In December 2020, Singapore’s hawker culture was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, reflecting its immense value to Singaporean culture. Nationwide conversations on key concerns and questions relating to Singapore’s hawker culture were revitalised. What is our hawker culture? As older hawkers retire, how might Singapore’s hawker culture continue to evolve in ways that facilitate its longevity? What is the role of public policy in preserving and progressing hawker culture?
On 8 May 2021, the Singapore Policy Journal (SPJ) hosted a public dialogue centred on these questions regarding Singapore’s hawker culture. It was attended by a group of undergraduate and graduate students from Singaporean and American universities, as well as some working professionals. The dialogue started by forming a working definition of hawker culture, before diving into two areas that constitute the continued development and preservation of hawker culture: manpower and business concerns, and tensions due to technological innovations.
By starting with an introductory conversation on understanding the term “hawker culture,” participants pieced together a picture of hawker culture and what makes it invaluable as cultural heritage. Participants brought up the historical roots of hawker culture in street hawkers, who for decades had provided immigrants to Singapore with affordable and scrumptious food. The conversation also involved some deliberation on the many ways hawker culture is tied to hawker centres as physical spaces. A point was made that hawker centres are qualitatively distinct from coffee shops, which tend to be privately owned. Hawker centres were formed as a result of early government intervention to license and resettle street hawkers from a wide range of cultures and cuisines. These iconic amenities were also closely associated with Housing Development Board (HDB) public housing resettlement efforts, in order to ensure that each new estate would have convenient access to dining options. Today, many features of hawker centres (e.g., the affordability of food and the presence of many stalls that cater to dietary requirements) are reminiscent of these early policy decisions to build and develop hawker centres, to cater to Singapore’s diverse, multiracial and multireligious population. Hawker centres are still recognised as community spaces in local estates as well. Considering the role of government policy in setting the direction for hawker culture was an important point even at this early point of the dialogue, since an overwhelming majority of hawker centres remain under the management of the National Environment Agency (NEA) or town councils.
Participants then considered two separate sets of issues that hawkers contend with daily, namely manpower and business concerns, and tensions due to technological innovations, and the policy concerns that stem from these issues. These were considered in separate breakout rooms.
Manpower and Business Concerns
In the group on manpower and business concerns, the conversation began with the fundamental premise that hawkers are small business owners. This means that they will be heavily affected by concerns that are shared with any small business such as profitability and the availability of suitable young people who are willing to join the industry. These issues are interconnected, since higher profitability would lead to a given industry being more attractive for younger people to join. Participants recognised that the many hawkers are in a difficult position in this regard. Hawkers are limited by consumer expectations, who tend to be especially price sensitive about hawker foods; this could be because hawker food is historically the more affordable food option. Participants agreed, from their own expectations and consumer preferences, that hawkers might find it challenging to have significant profit margins. This negatively affects the attractiveness of the industry for potential younger hawkers. In addition, hawkers are also affected by overhead costs, such as rental, cleaning and other miscellaneous costs. These will depend on where they choose to set up shop. For instance, one might expect hawkers who rent stalls in government-owned hawker centres to pay lower overhead costs than hawkers who have moved into privately owned coffee shops.
A new management model under pilot testing involving social enterprises in the management of hawker centres resulted in controversy in 2018 with some affected expressing displeasure through a petition. Hawkers in these social enterprise hawker centres (SEHCs) were especially concerned about additional regulations and costs (e.g., higher dishwashing costs, and costs of tray-return systems) that resulted from being managed by a social enterprise. These SEHCs were meant to introduce innovation and efficiency for hawker centres, by introducing elements of the private sector to how hawker centres are managed. Participants expressed some healthy scepticism over the role of SEHCs, sharing the concerns of hawkers affected in the 2018 incident and recognising that hawkers face challenging circumstances, at times due to some trade-offs caused by policy decisions.
