The Big Read: Floundering in digital wave, older hawkers could call it quits - taking a piece of Singapore with them

The Big Read: Floundering in digital wave, older hawkers could call it quits - taking a piece of Singapore with them

Older hawkers who are neither IT-literate nor social media-savvy have been at a greater disadvantage this time round, as others in the F&B industry are better prepared to exploit the various digital platforms to keep the latest disruption to their businesses to a minimum. 

Harbourfront hawkers
Mr Yeo Cheng Poh, 74, and Madam Toh Bong Chee, 73, at their stall, Fried Kuay Teaw Mee, at Seah Im Food Centre in the Harbourfront area. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor) 

SINGAPORE: Forty years after weathering the ups and downs of the hawker trade, an elderly couple selling wanton noodles at Tekka Market in Little India said they were 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 were back to square one on May 16, as the month-long Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) that bans dine-in at food and beverage 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.

READ: NEA 'encouraged' by takeaway orders at hawkers, reminds patrons to maintain safe distancing

READ: Food outlets, retailers to get help with delivery costs, going online with reintroduced schemes

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. 

Hawkers during heightened alert
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. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan)

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.

READ: Commentary: Hawkers want to embrace cashless payments but say they need help tackling barriers

ISLANDWIDE IMPACT

The latest round of restrictions on dining-in has 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. 

These days, the popular Zhao Ji Claypot Rice at Chinatown Complex Food Centre - where people usually had to queue up to an hour to get their fix - is seeing only 5 per cent of its usual crowd, said its 58-year-old owner, Ms Deng Shu Ling, who mans the stall alone.

READ: Does hawker culture have a future in Singapore? Yes, but perhaps not as we know it

There is “completely no business” between 2pm and 4pm on Saturdays, she added.

Zhao Ji Claypot Rice
Ms Deng Shu Ling, owner of the popular Zhao Ji Claypot Rice at Chinatown Complex Food Centre, said that her stall is seeing only 5 per cent of its usual crowd. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor)

Madam Noorhani Ali, a 57-year-old nasi padang hawker at an eating house near Geylang Serai Market, was reduced to tears on May 18 as she sat before what looks like six full trays of unsold food, having sold almost nothing near dinnertime for the third day in a row.

The scene was captured on Facebook Live by entertainer Roslan Shah, who operates a rojak stand next to hers, and wanted to rally support for Mdm Noorhani.

The former cook at the staff canteen at Ngee Ann City’s Takashimaya Departmental Store said her stall, Snan’s Corner, which opened on May 1, marked the fulfilment of her dream to have a nasi padang stall. 

But when takings amounted to only S$200 in the first week of the period of Heightened Alert, she contemplated giving up the stall and returning to work as a cook – never mind the S$5,000 in savings that she had invested to get the business going.

Mdm Noorhani said: “I was telling my husband … In about a week’s time, if we really can’t make money, we will have to tell the (eating house) owner that we want to stop the business.

“(Mr Roslan) is smart using all this technology (to improve business). For me, I don’t know how,” added Mdm Noorhani, who dropped out of school after Primary 4. 

Noorhani Ali hawker
Madam Noorhani Ali, a 57-year-old nasi padang hawker at an eating house near Geylang Serai Market. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor)

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. 

READ: More than half of Singapore’s hawker stalls now offer e-payments

Madam Sim Chee Moey, who is in her 60s, the 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 Jun 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. 

For an entrepreneur in his 30s who wanted to be known only as Mr Chen, it is important for him to be near home to teleconference and pick up his work calls, so he is mainly getting his meals from the two coffee shops below his block.

READ: COVID-19 grant to provide one-off payout to workers suffering income loss, on no-pay leave during Heightened Alert period

“When I feel like eating something that is not within convenient reach, I will reach out for the app,” he added, referring to a habit that developed after last year’s circuit breaker, when he relied heavily on Deliveroo’s S$14 flat monthly fee for unlimited free deliveries.

Anticipating a heavier reliance on such apps, he had bought Grab’s S$1.99 stay-home pack, which was introduced shortly before May 16. It lets users shave S$4 off their delivery fees per order with a minimum spend of S$15 for 30 times.

