No actual hawkers in Hawker centre 3.0 committee

From ‘Hawkers’ views must be central to review’, 16 April 2016, ST Forum

(Kwan Jin Yao):Wednesday’s report noted that the new 14-member committee set up to keep Singapore’s hawker culture strong is made up of people from the private and public sectors, including food enthusiasts and representatives from the educational institutions (“Serving up help for hawkers and better hawker centres“).

Actual hawkers or even those who work in hawker centres seem to be glaringly missing. Given the fact that the median age of cooked-food hawkers is 59, it would also make sense to include people from different age groups in the committee.

…Soliciting and aggregating the perspectives of hawkers across locality and demographics should, therefore, be central to the review.

Above all, a discourse over costs is necessary. We need to find out how cooked-food hawkers manage overheads, manpower and ingredient expenses; how costs and remuneration may deter young Singaporeans from entering the industry; and how hawkers may have struggled in recent years.

A conversation must also be had about the unfair disparity between hawker centres and other dining establishments, especially when much fuss is kicked up when the former raises prices, but not when the latter does the same.

Enough has been said about how hawker culture is a cornerstone of the Singaporean identity. Attempts to glam it up on the international stage by sending hawkers for Singapore Days overseas and getting celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsey to come here and cook laksa have made Singaporeans proud of their food heritage. A committee seems like a really boring way to keep the trade enticing to Singaporeans, especially those who have decided that they don’t want a typical bread-and-butter career and are brave enough to pursue a passion for hawking instead. Once used as a threat to kids who don’t study hard, we have moved away from the ‘roadsweeper/toilet cleaner/street hawker if you fail exams’ stigma and have come to accept young professionals taking up what kiasu parents once called ‘dirty jobs’.

If you were to pick a hawker of your choice to be a member of this cadre, who would you choose? Someone from the mixed economic rice scene? Or a niche Hokkien Mee specialist? How would you ensure that the candidate is not working purely out of self-interest when making recommendations? If the committee decides that all Hokkien Mee sellers should cut down on pork lard, how would that allow me to make an objective decision? Don’t get me wrong, I love hawker food. But I’d rather they be out there running their stalls and spending time with their loved ones after 12 hours of backbreaking work than sit behind a table arguing with people who don’t know the nuts and bolts of the business. Let’s see, there’s a famous food blogger, some director from the NHB and bizarrely, the Editor at Large of SPH. What is he going to do, I wonder. Change ‘Mixed Economic Rice’ to something that sounds more palatable?

Hawker or no hawker, the committee should aim towards long-term sustenance, and that goes beyond hawker centre infrastructure alone. Urging hawkers’ children to take over the stall runs counter to our relentless pursuit of excellence. Even the 2014 Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme designed to equip aspirants with the necessary skills didn’t work out well for NEA and WDA. The legacy problem aside, you can also trust ‘the powers that be’ to dash your hawker dreams, like what they did to aspiring fishball mee seller Douglas Ng. But an even more palpable conflict of a national level is that the Minister of Health has recently set up a task-force that has sworn balls-out WAR ON DIABETES.

According to one expert, the rise in obesity, a known risk factor for diabetes among other chronic diseases, is because of our ‘cheap food’ and sedentary lifestyle (Obesity also rising in Singapore, 2 Apr 2016, ST). So on one hand, we’re supposed to embrace our hawker culture, on the other we have the anti-diabetes army telling us to eat more brown rice, fish and broccoli, and less char kuay teow. Experience has taught us that you can’t marry the two. A healthy laksa doesn’t exist. If you see a ‘healthy pyramid’ logo on a stall it will be perceived that the food will probably taste like embalmed mummy meat. I believe even some members of the Hawker 3.0 committee secretly swear by the magic umami orgasm that is pork lard. Not sure how far Minister Gan is willing to go when it comes to managing our dietary habits. Maybe the banning commercials of unhealthy food may finally come to pass after years of MOH twiddling thumbs over it.

We can only pray hard that our ‘cheap food’ doesn’t become the first casualty of this diabetes war. If you want to drop the bomb on unhealthy fare, perhaps the overrated Korean fried chicken/bingsoo scene would be a good place to start.

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