Some participants, however, expressed some optimism that UNESCO’s recognition of Singapore’s hawker culture might be a potential resource to address some of these problems. It might be seen as a bookmark or snapshot in time of hawker culture as it stands, and at the same time attracts attention toward the need to preserve it. Ideally, this might be an opportunity to convince segments of the general public that upward adjustments in hawker food prices, perhaps for a segment of dishes in some stalls, might be justified to encourage the development of hawker businesses.. Along with existing government schemes such as the Hawker Succession Scheme (HSS), and grants for aspiring new hawkers, these are promising developments that serve to protect and facilitate the viability of hawkers as small businesses.
In the group on tensions due to technological innovations, participants recognised that the government’s overall push for digitalisation could be beneficial for the development of hawker businesses, but might also often present challenges for hawkers and for the desire to preserve hawker culture. Technologies that some hawkers and hawker centre operators use include e-payment systems, tray return systems, digital marketing tools and online platforms that allow consumers to order and pay for food virtually. These technologies have the potential to streamline the customer experience, expand hawker marketing outreach, and integrate hawker culture into Singapore’s overall Smart Nation trajectory. However, participants identified digital literacy, correlated with the high average age of the hawker workforce, as a major challenge to technology adoption and implementation. There were incidents, for instance, of older hawkers who were scammed by consumers who provided false payment information for e-payments. Such risks dissuade hawkers from transitioning to new systems, and expose digital knowledge gaps that should potentially be addressed. These practical challenges that older hawkers face are coupled with less concrete, but equally important questions on whether digitalisation fundamentally alters the traditional hawker experience. Ultimately, most participants agreed that the most popular technologies today, such as e-payments and automated tray return systems, are peripheral to the hawker centre experience and do not majorly threaten hawker heritage as we know it today.
While it is unlikely that hawker centres’ roles as community spaces will change drastically anytime soon, participants considered forward-looking models for hawker businesses, such as delivery-based systems that place “hawkerpreneurs” in ghost kitchens that exclusively serve customers through an online platform. Such models save on overhead costs and improve marketing reach, while preserving one of the most critical elements of hawker culture, the food. On the other hand, eliminating the physical hawker centre itself would mean erasing other key components of hawker culture, such as interactions between hawkers and their customers, the experience of mingling with a myriad of fellow diners, and even sweating through a spicy meal. These trade-offs may not be of immediate concern, but should be considered by policymakers as they set long-term roadmaps for the future of hawkers in Singapore, especially as technology modernisation initiatives gain momentum. In the end, even the most futuristic technological scenarios inevitably return to fundamental questions about what hawker culture is, which components merit preservation, and what the public might be willing to trade off in the name of convenience and efficiency.
While this event was a policy discussion on hawker culture, we recognise that the nature of hawker culture is dynamic and not solely dictated by policy. It is preserved through the sacrifice and contributions of hawkers, and shared with all in Singapore. Any set of policy considerations must consider the historical significance of hawker culture in Singapore’s history and its continued importance to Singaporeans today. Additionally, hawkers should be empowered by policy decisions, not hindered—close engagement with hawkers would be an important component of future policymaking. Participants were in broad agreement with these conclusions.
The SPJ team would like to thank our participants for joining us in this important conversation on hawker culture. This event stemmed from the team’s love of hawker food and culture, and our appreciation for the hawkers who toil daily to feed a nation, especially during the ongoing pandemic. Although the discussion centred on high-level policy, we recognise that our daily actions and consumption choices have a role to play in preserving our beloved hawker culture. We hope that attendees of this discussion will think about the role of hawker culture in their lives, and continue their participation in conversations and decisions that will be made concerning hawker culture. We also warmly welcome future participation in our events from anyone interested in related or different facets of Singapore policy.
Subscribe to our website: Get notifications when we publish new pieces
Like our SPJ Facebook page for updates on pieces and to see when we hold small group Discussions in Boston
In Boston? Like the SSEAF page for updates when we hold panels and events with distinguished academics and thinkers
Interested in responding to one of our published pieces? We welcome Letters To The Editor