Affordable food, not rock-bottom prices
Hawker centres undoubtedly play a crucial role in Singapore's identity and culture.
In the words of Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, whose Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources looks after the 107 markets and public hawker centres here: "They are places where Singaporeans from all walks of life can interact and enjoy fresh food at affordable prices."
Here is the rub: There is an unspoken expectation that hawker food is meant to be the cheapest option.
But affordable is not the same as rock-bottom prices.
Chinatown duck rice and kway chap (pig offal) hawker Melvin Chew said: "If I raise the price just a bit, everybody will avoid me. They all expect us to be cheap, they don't care how the costs of ingredients and manpower have gone up."
If we want to keep "affordability", it cannot come at the expense of hawkers.
To be fair, as Mr Balakrishnan said in Parliament on Tuesday, the Government does not dictate the prices of what the hawkers sell.
There has been an effort to keep rents low at hawker centres. He revealed that over 85 per cent of hawkers in our hawker centres pay less than $1,500 per month in rent and about 41 per cent (2,400) of them are paying subsidised rental of $160 to $384.
All hawker stalls have to be personally operated, so it is no longer a way for landlords to make money via the old subletting route.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) also abolished the concept of reserve rent for hawker stalls during the bidding process.
It offers available vacant stalls for monthly tender exercises. About half of the successful bids are now below 85 per cent of the assessed market rent. Sounds good? No, it is not enough. It is not just about rental.
Here are things that NEA should consider:
1 INGREDIENT COST
NTUC FairPrice should work closely with the relevant ministries and agencies to buy basic ingredients in bulk for the public food centre hawkers - there are less than 6,000 of them.
Basic ingredients include sugar, salt, rice, oil, flour and vegetables, poultry and fish. The hawkers can find their own sources for special ingredients.
This can help reduce costs by up to 15 per cent.
2 FOREIGN WORKERS
The rule now is that only Singaporeans and PRs are allowed to work in hawker centres.
A recent survey showed many Singaporeans find it hard to accept jobs paying less than $1,700 a month, citing cost of living.
Current rules already require that hawkers run their own stalls. So in this case, we know that the bosses will be there to cook, but why not get them some help for the chopping and cleaning?
3 NO OPEN BIDDING SYSTEM, ZONE HAWKER CENTRES
Some hawker centres will have high traffic and maybe command more rent. Others, less so.
Fix these rates across the board for the hawkers in these centres, so that everyone in one location will pay the same price.
This takes the guesswork out of what you should pay vis-a-vis your neighbours and you will know immediately what rent parameters you are prepared to deal with.
If you have higher operating capital, then by all means go for the hawker centres in the middle of town. This way, it is not necessarily the highest bidder that wins the right to ply his trade.
Officials will have to decide who gets the stall based on the best applicants and who among the applicants has a good operating system.
4 FOOD FOR THE POOR
If suggestions 1, 2 and 3 are implemented, then they have to give discounts to the poor and needy.
Give a card like the Chas (Community Health Assist Scheme) to the deserving. I know many hawkers are happy to offer cheap, or even free, meals to the disadvantaged.
NEA has appointed NTUC Foodfare Co-operative and Fei Siong Food Management as the managing agents to run two new hawker centres, in Bukit Panjang and Hougang respectively, on a not-for-profit basis.
Finally, NEA should be the guardian of Singapore's hawker food culture, instead of just looking after the physical premises.
It can think of ways to help preserve the foods that are dying out without young people stepping in because the margins are not profitable.
I hope there is courage in our policy-makers to protect and propel our rich food heritage.
"If I raise the price just a bit, everybody will avoid me. They all expect us to be cheap, they don't care how the costs of ingredients and manpower have gone up."
- Chinatown duck rice and kway chap (pig offal) hawker Melvin Chew