Monday, 13 April 2015

[Today] Cheap hawker food comes at a social cost

While it is understandable that many Singaporeans treasure the rich heritage of our hawker centres, many may not have noticed that hawker centres are an anachronism for a high-income country like Singapore. Most high-income countries have street hawkers at some point of their history but abundant cheap, cooked food is becoming a relic. Hong Kong, a city very similar to Singapore, does not have many street hawkers or hawker centres left. Most have moved up the value chain to mid-priced cafes.

Hawker centres require a large number of auxiliary workers such as stall helpers, cleaners and dishwashers. In order to keep costs down, the wages of these auxiliary workers will have to be kept low.

The reason hawker centres are able to survive in Singapore, but not in most high-income countries, is that there is still an abundant supply of low-wage workers in Singapore, either from the low-skilled elderly workers or foreign workers. I believe it is this, rather than the cheap rental charged by the government, that is sustaining our hawker centre culture. Therefore, the consequence of continuing to support the hawker centre culture may be the need to continue to depress the wage of local low-skilled workers or import more foreign workers. Singaporeans will need to be aware and weigh the social costs of continuing to have abundant cheap cooked food.

One may argue that hawker centres are necessary to provide cheap food to the lower-income group. However, we need to distinguish between providing cheap food and cheap cooked food. It is always cheaper and healthier to cook one’s meal. Without hawker centres, the lower-income group could just choose the better option.

Therefore, while I agree that it is important to preserve our food heritage and its authenticity, it may not necessarily mean that it should be through the hawker centres in their present form.