out, you said that you wanted to glamourise these dishes, you wanted to glamourise hawker food. To what extent do you think you've succeeded in doing that?

Leslie Tay: Well, one of the things I've noticed is that in the last two, three years at least, a lot more university students are writing to me and saying they're interested in doing something about hawker food. Even in the media, I think, there's a lot more talk about how we're going to preserve hawker food. Even the government now has gone into more emphasis on how to preserve our culture. I'm not saying that the book did it all, but I'm sure that the book played a part in this whole evolution.

Bharati: Why do you think it’s happening now though – this awareness and desire to at least discuss this issue and come up with solutions?

Leslie Tay: It's happening because people are beginning to realise that we are going to lose something that we treasure so much. If you think about it, in the 60’s and 70’s is when the hawkers were driven off the streets. So if you assume that the person, the hawker, was about in his 20’s in the 60’s, and now it’s 50 years on, so they're all in their 70’s now. All our pioneer hawkers are at their retirement age. Once they retire, if there is no one to take over the stall, we’re going to lose a part of our heritage. I think this is a critical time because most of them are at that age when they're about to retire.

Bharati: You mentioned that the Government is doing more in terms of emphasising the preservation of our culture. More hawker centres are being built. We're going to see 20 new ones in the next 10 to 12 years, some of which have already been opened. There's also a master hawker trainer programme, that the Workforce Development Agency is involved in running. What do you think is missing, though? What more do you think needs to be done, or what needs to be done differently in order to make all of this a success?

WHAT NEXT FOR HAWKERS?

Leslie Tay: Price is the main thing, because at the end of the day, if you want to get people to get into a certain profession, or a certain trade, it has to make sense for them financially. So the problem with the food prices in Singapore, is that we Singaporeans have been spoilt to a certain extent by cheap food. Nowhere else in the world, in any developed first-world country, can you get a S$3 meal that’s substantive.

I’ll give you another example. I was talking to my hairdresser the other day, who comes from Malaysia, and he told me it's much cheaper for them to live here than back in Malaysia, because, when you earn S$3,000 here, you spend S$3 on a plate of food. If you earn RM3,000 (S$979) there, you pay about 6 to 8 ringgit (S$2 to S$2.6) for a plate of food. Food there is seen to be more expensive than food in Singapore, when you take into consideration what people earn. So, why do we have this phenomenon here? It’s because of the fact that food has been subsidised by the Government for so long. They subsidise it by subsidising the rent of pioneer hawkers.

Instagram photo: Fish soup

Now, this is where the problem arises. Right now you have a whole group of pioneer hawkers who are still paying a few hundred dollars for their stalls, because they're pioneers. And right next to them you have a new hawker who's paying maybe 10 times that for the same stall. That could be the scenario. And they’re both required to sell food at the same price. We’re not having a free market economy where the demand and supply determines prices, because we have this element of the Government subsidy.

And if you're talking about a pioneer hawker, he's already paid off his house, his kids are already grown up. They don't need much. And they're quite happy to sell something for S$2, S$2.50. Also, because their rental for the stall is so low. Right next to him, you have a young, aspiring hawker who has a family to feed. I mean you can't have some people paying S$300 and the hawker next to him paying five or six or 10 times the price. He still wants his five Cs, he wants his condo you know? And if he can't get it, why do this?

Bharati: And if the younger hawker raises his prices to cover his higher costs, fewer people will buy from him. So what do you think the solution is? Should the subsidy for the pioneer hawkers be removed, or should the playing field be levelled by getting the government to subsidise the rent of all hawkers equally? Or should we, the patrons, simply learn to pay more for food?

Leslie Tay: If I say that hawker food needs to go up in price, I'm going to be seen as a villain. So what I'll say is the Government needs to just subsidise everybody the same. If you want to continue to sell food at S$3, S$3.50, S$4, the Government just needs to level the playing field and subsidise all hawkers equally.

Bharati: Subsidise their rent?

Leslie Tay: Yeah, just give them S$300 rent.

Bharati: And subsidise the cost of ingredients?

Leslie Tay: That's right, and that's the only way, I think, that Singapore can continue to have S$3 and S$4 meals 20 years in the future. Because I see the disparity, especially when you talk about younger people.

