Photos by New Naratif

New Naratif’s podcast presents a fresh perspective on the recent hawker industry controversies

On the New Naratif fortnightly podcast ‘Political Agenda’, Dr Thum Ping Tjin, historian and the publication’s Managing Director, discussed the state of the hawker industry in Singapore with three people in the business: the OG hawker Uncle Arthur who’s been hawking for decades, Lim Jialiang who’s been in the business for a few years now and relative newbie Yuting who only started last year.

The podcast conversation revolved around the challenges of being a hawker in Singapore from the perspective of those behind the stalls. The podcast provides a fresh perspective on the recent controversy surrounding hawker centres in Singapore.

One of the biggest issues on the hawker industry that has brought about much debate is the issue of prices and quality of food being provided at centres. There’s a general stereotype that the quality of the food is declining while prices are rising and neither hawkers nor patrons are particularly happy with the way things stand in the industry right now.

Arthur, who has been hawking since he was 10, notes that it’s not an easy job to be a hawker – it’s tough work, costs are rising, and customers are waning. Arthur said that many people are now taking shortcuts to stay cost effective while Jialing notes that many stalls now get their supplies from the same place, which is why food tends to taste the same in different stalls.

Yuting also added that running a hawker stall presents unique challenges that many people are unaware of such as having limited storage space which limits the amount of food they can sell per day. She says, “we’ve only two manpower and limited storage spaces. So there’s only so much we can do to earn our sales and revenue everyday.”

Moving on, they also discussed the issue of rent which has come up quite a few times these past few weeks. Apparently, hawkers like Arthur who has been in the business for decades pays rent at a much lower rate than newcomers. Of this, Jialiang said “like all good businessmen, we’ll not talk about how much our rents are, but I can safely say that Uncle Arthur’s rent is 25% of what I pay.”

They talked about the differences between a hawker centre and a food court – with the biggest difference being rental rates. Jialing talked about how the social enterprise model in hawker centres actually have rental schemes that are more like food courts. Yuting said that when she was considering renting a stall at the Pasir Ris Hawker centre which runs on a social enterprise model, the rates where exorbitant.

Yuting says “on top of the usual rental cleaning fee and such, we have a sales and marketing fee, plus a electronic cashless device monthly fee that we have to pay, and all this excludes GST. So you have to pay additional GST. And on top of that, we have to pay a fee to purchase the cutleries that are provided by the company itself, the social enterprise.” This makes it that much harder for any hawker to sustain their business. It was also pointed out that many of the hawkers at the Pasir Ris centre ended up closing shop after just three months.

Apart from the financial challenges that the social enterprise model presents, the group also talked about the role of the government in the current crisis, specifically how the government doesn’t consult actual hawkers before coming up with new policies for the industry. “So every few years they have a panel for hawkers, to talk about the hawker trade, and every single panel from the first—and now we’re at the third panel—none of them are hawkers. No single person sitting in that panel is a hawker,” said Jialiang.

Instead, they are factory owners, suppliers, and landlord. But no hawkers. That’s surprising to hear – how can the government hold a panel on the hawker industry without hearing input from hawkers themselves?

You can listen to the full podcast on New Naratif or read the transcript available on the page.