Hawker centre in Chinatown

by Lim Jialiang

The most common misconception is how Hawker Food is supposed to be cheap food. This has never been the case historically. Hawker food was always an occasional treat for the working-class in the 60s and the 70s. At that time, most families cooked at home, occasionally indulging in hawker food. It was only in the 80s, where we had a larger population with greater spending power, that hawker food seemed in comparison to be cheaper. Dining was concentrated amongst hawker food due to the lack of full-service restaurants.

This change was apparent in the 90s, as we had more foreign brands importing new dining concepts (like fast food), as well as the growing westernisation of our diet. The lack of price increases and the relatively stable price on hawker food, thanks in no small part to increasingly small stores as well as rent control, all allowed for hawker centres to be seen as spaces for affordable food. This also allowed the State to brush away real concerns of inequality.

In the 2000s, faced with food shortages due to various supply shocks, price control of hawkers was mooted as a way to protect the interests of the low-income families. At the same time, there was a wave of misguided businesses who sold $2 meals to unrealistic and unsustainable ends. There was even an entire series on Channel U that looked for stores like this. This came to an end as most stores, especially those in privately owned kopitiams, realised that this endeavour made little sense as they basically drove quality (and portions) into the ground. However, the damage was done.

Expectations of cheap hawker food both by consumers and the State is nothing new. What is new, however, is the doubling down that our current government is doing into our hopelessly flawed and unsustainable model of providing affordability of food. The new Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs), who have explicit rules of price control, as well as unrealistic, market-pegged rents, will further entrench the role of hawker centres as Singapore’s informal soup kitchen, and at the expense of eating the hawkers that work there.

I’ve always held the view that hawker food is too cheap, and there are more efficient ways of delivering aid for the low income and as well as the elderly. A national food voucher situation will allow hawkers to raise prices for those that can afford it, and at the same time effectively target subsidies to people who can’t.

All this said and done, I don’t expect much to change, as this system will still exclude the 1 million foreign/domestic workers that are in Singapore as their labour rights and wages are shamefully low.

This was first published on Lim Jialiang’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission

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