What kind of $2.70 fishball noodle would you like?
Is this the fishball noodle we deserve or need?
Recently a young hawker by the name of Douglas Ng took to Facebook to express his opinion on how NTUC Foodfare hawker centres have asked for two items to be price-capped. In Ng’s case, for his fishball noodles to be priced at $2.70.
This was to allow consumers to enjoy hawker food at lower prices. Hawkers were allowed to price other offerings differently, so long as they have two items price-capped.
Ng’s point was that for him to provide handmade fishball noodles at $2.70, he would only be making $0.50 per bowl. That did not make sense to him, especially after taking into account all the hard work that is put into preparing the food.
This is his Facebook post in full:
This Facebook post prompted a response from Minister Vivian Balakrishnan who said that NEA has tried to keep rentals as low as possible. He cited that rentals were as low as $10.
Ng’s post also drew Facebook page Fabrications About The PAP to share a photograph of a bowl of fishball noodles being sold at $2.50. The stall is supposedly at a private-owned coffeeshop where rentals are higher than hawker centres.
The post prompted several people in the comments to upload photographs of other hawker dishes priced between $2 – $2.50.
What kind of $2.50 hawker food would you like?
Right now if you follow the conversation online there seems to be three kinds of $2.50 dishes:
1. $2.50 from old-school hawkers
2. $2.50 dishes some people think young hawkers should be able to produce
3. $2.50 dishes that rely on central kitchen production
It is very possible to get delicious dishes from old-school hawkers for $2.00 to $2.50. The question is, what will happen when Singapore runs out of them when they call it a day?
If one were to ask these hawkers if their children are planning to take over, the answer would probably be that not many would. Hawker succession is a problem that has been around for years. It even prompted Minister Balakrishnan to come out to talk about preserving our hawker heritage.
$2.50 hawker dishes can still be sold at healthy profit margins. Central kitchens and economies of scale are common methods used to push costs down. Another unpopular method is to reduce portions. The reality is, several air-conditioned food courts are selling central kitchen-produced soulless dishes at prices much higher than $2.50.
Young hawkers are the future
It is foolish to shoot down Ng’s concerns about thin profit margins and try to glance past his argument by stating that many dishes are still available at $2.50 from other hawkers. Here’s a young Singaporean telling you the realities of starting a hawker business. Not addressing his point only serves to turn more young Singaporeans off from entering the hawker trade.
Popular food blogger Dr Leslie Tay puts it most aptly:
Now, I have made this argument countless of times. If we want to get more young hawkers to go into the business, we need to make sure that they can earn a good income so that it is better for them to do what they are passionate about then to always be tempted to go into real estate or sell cars. It is my conviction that a bowl of fishball noodles like this should be $5 not $3. Now, a lot of readers may cite those who cannot afford to pay $5 for a bowl of noodles and I am sympathetic to the aunties and uncles in the Pioneer Generation who can’t afford to pay more for their food. But, consider this. They will always have Pioneer Generation hawkers who already have their homes paid off and who are enjoying Pioneer hawker rentals in the range of $200-$300 a month serving a bowl of noodles for $2.50. So, they are putting pressure on our young hawkers to sell their noodles at the same price level even though they are paying $2000 for their rentals and they have to think about raising a family.
Singaporeans may bemoan the fact that things are getting more expensive, but take a look at the comments on Ng’s Facebook post as well as the comments found in a letter in Today which eloquently explains the problem with price ceilings for hawker dishes.
Most of the comments were in support of hawkers.
And then there are comments like these that make you question whether Singaporeans deserve the hawker heritage that they are losing:
Being a hawker is tough. I would like to believe that young Singaporeans are not afraid of hard work. What they are afraid of is working hard for minimal returns while their peers are getting ahead in life in cushier jobs.
Take a walk around food courts, how many of those people standing behind the counters are young Singaporeans? Not many. They are not hawkers as well. They are employees dishing out central kitchen-produced food.
Will the hawker landscape be transformed into one where food is mass-produced at a central kitchen and void of human culinary mastery? It seems the case as long as Singaporeans continue to want their high quality hawker food and refusing to pay good money for it.