Sunday 5 February 2017

Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee makes recommendations to sustain Singapore hawker culture

Hawker centres to get new look and roles
Space for hosting events, free Wi-Fi and stalls for aspiring hawkers among panel's proposals
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2017

Hawker centres are set to reinvent themselves. They could be remodelled into spaces hosting community events and a training ground for future generations that will keep the trade alive.

This is the vision of the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee, tasked with breathing life into a sector suffering from an ageing workforce and a shortage of new blood.

The 14-member committee, which spoke to more than 800 people over the last year, has made proposals that could change the hawker centre as we know it.

Centres could come with free Wi-Fi, for instance, or have a centralised dishwashing service and even stalls where aspiring hawkers can try their hand at the trade, according to the committee's report submitted yesterday.

One major issue is the growing demand for food sellers, particularly with 20 more hawker centres expected to be built by 2027. However, it has been hard to attract younger Singaporeans to what they see as a back-breaking profession. Today, the median age of hawkers is 59.

To make the sector more appealing, the committee's proposals are geared towards supporting new hawkers and raising the productivity of existing ones.

They also aim to turn food centres into social spaces for community events and even performances. This idea is also to encourage a considerate hawker culture - where patrons return trays, for instance.

Said committee chair Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources: "The vision is for our hawker centres to be appealing and vibrant social spaces where people from all walks of life can enjoy affordable and tasty food... and where hawkers can continue to make a decent livelihood."

Mrs Rosa Daniel, committee member and chief executive of the National Heritage Board, pointed out that hawker centres today are more than just places where people gather to eat.

"If you can make it a space where experiences are memorable and enjoyable, that would be better," she said. This effort has already started, with hawker centres featured on heritage trails, for instance.

The committee proposed that a few stalls in some centres be used as "incubation" stalls for aspiring hawkers to experience the profession for some time, and provide structured training in cooking hawker fare and running a hawker business.

Centralised dishwashing services so that hawkers do not have to wash their own dishes, cashless payment systems, as well as equipment that automates repetitive tasks like the chopping of onions and chilli, were also suggested to raise productivity and keep costs low.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said his ministry is studying the report.

Hawkers and patrons welcomed the proposals, though some pointed to the hurdles.

Ms Grace Ow, 36, who runs a Hokkien noodle stall in Bukit Timah Food Centre, pointed out that about $10,000 is needed to start off as a hawker, which deters many.

"The incubation stalls allow them to know if they like the job before taking the plunge," she said.

Foodie K.F. Seetoh, founder of food guide Makansutra, felt some ideas were not new. "But we need action and a diligent call for it," he said.

Administrative manager Karen Kan, 42, said that while the idea of having performances in hawker centres could make them more vibrant, most people just eat and go.

"Moreover, hawker centres are already buzzing with noise and chatter," she said.

Additional reporting by Lin Yangchen and Carolyn Khew

Automation and pooling resources the way to go
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2017

At Bukit Merah Central Food Centre, hawkers do not have to wash their own dishes or utensils.

Instead, they pay a fee for their dirty crockery and cutlery to be taken away and washed at a factory, and returned the next morning.

For Madam Irene Koh, 58, that saves her about $400 - the additional amount of money she would have had to fork out each month to hire someone to help her clean up.

"It saves time, labour and water... It has made our lives easier," said Madam Koh, who runs Mei Ji Fish Ball Noodle with her husband.

A central dishwashing service was among the recommendations proposed by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee yesterday, to improve productivity at hawker centres, a move that can help keep costs lower for hawkers and, in turn, patrons. Pooling resources and buying in bulk from suppliers, and using equipment to automate repetitive tasks such as the chopping of vegetables, were also highlighted.

Hawkers interviewed said they were open to buying common ingredients such as noodles, rice, salt and sugar in bulk as that would drive down their expenses, though they would still have to buy their own key ingredients such as prawns, for instance.

As for new machinery, some pointed out that this would be difficult because their stalls were too small. However, automation made sense for Mr Raymond Tan, 59, who runs a dumpling stall in Block 50A, Marine Terrace, as he got weaker with age. Last year, he spent $15,000 on a customised wok that stirs its content automatically.

Now, he is able to fry 20kg of pork at a go, double the previous amount. "I think this machine will help me stay in business longer," he said.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor, the committee chairman, noted that hawkers are wary of any additional costs, and said the team has suggested that the Government consider an incentive scheme to get them on board such productivity-enhancing initiatives.

"Hawker centres are close to the hearts of Singaporeans, and our recommendations are aimed at supporting Singaporeans who aspire to join the hawker trade, while at the same time ensuring that the public will continue to have access to affordable and tasty food in a clean and pleasant environment," she said.

Hawker Centre 3.0 proposals: 'Incubation stalls' can help budding hawkers
By Lin Yangchen, The Straits Times, 4 Feb 2017

Aspiring hawkers may get a chance to see if they can make the cut at "incubation stalls", where they will be provided with basic equipment and learn the trade from more experienced hawkers.

This was one of the recommendations in the report submitted by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources yesterday.

Mr Wong Kok Weng, 36, who quit selling mobile phones to start a salad stall in Amoy Street Food Centre in 2015, said having incubation stalls is a great idea.

