Hawkers – culture killing culture

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan bemoaned the risk of Singapore’s hawker trade dying. In spite of his ministry’s efforts to build more hawker centres, he felt that not enough young Singaporeans would step up to fill the shoes of the outgoing generation of hawkers.

“There is a very real chance that we will not succeed because of manpower.” ST reported the Minister as saying, “We can build many more hawker centres, but will we be able to get the hawkers?”

He said that his ministry was pushing for “lower rental rates”, and was hoping to find ways for veteran hawkers to teach their trade. Meanwhile, his ministry would “wait and see”. Is it enough, or fast enough?

The truth is that the Singapore culture is killing hawkers, who are in turn a mainstay of our local culture. Almost all the reasons why the hawker trade is dying can be traced back to the culture we have built.


Hawkers face competition from other kinds of eateries. Without giving market protection to hawkers, you can expect them to die out, just like how supermarkets are slowly killing our mamak stalls.

It’s not just low rents (which don’t exist in popular areas) – preferential access to schemes and perks and tax breaks and rebates are needed, and must be pushed to busy hawkers who have no time in their day to walk to a government office or browse a government website to check out what’s available.

Protected trade

Only Singaporeans and PRs can own or work at hawker stalls. As noble as this may sound, I think that this works against the survival of our hawker trade. Many Singaporeans today are not inclined to work the long hours of a hawker.

Anecdote: a western stall in my hawker centre is run by a couple with a thick mainland Chinese accent (I assume they are PRs). They make great “western food”, Singapore style. If they can adapt to and advance our local hawker culture, it stands to reason that another “foreigner” will be able to as well.

You see, the “foreigner problem” isn’t about them being foreigners – it is about there being an oversupply of foreigners, which depresses wages. Manage the labour supply and it may be possible to allow a quota of foreigners (with tested language skills) to take up a hawking profession.

High rents and subletting

How exactly does the Minister hope to “lower rental rates”? Removing the bidding price floor was a start, as was letting SEs manage hawker centres, but with stalls still generally available for “subletting” (by means legal and illegal), prices of prime stall locations will always be pushed up, giving hawkers razor-thin margins.

Insisting that hawkers run their own stalls and stop profiteering from a rentier mentality will not only improve the prospects of hawkers, it will encourage real expertise as cooks and chefs take ownership of their stalls. Beefing up the supply of stalls in overcrowded areas will also help lower rents. Give grants to shop assistants to take over from their rentier bosses.

Risk aversion and the safety net

Why work 12 hours a day so that you can potentially lose the shirt off your back when nobody shows up at your stall? Why not take a job working for someone else in an entry-level job and still be able to net some overtime pay?

With hawker centre cleaner wages set to rise to $1,200 or more, some hawkers may find it more profitable to throw away leftovers than to put food on the table.  With the massive income gap in our country, we need to equip hawkers to deal with risk, lower those risks and strengthen social safety nets. Maybe free utilities for the first two years of opening a stall.

Lack of respect, lack of prestige

Hawking has long been treated with disdain. It is the last resort of failures and dropouts. Our education system discourages the professional pursuit of our passions, unless that passion is something like engineering, law or medicine.

We need to reform an education system and economy that glorifies paper qualifications and sneers at those who become tradesmen. Hawkers must be made noble. Awards are nice, as Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh suggests, but hawkers really want some basic human dignity, not the crumbs of elitist meritocracy.

And please don’t make a state-sponsored Mediacorp drama about it. Maybe we can screen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” instead? It is an excellent documentary about passion for making just one type of food.

Low birth rates

How to pass on a family business to the kids you don’t have? When the government eugenics and sterilization programme ripped our birth rate to shreds in the relentless pursuit of more “graduate mothers”, the hopes of a hawker heritage went out the window.

Our TFR will always be a thorn in the side of our cultural survival. Many suggestions have already been made on how to fix it, but steps taken so far have not been courageous enough.

Some hawkers could take on and register apprentices and could be given cash payouts/rebates if their apprentices set up shop on their own after two years, or if they take over the business.


Sure, the minister wants to build more hawker centres, but are they in the right places? The Marina Bay Financial Centre and the CBD are overcrowded and undersupplied. Meanwhile, new hawker centres are being built in the boondocks, with stalls in places with low foot traffic. Hawker rents in the CBD are through the roof while new hawkers in new towns see few customers, although rents are lower.

Distribution of hawker stalls needs to be normalised, or else new “city centres” need to be developed quickly (as mentioned in the population White Paper) to divert the working population to fringe hawker centres.


Lack of sector development

So, a hawker school. That’s an idea, although it’s already been nose-thumbed by some. The ministry fails to realize that trades like hawking are best taught by a quick foundation in general food industry knowledge, small business management and then years of apprenticeship. A school may not be the best way to pass on knowledge.

Hawkers also need to be resilient businessmen and must be equipped with basic financial management, risk management and other administrative skills associated with the trade.



  1. Is really simple. As you have alluded to, what is the difference between ‘air conditioned food courts” versus “open-air hawker centers” these days?

    Akin to the NTUC /Cold Storage phenomenal, you will see the slow dilution and dying out of the conventional, buy-fresh-and-alive wet markets that we once had. People end up eating processed and pre-packed foods. Those market scenes are long gone and can only be found in our neighboring countries where we travel to for nostalgia and freshness. In Hong Kong, people consciously boycott the Park-n-Shop or Wellcome stores but support the local Papa/Mama stall owners who are still eking out a living. In typical Singapore, we unthinkingly go for the convenience and kill our own unique culture. There is no dying out of hawkers, there is just hollowing out by corporately run rent-seeking groups. Vivian is using the old schism that “No Singaporeans want to be a hawker” along the same line of “Jobs Singaporeans don’t want to do”.

    So when the government says they want to step in to help, you can bet they are destroying it.


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