FROM 2009 to 2010, I studied hawker centres in Singapore while on a Fulbright Fellowship. Before I even arrived, I came across articles suggesting that first-generation hawkers were dying or retiring, but their children were not taking over. These articles focused on the loss of certain foods and did not consider the potential effect on hawker centres. During my research, I concluded that hawker centres were endangered, though everyone I spoke with believed they would always exist.
Since 2010, there have been positive signs: The Government has improved stall rental policies, developed a training programme with master chefs and is building the first new hawker centres since 1986.
While these actions will help, I do not believe they are enough. Even the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan has admitted that while it is easy to build new hawker centres, the "key challenge is to find enough Singaporeans willing to enter this profession, which is a difficult, challenging one".
For my research, I interviewed about 100 hawkers at 26 different centres across Singapore. The average age of my interviewees was 50, with a range from 33 to 82.
I quickly stopped asking about profits because no one wanted to discuss them. A newspaper article earlier this year ("Hawkers unsure of not-for-profit model"; Jan 13) referred to a man who made only slightly more than $10,000 last year. Based on my research, I suspect such low levels of profit are relatively common.
Part of the problem is that hawker food is too cheap. While there has been dismay over price increases, in reality they have not increased significantly in recent years. An article last year ("Serving up a good deal for hawkers"; May 30, 2013) noted that overall, the price of chicken rice has increased a mere 50 cents since 1993.
In 20 years, the cost of everything else has risen - fuel, raw ingredients, utilities and so on. It is impossible for hawkers to make decent profit margins if public opinion does not allow them to raise their prices to keep pace.
Beyond this financial reality, the reasons people become hawkers are also posing additional challenges for the long-term outlook of hawker centres. The overwhelming majority (69 per cent) of those I interviewed had entered the trade because of family. Only 6 per cent quoted a passion for cooking as their motivation.
There was a notable level of dissatisfaction among hawkers, mainly among those who had switched from other careers. I spoke to a 37-year-old engineer who had taken over his father's stall against his father's wishes. When I asked the son what he liked best, he responded: "Actually, I don't like anything." He cited the long hours and resulting loss of a social life as the most difficult aspect.
This dissatisfaction is understandable, given that 70 per cent of the hawkers I interviewed worked at least 12 hours per day and 38 per cent of those worked at least 14 hours per day. No one I interviewed worked fewer than nine hours per day.
In addition to the long hours and low profit margins, being a hawker involves physically exhausting work in a hot environment. Consequently, it is not seen as a career path for those with higher levels of education. Many of my interviewees did not know what would happen to their stalls in the future, but 32 per cent told me their children would not take over, pointing out that they were better-educated and could therefore get better jobs.
If the main reason people become hawkers is to help their families, and that trend is declining as education and corresponding opportunities for better jobs are increasing, where will the next generation of hawkers come from?
I'm just an ang moh (Caucasian foreigner) and I can't claim to know what's best for Singapore. But I do know that more action is needed to save hawker centres. And it's not the Government's responsibility to try to save them - it's everyone's.
First, the public should accept moderate price increases so that hawkers can make decent profits and have a higher quality of life.
If this would make food too expensive for low-income citizens, perhaps the Government could offer them subsidised food cards.
Similarly, perhaps the Government could consider offering all hawkers subsidised rental rates. This could make entering the profession more appealing by increasing the potential for profits and the ability to achieve a work-life balance.
Others have suggested that raising the profile of hawkers might encourage people to enter the profession. The government could apply for hawker centre culture to be added to Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. If successful, this designation would significantly raise the profile of hawkers and hawker centres both abroad and at home. Recent television shows such as Wok Stars, in which celebrity chefs Alvin Leung and Willin Low whip into shape a handful of hawker-wannabes, have already attempted to glamorise the hawker profession. However, I would encourage the organisers to offer a prize of free rent at an actual hawker centre, rather than a private food court.
If all else fails, serious consideration should be given to allowing foreigners to become hawkers, provided they have completed the training programme. While there is an inherent irony in turning over a cultural institution to foreigners, cooking skills and recipes can be taught. Besides, foreigners already cook in private food centres and coffee shops.
Ultimately, whatever path is chosen, hawkers and hawker centres are endangered and should be treated with the respect and acclaim accorded to any other cultural treasure.