By Tang Li
Image Credit: MediaCock
One of the things that the Singapore government is very good at is coming up with quirky terms and coining phrases. When the late Indonesian President B. J. Habibie called us “a Little Red Dot,” we proceeded to turn it into a catch phrases of sorts. Then there’s the word “hub,” which when used by Singapore’s elite often refers to the fact that we are a “hub” for everything and anything conceivable.
Singapore's most inventive contribution to the English language is in re-imagining the word “entrepreneur.” In the early 1990s, when the government tried to get Singaporeans to become more “entrepreneurial” in the technology sector, we devised the term “technopreneur,” which was essentially an entrepreneur who had set up a business that entailed some semblance of technological investment. By Singapore's definition, Silicon Valley is thus populated with “technopreneurs.”
The latest group of “preneurs” that the Singapore government is trying to breed are known as “Hawkerpreneurs.” Thanks to UNESCO, the Singapore government has suddenly realized that Singapore’s food vendors or hawkers form an invaluable part of Singapore’s cultural landscape. Hawkers have fed generations of Singaporeans and are the very reason why Singapore is described as a “food paradise.” More importantly (particularly from a government calculation of revenue from elsewhere perspective), whenever friends from abroad come and visit us, we always feel the need to bring them to a “hawker centre.”
There is, however, one tiny snag to this most Singaporean of institutions. Old Hawkers are getting too old to continue doing what they do and the kids simply don’t want to sit over a stove 24/7 to eke out a living. It’s true that many outdoor hawker centres are giving way to cooler air-conditioned food courts, but even then, the life of a hawker remains unforgiving. Long, physically demanding hours are involved day in day out. While you do hear stories of how there are hawkers who have made enough to own a Mercedes and send their kids to university, you’ll also find hawkers who have sent their kids to university for the very purpose of ensuring they shan't end up as hawkers. As Tan Tee Seng opines in the following article, being hawker was a way for the less fortunate to earn a living and not to set up a “legacy” business: [LINK]
So, the government is in a dilemma. It has what is known today as the “hawker culture,” which gives it a source of revenue alongside the reality that people are not rushing to set up hawker stalls. What can be done about it?
The answer that the government has come up with – is pretty much its answer for everything else. Throw money at the problem until it is no longer a problem. If you look at what the government is proposing for “hawkerpreneurs,” it is pretty much the same as what it has done for “technopreneurs,” as evinced by the following link: [LINK]
As in the case of “technopreneurship,” it’s a case of offering money, either through direct grants or subsidizing venture capital, as well as making mentorship programs more easily accessible. The following link from the National Environment Agency (“NEA”) provides an outline of the government’s plans for further shaping an already developed hawker culture: [LINK]
The latest game is to come up with a course, to qualify young people for “hawkerpreneurship” as is outlined by this article: [LINK]
Yes, there is actually an assumption that since you can obtain a qualification in “hawkerpreneurship,” bright young sparks will therefore want to enter the industry. Details of the program can be found at: [LINK]
Unfortunately, our bureaucrats haven’t quite understood that there is a key difference between a technology start up and a food stall. People set up high tech-start ups and slog their guts out because there’s hope of selling out to a bigger company or through IPO for an untold fortune. There’s the satisfaction of knowing people's lives can possibly change for the better through your technology. By contrast, being a hawker involves toiling away endlessly, not to mention the odds of being bought out by a huge company are near non-existent. Even if you possess qualifications in “hawkering,” the reality of operating a “hawker” business remains the same.
I’m not against having courses per se. Its good to have people in the food business trained to a recognized standard as far as like hygiene and quality of service are concerned. However, truth is you’re not going to attract your best and brightest into a particular industry until certain ground realities change.
The biggest factor affecting hawkers is rent. Rents for a small stall remain high and as long as they do, a significant portion of the hawker's hard-earned dollars will simply end up in the pockets of landlords. Think about it, a stall in United Square can set one back by something like $5,000 plus a month rental-wise. A hawker selling chicken rice at $4 a plate will therefore need to peddle 1,250 plates of chicken rice every month just to cover the rent (that's without factoring in cost of ingredients and other miscellaneous outlays). Honestly I don’t see the prospect of needing to sell 1,250 plates of chicken rice a month just to pay a landlord being attractive to anyone, period.
So, instead of trying to “glamorize” what is by its very nature a tough business, perhaps the real solution is to look at the original purpose of being a “hawker,” which was to give the poorer people an opportunity to develop a means of making a living.
Singapore currently has plenty of less educated workers from “developing” Asia, who are willing to perform the “tough” jobs that our locals won’t desire to. Perhaps we should make it easier for this group to become hawkers. Sure, they’ll imbue flavors reminiscent of their home nations in our food mix but then again, isn’t that a natural part of culture, where people adapt and augment existing state of affairs accordingly?
Our government is missing out largely on an opportunity to use the hawkers to integrate people and cultures. Instead throwing money at the unwilling, shouldn’t it be trying to cultivate the willing?