SINGAPORE: Readers responded with an outpouring of appreciation and admiration for local hawkers to a recent story written by my Channel NewsAsia colleague, Lianne Chia. However, my conversations with observers and hawkers show that many consumers are not willing to put their money where their mouths are.
Lianne spent three days as a hawker assistant and had vividly conveyed the challenges involved.
It takes immense skill to make a bowl of bak chor mee or any number of our favourite hawker fare. The job obviously goes beyond cooking well. It requires preparing the ingredients, managing orders and money, among other things.
It is back-breaking work, yet hawker food is often undervalued in our society as Lianne’s story pointed out.
Food blogger, Leslie Tay of ieatishootipost said, “People are unwilling to pay more just because you’re at a hawker centre.”
Some hawkers have managed to earn handsome incomes for their food and even recipes, but observers say many continue to toil and their cuisine might be eventually lost to us altogether if no one learns from them.
This has been a long-standing problem.
In an “On the Record” interview two years ago, Tay said Singaporeans have been “spoilt by cheap food.”
“Nowhere else in the world, in any developed first-world country, can you get a S$3 meal that’s substantive,” he said.
Tay believes we have a “culinary prejudice against our food.”
“Why are people so happy paying S$15 for a bowl of ramen, and complain when the bowl of bak chor mee goes up by another S$0.50 to S$4.50?” he asked.
He pointed out how many of us expect a plate of expertly-fried hokkien mee or char kway teow to be cheaper than a plate of pasta at a hawker centre, even though pasta is a less complex dish.
“Just put a little bit of pasta, a bit of sauce together and I can sell it for S$6 at the same hawker centre.”
Chef and restaurateur, Violet Oon, said in another edition of “On the Record”, “Customers are not a charity home that they (hawkers) have to support with their blood, sweat and tears. They have to make a profit too. Every year, you want a pay rise, I think the hawker also must have a pay rise, right?”
HIGHER COSTS FOR ALL, INCLUDING HAWKERS
Hawker food is meant to be affordable food for the masses, but we have to accept that just as we deal with the higher costs of living, so do our hawkers.
Hawkers, just like other business people, have had to deal with higher business costs as well - rents, manpower costs and the costs of raw ingredients among other things.
So why are consumers, even those who can afford it, often unwilling to pay more for hawker fare?
HAWKER FOOD IN SWANKY SURROUNDINGS
We are more understanding if a plate of char kway teow costs more in an air-conditioned food court. It makes sense to pay more because it’s served in a more comfortable environment and where we know rents are higher.
But many, even affluent Singaporeans, will complain about price increases by hawker stalls even if the cost of that bowl of bak chor mee is still lower than the one at the food court and the quality of the food is superior.
Hawkers such as 2016 Michelin Bib Gourmand award winner, Douglas Ng of The Fishball Story, have been vocal about this issue in the last few years.
About four years ago, he set up a stall at Golden Mile Food Centre selling each bowl of his fishball noodles for S$3.
He said only 15 per cent of what he earned went to him. The rest went to paying for the cost of raw ingredients, rent and operating costs.
He claimed that when he raised the price of his noodles to S$3.50 a bowl, business dropped by 30 per cent.
It was only when he moved to Timbre+, a new-generation hawker centre at one-north, was he able to use premium ingredients and sell a bowl for S$6.
One could argue that the acceptance of higher prices is dependent on the clientele in the area and of course, the swanky surroundings.
But we should remember that even a hawker at a regular hawker centre has to grapple with higher costs especially if he makes an effort to use the best ingredients. Cooking superior food also requires skill that should be rewarded.
Many hawkers say price increases based on those factors alone often result in a backlash.
CATERING TO LOW-INCOME INDIVIDUALS
One must not blame low-income individuals and families for whom affordability is vital.
The National Environment Agency’s project to engage “socially conscious” operators has created many venues for such groups.
These operators have managed to improve operational efficiency and are able to offer food at lower prices.
Stallholders at these centres are required to sell at least two low-cost main courses.
Among the measures in place to enable this are lower rents, the bulk-buying of ingredients, and self-payment kiosks to reduce a reliance on manpower.
Perhaps some of these measures could be introduced to all hawker centres to reduce costs.
However, hawkers elsewhere take issue with the bulk-buying of ingredients to reduce costs, saying that it could compromise the quality of the dish.
Ultimately though, we have to acknowledge that there is a need for lower-priced hawker food in spite of the compromises. In fact, some have suggested introducing food vouchers for the poor so that hawkers can price premium food fairly and customers with the means to pay will just have to pay for quality while the poor are shielded.
While low-cost venues for the lower-income continue to be created and high-priced hawker food is served at air-conditioned food courts in malls, high-quality hawker food in non-air conditioned coffee-shops and hawkers centres needs to be preserved too.
After all, aside from the food itself, an intrinsic part of our hawker heritage is the good old market hawker centre ambience.
If we still enjoy these foods in such settings as part of our culinary heritage, would we be open to paying a little more for dishes with undeniable quality?
Some have asked how it is that some first-generation hawkers are able to continue offering quality food at low prices.
These hawkers, who were resettled from the streets to hawker centres in the 1970s, enjoy high rental subsidies from the government. They pay an average of S$200 a month.
Newer entrants pay an average of over S$1,000 at hawker centres managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA). This is despite the government introducing measures such as putting a stop to sub-letting in order to moderate rents.
In July this year, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, Amy Khor said that a recent bid of S$10,000 for a hawker stall was an "exceptional case”. It was reported that the bidder, in fact, terminated his contract before even commencing operations.
The average successful bid over the last three years has been S$1,370 a month according to Dr Khor.
The disparity is an issue nevertheless.
Food blogger Leslie Tay said, “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 and his rent is higher. That’s not fair.”
Tay suggested levelling the playing field by subsidising all hawkers equally. But if consumers who can afford it pay a fair price for hawker food, are the subsidies really necessary?
They might help to some extent.
But according to a survey released in 2015 by the Ministry of Trade and Industry and the National Environment Agency, rent makes up only 12 per cent of the total costs of running a stall. Raw materials are the biggest cost for most, coming up to about 59 per cent of expenses.
PAYING OUR HAWKERS THEIR DUE
So what is the road ahead?
If profit margins are low, fewer people would want to enter the trade.
According to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources’ multi-disciplinary Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee, the median age of existing hawkers is 59. If more and younger people don’t want to go into the trade and learn to cook like our pioneer hawkers, our culinary heritage will be in danger.
In addition to introducing hawker centres run by social enterprises and price caps, the government can step in with equal rent subsidies as some experts have suggested.
But subsidies can’t be the answer to everything. Consumers should be open to doing their part to strike a balance between quality and price and pay quality hawkers their due.
Observers note that more are now considering joining the trade. Douglas Ng of The Fishball Story is one such example.
Many are also serving up innovative fusion cuisine at hawker stalls.
There’s certainly a place for such players, but there must be an effort to preserve heritage hawker food too.
The Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee’s recommendations which include a hawker course and incubation stalls will help.
Ultimately, people need to know they can make a decent living as a hawker anywhere if they serve high-quality food.
Skilled hawkers who make the effort to procure quality ingredients, have honed their craft and continue to do so ought to be rewarded.
Those of us who can afford it should not complain when they raise their prices due to rising costs especially when so many of us recognise the skill and the hard work that goes into making a good hawker dish
Cheap and good may not always be a realistic expectation.