Referencing an article by The Straits Times (ST) newspaper titled ‘Slow business but some hawkers still not on food delivery apps‘, Makansutra founder KF Seetoh critiqued the “advance civil service logic”.

Sharing a photo of the article on his Facebook page on Sunday (20 June), Mr Seetoh said: “They [hawkers] already said and explained to you why they don’t and can’t go for only delivery apps.

“You even spelt out the reasons why and how many percent of em’.

“YET, you still ask them to go online. I need a PHD.”

The article Mr Seetoh referred to was also published on The Straits Times website under the same title.

In it, ST reported the fate of several hawkers who have experienced a dramatic downturn in business due to the recent tightening of COVID-19 restrictions which have reduced walk-ins to a trickle.

While some eateries have found an alternative by going online, the article noted that some of the 110 hawker stallholders across eight hawker centres interviewed still avoid food delivery platforms.

One of the reasons cited by 52 hawkers is the 30 to 35 per cent commission fees that the platforms charge, which are “too high” for them even if passed on to the customers.

Other reasons include the difficulty for older, less savvy hawkers to adjust to the digital requirements; not to mention how some hawker food simply does not fare well in travel.

The article went on to highlight the workgroup chaired by the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) and the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). The workgroup is tasked with studying ways to increase the demand for hawker food sold online.

This includes introducing a step-by-step strategy to help hawkers digitise their business, and trying to lower commission fees when the food is picked-up or ordered in advance.

KF Seetoh: How to help hawkers

Mr Seetoh’s frustration in response to the ST article is understandable, given that the workgroup’s approach to find ways to help hawkers digitise their business doesn’t align with the reasons that hawkers have cited as to why they aren’t going online.

Earlier in June, Mr Seetoh had explained the similar challenges faced by hawkers in a video posted on Our Grandfather Story Facebook page.

After speaking to some hawkers directly, he stressed that the high commission fees on food delivery platforms on top of administration fees eat into their profit margins.

This isn’t something that can be fixed by increasing their prices online either as many platforms do not encourage or allow stores to mark up their prices.

In fact, Foodpanda website states that “all dine-in prices and delivery prices must match”, while Grab “strongly recommend for menu prices to be the same as those in-store”. The same goes for Deliveroo.

One young hawker in the video said that this means they are “not earning at all”, which is why they prefer to stay off food delivery platforms.

Another reason Mr Seetoh had explained – which was also mentioned in the ST article – was that hawker food is not made for delivery apps.

Specifically, he said in an interview on Channel NewsAsia (CNA) podcast Heart of the Matter earlier on 3 June that much of hawker food has to be eaten freshly cooked, adding that this is something that hawkers themselves are adamant about.

Noting that hawker food “does not sit well” in transit, Mr Seetoh explained that this would affect the quality of the food; and in turn, people’s regard for hawker food in general over time.

In his interview and video, he suggested several ways people can support hawkers during these challenging times beyond simply helping them digitise their businesses. One way is to walk in and order takeaway from hawker stalls. The other is to do so in bulk by organising group purchases.

As for what the Government can do, Mr Seetoh asserted that the law against allowing hawkers to hire foreigners to help out should be changed. He explained that this could be beneficial and helpful to hawkers to have the extra help from foreigners since locals do not wish to take up such a job.

“Otherwise it would be very discouraging for people,” he noted, describing it as a “soft death knell” to Singapore’s hawker culture.

Beyond that, Mr Seetoh also stressed the need for a programme or space 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 stated that there isn’t any program that does that at the moment, which is part of the larger problem of succession.

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