Bharati: Well, a lot has been said about rent. The NEA has said that actually rent only comes up to 12 per cent of a hawker's cost. They spend much more on ingredients, about 60 per cent of their cost comprises ingredients costs. And Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, when he was in-charge, actually said that more than eight in 10 hawkers pay less than $1,500 in rent for their stalls each month. In fact, he said 4 in 10 pay less than $400. That group, I think, is the pioneer hawkers who have heavily subsidised rates, but others according to NEA, pay less than S$1,500. So are we making too much of the rent issue?

Leslie Tay: Rent is only one thing. Cost of ingredients has gone up by quite a few factors over the years. And when we tell the hawkers to keep their prices low, in a sense we're trying to tell them to subsidise the rest of the Singaporeans. When you tell a hawker he can't increase prices, what does he do? The cost of his ingredients goes up. His profit margin goes down. He either cuts back on the quantity, cuts back the quality, or he just says: “Never mind, I'll just continue to sell it at the same ...”, because he has a certain amount of pride in his bowl of wanton mee, and he doesn't want to cut corners.

Facebook post: Dr Leslie Tay on Fishball Story

Bharati: Of course there is a case to be made for some patrons needing that “subsidy”, so to speak. There are low-income individuals who would need more affordable food.

Leslie Tay: Definitely, so we have to really think about another way of helping those in our community who can't afford to pay more for hawker food.

Bharati: You said that perhaps the subsidies should be levelled across the board so that all hawkers can provide cheaper food, but we also know that not all patrons of hawker stalls are needy and many can afford to pay more. How about just providing food vouchers for the needy, instead of subsidising hawkers to keep their prices low across the board?

Leslie Tay: That could work. In the medical practice, now we have the CHAS card, right? We can identify those people that need help, and the government subsidises them. So why can't the CHAS card used for buying hawker food as well?

THE NEXT GENERATION

Bharati: But economics aside, people actually need to be interested in cooking, in the business.

Leslie Tay: We need to attract people who are passionate about cooking, who want to get a hawker stall, and maybe if they're second-generation and their parents have done very well and they're thinking, “okay, I want to take over the business and I want to continue to serve this particular dish because my grandfather served it, my father served it, so now I want to serve it.”

Now, we should be able to give these people some sort of incentive to carry on the family business. Right now, there are very few. I’ll give you an example. I know a man selling muah chee, and he's the “last muah chee man”. His grandfather sold it, his father sold it, and he's, I would say, the last one in Singapore who still makes it by hand. Everything is done very, very traditionally. The problem with him is that his father didn't rent a hawker stall, but now he wants to rent a hawker stall, but he has to bid like everybody else. So he's not given pioneer status. If his father had taken on a hawker stall, he would be paying only S$200 or S$300 in rent now.

Facebook video: The last muah chee man

Bharati: How was his father operating?

Leslie Tay: From a coffee shop. So once you are out of the system, to get back into the system is almost impossible.

Bharati: By “the system”, you mean an NEA hawker centre?

Leslie Tay: Exactly, exactly. So I've argued with them. This guy, you can just research him and give him a badge that says 'heritage hawker'. And since he’s a heritage hawker and his family has been doing this for 50 years or so, he should be able to get an NEA stall at the subsidised rate to continue this very traditional dish that is going to disappear in 20 years, because, after this guy stops doing it, no one else will be doing muah chee by hand. The difference is that he uses his hands. He'll take each muah chee out, each piece out, dip it into a bit of shallot oil and then throw it into the pile of ground nuts.

Now, the action of doing this actually improves the chewiness of the muah chee. That's why he does it. Nobody else does this. Everybody use a pair of scissors and the muah chee is probably made in a factory somewhere by a machine. And they just transport it. So this guy still does it by hand. It's very artisanal, and yet he has problem trying to get a good stall. If a hawker can say that he’s trying to do something that is very “heritage”, and he has credentials, he should be able to get some help.

HELP FOR LOWER-INCOME SINGAPOREANS

Bharati: I want to talk a bit about the new hawker centres that are coming up. The social enterprise-run ones, at least two of them will have price caps on some basic dishes, but not on others. What do you think of that approach in order to be able to cater to a small group of low-income Singaporeans? Price caps on two basic dishes. Not all.

Leslie Tay: I don't know all the details of how the Government arrived at S$2.80 for a plate. Is it based on what they think people can afford? Have they actually looked at the inflation of food prices over the years? Have they actually looked at the livelihood of a hawker in the 90s, in the 2000s? And have they done a study to see whether their standard of living is going down because of the inflation of food prices. Are their profits going down? Are they doing as well as before?