WhyQ hawker
A WhyQ hawker food delivery staff sorting out takeaway orders at Ghim Moh Hawker Centre on May 28, 2021. (Photo: TODAY/ Ili Nadhirah Mansor)

Likewise, university student Kaavya Ganeshan, 22, who had been ordering food online at least once a week since last year’s circuit breaker said that: “I guess this is safer and convenient during this period of time where there still is local transmission of COVID-19.” 

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. 

“Nobody wants to depend on another person’s decision. If you go to Grab, they can suddenly change the margins of the price, whereas in the past, hawkers would have the mental concept that everything is in their power – their rental, their cleaning fees, etc,” said Mr Nair, who is from Raven Counselling and Consultancy.

The commission rates that delivery companies Deliveroo, foodpanda and GrabFood charge their F&B merchant partners are at around 30 per cent. 

One year since the pandemic, why do users, riders and restaurants alike still have complaints about food delivery apps? A business professor and a ride-hailing app founder weigh in on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:

 

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 is now a lot more receptive to technology than before, given that the pandemic is unlikely to blow over anytime soon.

READ: New COVID-19 measures in Singapore: What is allowed under the tighter restrictions?

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.

Chinatown Sun Seng
Long-time hawkers Arthur Wong, 75, and his wife Loh Mei Ling, 70 at their hawker stall Chinatown Sun Seng Gourmet’s Corner. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor)

His immediate neighbour, Rice Bowl Boys, which is on WhyQ, Deliveroo and GrabFood, has offered to help in case they have teething problems, but Mr Wong doubts that he could remember everything that would be taught to him. 

“It is very hard for us to learn from the young, although the young might find it easy to learn from the old. They ‘run’ so fast, how to learn from them?” he quipped. 

When it comes to starting a Facebook page, Mr Wong is worried that he might not have the time and effort to keep people updated all the time.

READ: F&B businesses to get increased support from Jobs Support Scheme following tightening of COVID-19 measures

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.

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. 

Hawker Mr Yeo Cheng Poh
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: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor) 

Another hawker, Ms Deng of Zhao Ji Claypot Rice, said it took her four months to learn the English words making up the dishes that her stall offers – including words like “skating chicken”, “bacon”, “sausage” and “salted fish” – before she could take orders properly through Facebook, via her stall’s page which her son and his girlfriend had helped set up. All she replies when she sees an order is “Ok”.

Mr Calvin Sim was surprised when he found out a month ago that his 73-year-old father - Mr Sim Ah Tee who runs Ah Tee Ko Ko Mee at Jalan Berseh - had been using his own savings to cover the losses he had incurred during last year’s circuit-breaker. 

The 49-year-old central kitchen assistant said that his father - a hawker for more than 50 years - had always said “so-so lorh” whenever he was asked about how business was going at his stall due to the pandemic. 

It was only when the latest dining-in restrictions began that his father told Mr Sim of the true situation - he could not afford to cover the losses anymore, and wanted to close his stall permanently.

“I know he wants to continue his business but it's tough when savings are low,” Mr Sim said, who had shared his father’s story on the Hawkers United – Dabao 2020 Facebook group on May 15 to rally support for his business.

The older Mr Sim did not benefit from any digitisation efforts as he is illiterate and can only speak Hokkien and a bit of Mandarin.

For 19-year-old student Lim Hui Yi, although her parents’ hawker business, Pho 99 Vietnamese Delight at Telok Ayer Street, is on GrabFood, being on the delivery platform has not been helpful as their profit margins are very low, and they sometimes earn nothing at all, she said.

Her parents, Mr Lim Heng Lee, 49, and Ms Bou Dalis, 45, who speak limited English and are not digitally savvy, make losses sometimes too when customers report receiving the wrong order. 

In such cases, Grab would refund those customers the amount that they had paid for their original order, so her parents would receive less money for the food delivered.

Ms Lim would then have to step in to send Grab an appeal for the refunded order. She also regularly helps her parents post shoutouts on the Hawkers United — Dabao 2020 Facebook group, which has close to 300,000 members.

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.

READ: Group sizes down from 5 to 2, dining-in suspended as Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures

“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.

