Celebrity food critic and founder of Makansutra KF Seetoh took to Facebook on Tuesday (12 January) to slam the Government for offering stipends to retiring hawkers in return for their stalls, recipes and skills under a new scheme.
The scheme, called Hawkers Succession Scheme (HSS), was introduced by the National Environment Agency (NEA) last November, and it aims to offer retiring hawkers with financial support while they train new hawkers with the skills and recipes required to take over their stalls.
“Under the HSS, we will facilitate the transfer of hawker stalls and recipes from retiring veteran hawkers to aspiring successors through a carefully paired apprenticeship and mentorship programme,” said Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment in December last year.
Responding to this, Mr Seetoh questioned if a stipend is all that these seasoned hawkers deserve for their lifework.
He noted that they spent many years perfecting their dishes and selling them at low prices with no help from the Government, however the Government has now come up with a new scheme that gets them to give up everything for a stipend.
“They spent decades and even a lifetime fending for themselves creating, perfecting and delivering their dishes at affordable and even cheap prices to eke out a living, with no government support. It’s a form of unheralded public service they gave to this nation.
“Now, you came up with a scheme to reward retiring hawkers with a stipend, in return for their lifework, recipe, skills, brand and reputation plus their original stall location. Strangers will be paid to learn and take over their decades of hard work and dedication, via an internship,” he said.
Mr Seetoh went on to reiterate that these veteran hawkers deserve more and that the Government shouldn’t “throw some stipend into their retirement pots and hijack their lifework”.
He also pointed out that NEA is now seen as the arbiter in deciding which stipend-paid aspiring hawkers will take over the business, adding that these newbies might easily give up the trade given that they came into the business using someone else’s money and support.
“One of the world’s best Environment agency, is now tasking itself to facilitate and judge if the stipend-paid newbie “hawkerprenuers” can make the mark, and take over properly, in that few months (I suppose) of internship,” he said.
He continued, “The Environment folks are now the arbiter of our Unesco class hawker food culture. Here’s the thing, hawker work is very tough, we all know that. And we also know how easy it is to give up when you are “entreprenuering” with someone else’s money and support.”
Learn the trade for a fee
Mr Seetoh said that if the Government really wants to give these veteran hawkers the respect they deserve, then it should create a school that allows anyone to study the trade.
“If you truly want to accord them with the respect they deserve, than this is a sign to seed the Hawker Culinary Academy, for anyone to study. Get these hawkers to teach for a fair fee. Get strangers who truly are “passionate” to pay to learn and even improve on it if they have the chops.
“A class can be small-ish, and intimate, and the hawkers should be paid the lion’s share of the fees in this ongoing classes. These are classes many will want to attend, even foreigners will be keen to learn this Unesco food craft and export it back home,” the food critic said.
“Knowledge and education is powerful, even in hawker food craft. It will help ensure sustainability and inspire entreprenuership.”
In his post, Mr Seetoh also applauded the Government for introducing hawker food courses in Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and Polytechnic, but noted that it’s only meant for young students.
As such, he urged the Government to do more to “recognise all hawkers, not just those in public built hawker centres but also in kopitiam, canteens and private food centres.
Manpower and high rent are big concerns
Moving on, the Makansutra founder also pointed out that the aspiring hawkers who are going to be part of the HSS should know that this business is a one-man-show work, and passion alone will not cut it.
This is because Singapore’s laws and policy do not allow hawkers to hire foreigners for assistance, while locals are not willing to do the job.
“Our Manpower laws and policy does not allow them to hire non-Singaporean assistants in public hawker centres (the only ones who will sweat it out at hawkers stalls these days for the monies offered nowadays), even if they have the requisite worker quotas to obtain one.
“I can name you hawkers who are offering $100 day and no serious takers. “Don’t bother looking for locals”- so many hawkers and chefs, will tell you today,” he said.
If that’s not all, he also expressed that the bidding system for hawkers should be lower as they are selling their dishes at an affordable rate.
“Manpower and rents- these are the two biggest nails that will seal the coffin of sustainability in our hawker food culture. We need a big rethink on that and hope Unesco won’t find fault with it and remove the recognition in 6 years, where they come back to check regularly for relevance.
“We have to do better, in recognition of this organically unique Unesco class culture by, for and of the people,” he concluded.