Facebook video: Dr Leslie Tay on hawker prices

In order to come to a price ceiling that is a little bit more equitable, they must take into consideration the hawkers themselves. I think when they set that price, they're saying, “Okay, we'll let market forces determine, and whoever wants to accept this price can come in and get a stall, and then they can sell whatever they want.”

I don't think that's very fair to the hawkers. I think we need to ask ourselves what is a fair wage for a hawker who has to work all these hours in order to provide food for us, and the quality of the food that we're expecting from them? And we have to balance that with the needs of the community as determined by the average family income, and how much a family can actually afford in terms of food.

Bharati: You may have a certain type of person come in, who is willing to, or will allow himself to be forced to scrimp on ingredients, on quality in order to keep food prices low. At the end of the day, this doesn’t really serve the customers either. But those who manage these centres also assure the hawkers that they'll try and keep costs low. For instance, the cost of ingredients – keep that low by bulk-buying ingredients.

Leslie Tay: Yeah, so when I visited Ci Yuan, the new hawker centre, the first one that opened in Hougang, I got five sticks of satay in a plastic cup, with some vegetables at the bottom. That's, I think, S$3? Or was it S$2.80 or something. That's there to satisfy the price cap. It's not just the hawkers we have to look after. Go to the markets. We have the people selling pork, the people selling chicken, the people selling vegetables, who are very much a part of this whole value chain of producing the final product. For instance, a plate of nasi lemak. At the hawker centre that I usually go to, I know the fishmonger at the first level who supplies the ikan kuning for the nasi lemak stall on the second level. And they're both part and parcel of that plate of nasi lemak with the ikan kuning which is very famous.

Instagram photo: Nasi lemak

Everybody's “Oh, the ikan kuning is so nice, so nice.“ But it is the fishmonger, who plays a huge role. If you talk about central-buying, which is well and good, it's cheaper, but are you going to get the same quality? This fishmonger goes to Senoko early in the morning to pick up the best ikan kuning and then delivers it to this nasi lemak guy who then fries it, and that's how you get a very nice fish.

Once you remove the fishmonger, and this nasi lemak guy buys from a cooperative, you may not get the same quality. You lose that artisanal quality in the food. The other thing that I was thinking of the other day is, the sauce-makers. The people who make your soya sauce. The people who make all your ingredients. With the lack of manpower, we really need to incentivise the middle men.

But these middle men have no incentive, because nobody knows who they are.

Bharati: What incentive do you think they should be given?

Leslie Tay: Well, they should be recognised. Put them on a pedestal, give them productivity incentives. So if you are a heritage sauce-maker, you should be able to go to a certain Government board and say: "I'm a heritage sauce-maker, can I have some money for equipment, so that I carry on this traditional way of making soya sauce?” Same goes for the people who make noodles, raw ingredients. All these things actually come together to provide that plate of hawker food that we know.

Bharati: You mentioned earlier that central-buying is not the answer either.

Leslie Tay: Central-buying can solve some of the problems, but it actually robs the hawker of being able to provide a dish that is done with passion, with heart.

PAYING MORE FOR HAWKER FOOD

Bharati: Ultimately though, those of us who can afford it just need to learn to pay more for food, don’t we? How do you think people can learn to accept this?

Leslie Tay: First of all, we have to realise that we have a culinary prejudice against our food. Why are you so happy paying S$15 for a bowl of ramen, and you complain when the bowl of bak chor mee goes up by another S$0.50 to S$4.50? The other day, I wrote about the bak chor mee that's being sold by a Japanese man. And everybody was so wowed - "Japanese man!"

Facebook video: Japanese man makes Bak chor mee

Bharati: His daughter makes it?

Leslie Tay: Yeah, his daughter. They were selling it for S$5, and people are paying for it, but we have this funny prejudice against our own food. When it comes to chicken rice, it has to be S$3, S$3.50. It's not like in Japan, you have sushi off the belt for S$2. You can have sushi at the top end sushi restaurant for S$40 a piece, right? And a meal can cost S$300, or it can cost S$3.

Bharati: It depends on what you're paying for also. Sometimes you're just paying for ambience, and service, and...

Leslie Tay: The difference is that the Japanese really understand how to reward someone with the passion to provide good food. And they can see the difference, and they can see, “Oh, this guy is putting in so much effort. His food is so much better.” I mean, sushi started off as hawker food, street food, and then it got elevated because of their culture of understanding that they want to pay for good food. But in Singapore, the funny thing is even if you try to provide good quality food, people will still say “I'm not willing to pay that much for it.”

