The current Phase 2 heightened alert that Singapore is on is “worse than the last circuit breaker” for hawkers said founder of second-generation hawker and founder of Hawkers United Melvin Chew and Makansutra founder KF Seetoh.
Speaking on the Channel NewsAsia podcast Heart of the Matter (3 June) on issues relating to hawkers and hawker culture in Singapore, Mr Chew said hawkers have been experiencing between 50 to 90 per cent drop in business, especially city centre stalls that cater to the working crow and tourists as well as drinks stalls.
This is why Mr Seetoh’s Glutton’s Bay stall has been shuttered until people are allowed to eat out again, said the Makansutra founder.
Hawker food not made for delivery apps
Mr Seetoh went on to cite the rise in food delivery apps as another reason why hawkers have been hit so hard this time around, as many are not online.
When asked why hawkers haven’t moved online since the first CB period, Mr Seetoh noted two main reasons: that the commissions taken by the apps are too high and hawker food doesn’t travel well.
First up, Mr Seetoh noted, “Hawkers just refuse to go online because of the excessive cost.”
This leads to a “conundrum” as there is also a culture in Singapore that expects hawker food to be cheap, so when hawkers have to raise their prices to go online, customers are unhappy.
Giving an example, Mr Seetoh elaborated: “Imagine you are in a food court. Food court operational model, the operator takes 20 to 28 percent. Imagine you have to pay another 30 percent commissions [to the delivery apps]. It goes up to 50% over.
“I mean, who in their right mind before they sell they have to wipe off 50% of their food price? That’s ridiculous.”
Even with government subsidies on food delivery costs and deferring platform commission feels, the two men think that the issue will still be there once lockdown is lifted.
Mr Chew conceded that the government subsidies are helpful now but that many hawkers are worried about the high cost of going digital later on when the commission fees are reinstated.
Mr Seetoh noted, “I’d like to say that this problem will carry on even after this initial lockdown…these hawkers who just refused to go online for reasons better known to themselves like cost will still remain offline.”
When asked about their thoughts on this “stubborn resistance” against going digital, Mr Chew explained that it also goes beyond cost. He noted that much of hawker food has to be eaten freshly cooked and that this is something that hawkers themselves are adamant about.
“They [hawkers] might say ‘I want the people to come in my food while it’s hot’, so when you are do tapau, take away, so the food standard will drop,” said Mr Chew, adding, “This one of the concerns that the elderly hawkers have.”
Mr Seeoth agreed and said that hawker food “does not sit well” in transit which affects the overall standard, leading to people having a lower regard for the UNESCO class hawker food culture.
Mindsets have to change
He went on to touch on how Singapore has some of the cheapest food in the world for a developed country, noting how society here refuses to accept that hawkers can charge more for their food, implying that the reluctance to go digital due to cost is also due to customer reaction to food prices.
Mr Seetoh noted, “There is freedom in the hawker centers to charge whatever you want but the masses just won’t agree to because they are used to this.”
Mr Chew chimed in, “We can’t compare price now and in the 80s or 90s. Everything is rising: rental, labour, all the ingredient cost, all rising. There’s no way to compare to the past.”
At the suggestion of having different menus listed for online and in-store orders, Mr Seetoh pointed out that delivery apps prevent hawkers from marking up their prices.
Mr Chew also noted that high competition makes it difficult for hawkers as well, as they have to also compete with other F&B stores such as kopitiams and food outlets in shopping malls.
This is a problem that has been around for the last decade, says Mr Chew.
Mr Seetoh stressed that there are “too many stores” in Singapore. While it is partly the market which dictates how many stores there should be, he also attributed some of this to the convenience culture of people expecting to have access to things just around the corner and everywhere they go.
As the conversation continued, it turned towards how hawkers can be helped and whether the community rallying for hawkers is seen as ‘charity’.
Mr Seetoh noted that while there is some help from the government via the National Environment Agency (NEA) for public hawker stalls, those in food courts do not fall under their jurisdiction.
As such, Mr Seetoh wondered which government department the other hawkers fall under.
He said, “So, if you want to help, which is the Department that reaches out across every hawker out there? Unless it comes from way, way up there, everybody will be going, ‘oh not my backyard’.”
On what else can be done to help hawkers pull through these difficult times other than rental waivers and other government subsidies, Mr Seetoh brought up the idea of group buys.
Group buy is when one person buys food for a group of people in the same block or area. Mr Seetoh explained that one person can go around on a bicycle to do a group buy for the few families in their vicinity and even make some money from it by charging a small commission.
“It helps neighbourhood, neighbourliness and all that,” said Mr Seetoh, suggesting that this could be a ground-up effort.
The idea was supported by Mr Chew as well who himself has helped organised group buys for various hosts, connecting them with struggling hawkers.
Allow hawkers to hire foreign help
Eventually, the topic of young people getting into the hawker business came up and Mr Seetoh pointed out that no Singaporeans want to do the job even if they are paid university graduate salaries. This makes it difficult to keep the hawker culture going.
On top of that, he suggested that the law against allowing hawkers to hire foreigners to help out should be changed as well, as it could be beneficial and helpful to hawkers to have the extra help from foreigners since locals don’t want the jobs.
“Otherwise it would be very discouraging for people,” said Mr Seetoh, describing it as a “soft death knell” to Singapore’s hawker culture.
On how they see hawkers emerging from this pandemic, Mr Seetoh says that the “jury is still out” given the progression so far.
Mr Chew chimed in to acknowledge the government’s efforts in promoting the culture and trying to encourage people to take up jobs in this industry. However, he cautioned that there needs to be a focus on authentic hawker fares like char kuey teow instead of imported foods like Japanese or Korean food.
Mr Seetoh added that there needs to be some sort of space created where young people can learn to cook authentic hawker food so that they are able to capture the essence of what Singaporeans recognise as good hawker food. He noted that there isn’t currently a program that does that which is part of the larger problem of succession.