Foodpanda app hawker delivery system
A hawker using the Foodpanda delivery system. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor) 

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.”

WHY FOOD DELIVERY PLATFORMS NOT FOR ALL 

While being listed on food delivery platforms is likely to bring hawkers some real benefits, the learning cost for an elderly hawker who is not digitally savvy might be too high, said Assoc Prof Theseira. 

In order to gain a reasonable business following online, the hawkers would have to learn things such as how to make their offerings more attractive to an online audience, and how to do digital marketing, he noted. 

READ: Commentary: Can the F&B industry and food delivery platforms cope better this time around?

Although there are some success stories involving older hawkers, they usually involve an interested party, such as a younger relative, who cares enough to help them. 

“I don't think we can expect the elderly hawkers to do all this themselves, and I don't think commercial services to help them make sense,” said Assoc Prof Theseira.

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. 

That’s why not many hawkers are on Oddle, Mr Lim said, as the basket size for food such as chicken rice and char kway teow would be too small to justify a delivery. 

Agreeing, Mr Seetoh, founder of Makansutra, which publishes street food guides, said the issue lies more with hawkers being unable to afford going digital, rather than older hawkers being unable to digitalise. 

“Hawker profits, because of their low margins, hover around 12 to 15 per cent. So in the world of common logic, how can anybody afford a 30 per cent commission, unless they are selling big-ticket items, and they have expensive sets?

“So you see, not just the old, who are not online. A lot of people just can’t afford to be online … they don’t know how to do sponsored posts, they don’t know how to hit you directly. So sometimes I feel this digital culture we are embarking on, especially to the hawkers, is leaving a lot of people behind,” Mr Seetoh said.

Not many people would pay a delivery premium for a bowl of noodles costing S$5, noted Mr Au Yee Yang, 33, the hawker behind Soon Ji Ban Mian at Chinatown Complex. His stall typically receives one to two orders in two weeks via Grab, and two to three orders in a week via foodpanda.

Au Yee Yang Chinatown hawker
Mr Au Yee Yang, 33, the hawker behind Soon Ji Ban Mian at Chinatown Complex. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor) 

HELP FROM GOVERNMENT, 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.

READ: Commentary: Food delivery apps are meant to make our lives easier, not worse

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 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.

According to NEA, 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. “We are mindful that some hawkers may need more help to pivot, and will continue to provide the appropriate assistance through the respective hawkers’ associations,” it added. 

People queuing up at a hakwer centre
People queuing up at a hakwer centre. (Photo: TODAY/Raj Nadarajan) 

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.

A Grab spokesperson said that aside from reducing costs, it would be ramping up its marketing promotion efforts for hawkers and other smaller F&B outlets.

Grab is also expanding the list of hawker centres on its Hawker Centre 2.0 programme, which lets consumers mix and match orders from multiple stalls within the same hawker centre and pay just one delivery fee, the spokesperson said. 

Grab said the programme now has close to 400 hawker merchants from 50 hawker centres, and the participating hawkers had observed an overall increase in their number of GrabFood orders since the programme was introduced last year. 

Foodpanda said it is supporting hawkers by offering free mix-and-match delivery for hawker centre orders with a minimum order value of S$35 from now until further notice. 

“This makes it easier for families to order together.  The initiative also helps support individual stalls within the hawker centre, as customers will be more incentivised to order from more stalls to save on delivery fees,” its spokesperson said.

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.

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.

Ms Koh said she wanted to help the struggling hawkers build an online footprint, after reading about them on Facebook posts and finding that the existing efforts to help them were too scattered. 

Her initiative is also a movement against the increasingly high costs of food deliveries as well. 

“People do want options. This shows that we don’t need delivery services to increase sales,” she said: “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.

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 had written a viral Facebook post earlier this month that called on Singaporeans to “patronise these silent sufferers”, many of whom “are not online nor on anything except a prayer and hope”.

Reiterating his message, Mr Seetoh said: “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. 

“Otherwise, if you don’t do your part now, your grandchildren in the future would tell you: ‘Ah gong ah, you knew that the food culture was dying and you knew people love it. Why didn’t you do anything to help them preserve this? Why am I stuck with this expensive fast food?’”

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