Bharati: Part of the reason is, as you said, we have become accustomed to it because of the rent subsidies for pioneer hawkers that allow them to sell food cheap. But if the Government intervenes to subsidise all hawkers so that they can all keep prices low, as you suggested earlier, it will just be spoiling us further. So what needs to happen to bring about a paradigm shift among consumers?

Leslie Tay: Well, the paradigm shift comes with education, media. We have to put our food on the same level as some foreign food. We can't look down on a plate of Hokkien mee, even though it's fried expertly and say it's no better than a plate of pasta. Just put a little bit of pasta, a bit of sauce together and I sell it for S$6.

Instagram photo: Hokkien mee

Hokkien mee I have to spend so many minutes frying it and I can only sell it for S$3. So we need to come to the realisation that we need to pay more to incentivise the hawkers - the new ones - the new hawkers to take on the role of providing these foods. I think we'll come to a point in our hawker culture that we'll have so few of these hawkers left that the only ones left will be able to charge more for it.

I think we will probably get to that point where we have no char kway teow man left, and then suddenly, the “new hope”, the Luke Skywalker steps into the scene and says:"I can still fry char kway teow."

Well, maybe he learnt it from his grandfather who was a char kway teow man and this guy will go into all the experimentation and perfect his plate of char kway teow and then he can sell it for S$8, or S$10 and because there's no other char kway teow around, people will pay. It's coming to that point.

Bharati: How long do you think before it comes to that point? Some people have estimated 10 to 15 years, and we'll see most of this food gone.

Leslie Tay: We have to be specific about what we talk about. Not all the food will go. Chicken rice will stay. Franchising chicken rice is easy. Central kitchen, rice is made, chicken is made, chicken rice will stay. Things like laksa will stay, because in a central kitchen, you can make the laksa, have a few hawker stalls, you can still make money. Any of the dishes that are unable to be put together in a central kitchen are at risk of extinction.

And char kway teow, my pet subject, is one of them, because the ingredients are so simple, you don't really need any central kitchen to put together the black sauce or whatever. It all boils down to one man, frying the kway teow well, the noodles, the timing, and the control of the fire. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of skill, a lot of training and you can't just get it overnight. You need to be training, you need to fry and keep frying. It's hot, it's sweaty, and you can only sell for S$3. That's why it's going.

“GLAMOUR” AND HAWKER FOOD

Bharati: Would hawkers being able to make a bigger profit from this business actually help? Many also don’t want to do it simply because it’s hard work.

Leslie Tay: Take a young man, who is very passionate about char kway teow. He tries to get a stall. He rents a stall for S$3,000, in a good place where there's enough traffic. And then he decides "Oh, I'm going to do char kway teow", and then he thinks about all the trouble that he has to go through.

"Wait a minute, if I just sell spaghetti bolognese, I earn S$6, and I don't really need to fry it, I just need to boil the spaghetti, and then the bolognese is already done. Why don't I sell spaghetti bolognese?"

Why are young people selling coffee and not kopi? Coffee is five bucks. Kopi, you have to sell for S$1.50. Not as glamourous, right? So we need to glamourise it, we need a kopi hero to come, glamourise the local “sock kopi”, make the sock out of Italian silk. Make it out of Italian silk, use better beans, and then sell it for S$4 or S$5 for a cup of kopi, expertly put together in a nice place, and then suddenly people might realise, "Hey, actually, hawker food can be glamourised."

Bharati: So it’s about the lack of money as well as the hard work, isn’t it? Also, generally people also don’t rate hawkers as professionals in this society, the job has an image problem. How would you suggest such hurdles be overcome?

Leslie Tay: That's why we need to glamourise it. We need to tell people that, "Hey, we have this heritage, and we need to preserve it. We can make it better. How did sushi get from a street-side shop to where it is today? It's because the Japanese have this spirit of going into every detail and making sure that everything is perfect. And people are willing to pay for that perfection. I'm not saying that the sushi is like 10 times better than a normal sushi, but they actually respect a person who is willing to put in the effort.

Instagram photo: Sushi

So we need to have this realisation that if someone is willing to put in all the effort and the product he produces is actually better, we should then tell ourselves that we're willing to pay more for this effort. A young lady who's selling prawn noodles in Tekka tells me, and she comes in at 4am, she burns all her weekends. For her it's no such thing as work-life balance. But they do it because of a passion, because it's a family business, they want to create the best prawn noodles, they're happy to see their patrons enjoying that bowl. That kind of spirit needs to cultivated.