The first six months were an uphill struggle, he said. "At first, I wasted a lot of food and time as I didn't know how much and when to prepare."

Despite being surrounded by food, he was eating one meal a day. "I didn't dare to eat as I didn't know when customers would turn up," he recalled.

"Over time, fellow hawkers gave me advice on the peak hours, and I also learnt that some items can be prepared the night before. But not all stalls are so helpful, as they may be worried that you will take business away from them," added Mr Wong, who runs a one-man show.

Mr Douglas Ng, 26, who started a fishball noodle stall in Golden Mile Food Centre in 2014, said the incubation stalls would be a good start.

He said that whether they really help budding hawkers would depend on whether the hawkers would need to pay rent and other costs during their stint. This was not specified in the recommendations.

When he started out, Mr Ng forked out $2,500 a month in rent from his savings, and broke even after 11/2 years.

Mr Fabian Toh, 36, who sells Cantonese dessert in Chinatown food centre, represents the latest generation in a family business that goes back to 1966. He said many new hawkers try too hard to be creative, offer too many varietiesor are overconfident about recipes, which could lead to disappointment.

"If you want to cook something, just cook that something and make sure you do a good job. The rest doesn't really matter," said Mr Toh.

Mr K.F. Seetoh, founder of food guide Makansutra, said implementing the incubation stalls idea would not be simple, as "some dishes require more than basics as a start".

"For example, a bak chor mee (stall) requires blanching stations, mise en place sections and a back wok station to make sauces and sambal, differing from, say, a chicken rice stall," he noted. "So, this has to be properly managed to meet the expectations of a new and eager set of street food chefs."

Additional reporting by Samantha Boh

Get basics right to attract new hawkers

The suggestions from the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee, while well-intentioned, does little to address the issue of attracting the younger generation to be hawkers ("Turning hawkers into wok stars"; Feb 12).

As someone who had tried my hand at being a hawker, I would like to share my observations.

Hawkers are there to make money. Because they are expected to keep prices low while dealing with high overheads, they have to sell a higher quantity to generate enough revenue, and that means long hours, which is a deterrent in attracting new blood.

The authorities could help by doing away with the bidding system, which results in high rental costs.

For new hawkers, a month or two of discounted utility costs could also help the new business get on its feet.

In the longer term, the public should get used to the idea that it is unrealistic to expect hawker prices to stay at an unsustainable low price.

What would also help greatly is to make the environment more comfortable for the hawkers - larger stall areas, better ventilation and clean washrooms.

Hawkers are currently expected to store, prepare and cook food as well as wash up and store their cooking ware and all utensils within a small confined area, while meeting fire safety and hygiene standards.

Doing all these in a hot and smoky environment on a daily basis makes for many grouchy hawkers.

People become hawkers mainly because they would like to be their own boss, and perhaps they enjoy cooking, too.

So while it is nice to portray young hawkers as glamorous stars, let's first focus on making the job environment comfortable, ensuring that the hours are reasonable, and the trade profitable.

Yeo Yujin
ST Forum, 19 Feb 2017

* Parliament: Hawker rental prices remain in check: Amy Khor
By Toh Wen Li, The Straits Times, 5 Jul 2017

A recent bid of $10,000 for a hawker stall was an "exceptional case", said Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor in Parliament yesterday, stressing that hawker rental prices remain in check.

Noting that the high bidder terminated his tenancy even before starting operations, Dr Khor said that the average successful tender bid for cooked food stalls over the last three years has been $1,370 per month, with bids ranging from $1 to $4,888.

As of May 1, about 97 per cent of the more than 6,000 cooked food stalls in the hawker centres owned by the Government were occupied, consistent with the average occupancy rate for the past five years, she added.

Dr Khor said there are no grounds for reinstating an old policy of allocating vacant hawker stalls to those in financial hardship.

"Like any other self-employed person, a hawker can sustain his business successfully if he is disciplined and has the required skills and not simply because he is in need of a job," Dr Khor said.

"Those who are genuinely interested in the hawker trade are welcome to bid for any of the vacant stalls which the National Environment Agency (NEA) puts out for tender every month."

She was responding to questions from Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who asked if the NEA might consider allocating hawker stalls based on the prevailing rental rate to families receiving financial assistance and people who had been retrenched.

Dr Khor said that at her ministry's Committee of Supply debate last year, she had explained why the previous policy of allocating vacant hawker stalls to those in financial hardship was terminated in 1990.

The take-up rate had been consistently very low and most of the applicants had rejected the stalls offered to them, preferring to wait for a vacancy in more popular hawker centres.

She added that those who need financial or other types of employment assistance can seek help from the Ministry of Social and Family Development or the Workforce Singapore respectively.

The issue of how to keep the hawker trade going in Singapore has been in the spotlight of late, especially given the report submitted in February by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

In Parliament, Dr Khor gave an update on some of the recommendations in the report.

The Hawker Fare Series - where people can pick up skills from veteran hawkers - was launched in May and has since been "overwhelmingly subscribed".

A hawker course with the Institute of Technical Education College West will allow aspiring hawkers to learn skills ranging from bidding for a hawker stall to running one.

There are also plans at the year end to introduce incubation stalls in some hawker centres, so people can see if they make the cut before deciding to enter the hawker trade.

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