Bharati: You have mentioned in the past that maybe what needs to be done is change the hawker centre environment, air-condition them. Why? That's part of the beauty of hawker food - sitting in the heat and sweating over char kway teow.

Leslie Tay: Here is the reality. The possibility of not having hawkers in the future, is a threat. But there's also the threat of not having enough Singaporeans wanting to eat hawker food in the future. Because all the young people nowadays, they want to go to an air-conditioned place. After church on Sunday, I’ll ask the kids what they want to eat and they’ll say "Anything, anywhere, but I don't want it to be hot!"

So if the young people are not willing to go and eat at a hot and sweaty hawker centre, what do you think it means for our future? You can build all your hawker centres, and maybe you manage to populate it with enough hawkers, but you won't have people there, because all of them will feel that it's too hot.

Bharati: So you're saying we should just make that compromise? Otherwise, we won't have anything.

Leslie Tay: Unless you make it into a comfortable enough place for young people to want to go, and to be seen going, in the future, there'll be no talk about the end of hawker food, because in the future, the next generation of Singaporeans will be quite happy with the cafes, with the Italian cuisine and all the other kind of food, and hawker food would just be a figment of the past, something that our parents used to like, very quaint places. Also, when you talk to hawkers, and hawkers spend a lot of time in hawker centres, they may tell you the same thing about the heat.

I'm very happy with the new Ci Yuan one, because it's got a high roof and it's very cool. But if you want to get more young people to come into the hawker profession, then air-condition at least the food prep area, because once you do that, they can actually work longer and more comfortably, and it's not so stressful for them.


The hawker centre at Ci Yuan Community Club, where some of the stalls operate 24 hours. (Photo: Leong Wai Kit)

They're not like our forefathers who grew up in an environment without air-con. These are all people who have grown up with air-con in their homes, and now you're asking them to go to a hawker centre and work in that sweltering heat for twelve hours a day. You're not going to get enough young hawkers.

FOREIGNER HELP?

Bharati: In Penang, they introduced a ban on foreigners cooking local cuisine. But considering that in Singapore, a lot of Singaporeans don't want to do it, do we have to be much more open to getting foreigners to learn how to and cook Singapore hawker food?

Leslie Tay: Yup. We should. Specifically Malaysians, because Malaysians still cook very well, and we were once connected with them. They know our tastebuds. We should get more Malaysians to come and cook. What can you do? I mean the Singaporeans don't want to do it because there's no money in it, so let the Malaysians come in.

But I heard from the NEA, and when I went to Ci Yuan hawker centre, all the stalls were taken up. So they had no problems trying to fill up the stalls. I don't know who took up the stalls, what kind of quality of food is being served. This is what I postulate for the future. That there won't be enough young Singaporeans who want to go to hawker centres, so there'll be no demand. And not enough young Singaporeans want to be hawkers, so there'll be no supply. No demand, no supply, so we'll have a consolidation of all the hawker centres and we’ll have fewer and fewer unless something is done.

Bharati: As you know, there'll be a Singapore Michelin Guide next year. People have raised some doubts about it. For instance, will the inspectors really know what's good and what isn't when it comes to local food? Over the years, even in other countries, the relevance of the guide has been questioned, the alleged biases of the inspectors etc. Nevertheless, many still respect the guide. What place do you think our hawkers have in this guide?

Leslie Tay: I encourage them (the Michelin inspectors), please go and try all our hawker food. Let the world know how great it is, so that more people from all around the world will come our small little red dot to enjoy the food here. I think it's a great thing. When they grade stalls and give their stars, one of the components is service and environment, so I'm not sure how they're going to take our hawkers into consideration. Maybe they'll give them a separate mention, or a list of the notable hawkers that you need to go, that would have gotten a star if the environment were better.

We have several hawkers who are doing what they're doing really passionately and I think they should just recognise that spirit of excellence, that artisanal spirit in some of our hawkers, who are still persisting in doing things the authentic way. I think it will do a lot of good for our local hawker culture and at least encourage some of our young people to enter it, maybe glamourise it a little bit.

Bharati: Of course, some people have expressed the worry that anyone who gets mentioned in this guide, whether it's a hawker or restaurant, will raise prices.

Leslie Tay: If they give a Hokkien mee hawker a star, and he's able to charge S$6, and if that's going to incentivise a lot of young people to go into the trade so that they would have more good Hokkien mee and char kway teow in the future, I think that's not a matter of whether you like it or not. It's a matter of survival of our hawker culture.

Source: 938LIVE/dl