COMMENTARY: "We cannot be ostriches who bury their heads in the sand, believing that it will always go well for us in Singapore."
Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School. Here, he shares his thoughts and reflections on Malaysia's chicken export ban since Jun. 1, 2022.
The average Singaporean eats about 36 kg of chicken per year.
This works out to 572 original recipe drumsticks from KFC, which in turn equates to more than one and a half drumsticks per day, after doing some simple math using measurements from the company’s website.
It is no wonder that the news of the export ban resulted in supermarket and wet market shelves being wiped clean of fresh chicken.
For some, it brought back memories of the run on toilet paper and eggs in 2020, at the start of the pandemic.
The strange thing about hoarding fresh chicken is that eventually the meat will have to be frozen, in order to keep it from rotting.
For me, it seems odd to overstock fresh chicken only to have to freeze it, when frozen chicken is readily available everywhere.
When chicken rice sellers started crowing about not being able to make their dish with frozen chicken, queues started to form, with chicken rice aficionados trying to get their last proper fix of the dish before the impending Malaysian ban.
It is true that there is a small group whose livelihoods have been affected by the ban. Some staff at local chicken importers and wet market stalls have been asked to take leave as owners reassess their options.
However, for the vast majority of us, the fresh chicken ban is not an emergency, but an inconvenience.
Our family has adapted to the ban by switching to frozen chicken and cutting back on our consumption of the meat in favor of alternative proteins instead. For us, frozen chicken is ultimately the same meat as fresh chicken, just a little less tasty.
Not having access to fresh chicken is not the end of the world, and most importantly, we are not going hungry. Despite the ban, chicken is in plentiful supply from alternative sources like Brazil and the US.
Singapore has experienced far more existential threats in its history, like when the Malaysian government threatened to cut off fresh water supplies in the mid-1980s, before our desalination and NEWater strategies had fully taken off.
The threat at the time was far more serious, and led a Member of Parliament to say of the looming water crisis at the time: “This issue is very serious. I mean, it is not a case of sacrificing an opportunity to bathe ourselves. It’s our lifeblood.”
The current chicken export ban is a reminder of just how fragile the Singapore way of life is, and how easy it is to cut off our lifeblood in the form of water, food, or other essentials.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong tried to address this during an overseas interview about the chicken ban. He signalled to the population that this would not be the first or last food supply chain disruption that we would experience, saying, “this time it is chicken, next time it may be something else. We have to be prepared for this.”
The increasing dislocation of global supply chains has led to price increases in food, goods, and services. PM Lee’s view is that “many more disruptive things can happen than just some price adjustments. And we are seeing some of that now."
In addition, the current war in Ukraine is a lesson for us not to take things like national security and sovereignty for granted.
In the same vein, we should never assume that our fragile water security and food security is ironclad.
So, what can be done? As PM Lee said in his overseas interview, "the answer is not what we do now, but what we have been doing now for several years, which has been to build up our buffer stocks and resiliency, and diversify our sources.”
On the topic of resilience, there is a real opportunity to use this chicken crisis to explain to our young what it was like in Singapore after World War 2 (WW2) and the ensuing founding years of the country.
Those were times of great uncertainty, where the prosperity, security, and stability of the country was anything but assured.
Bobby Duffy, a King’s College London professor, wrote in his best-selling book “Generations” about the gap between generations and the impact of generational effects on trends like voting, health, and sustainability.
One of the generational effects that he writes extensively about is the cohort effect. He writes that a generation can “have different attitudes, beliefs and behaviours because they were socialised in different conditions from other generations, and thus will remain distinct from other cohorts even as they age.
An example such a cohort effect is in the WW2 generation. The war imprinted specific experiences in that generation that pioneered Singapore and made it strong.
I remember spending time as a young child with both my late grandmothers, who survived the war. They would talk to me frequently about their war experiences on lazy afternoons as we tried to beat the heat by sitting under fans and drinking cool refreshments.
For them it was a time of great suffering and unspeakable sacrifice. The generational suffering that they went through was pivotal in shaping their perspectives and longer term resilience, long after the war had ended.
On reflection, there was more than just idle chatter taking place during those bucolic afternoons, but a real effort to make sure that the experiences that they went through were passed onto the next generation.
I distinctly remember that neither of my grandmothers would voluntarily eat sweet potato because it was the staple which kept them alive during the war. Sometimes there was just nothing to fill their bellies during mealtimes except the ubiquitous sweet potato which was found everywhere.
Both had sworn to themselves that if they survived the war, they would never eat sweet potato again.
I do not think that either of my grandmas would approve of the queues forming to buy fresh chicken, in light of the export ban, or the sheer amount of coverage that the ban has received in the media.
As a case in point, the chicken issue made it to the front page of The Straits Times every day for the first five days of June after the ban came into force.
As PM Lee said, today it is about chicken, tomorrow it could well be something else, which results in more pain and sacrifice across the country.
While we still can, we must do what we can to preserve the strength and resilience that our forefathers have shown in the past, in the same way that my grandmothers would talk to me about how they survived the war.
Duffy writes that living through the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “true generation defining moment, with after-effects that will shape the future of whole cohorts.”
If nothing at all, the pandemic has seeded the thought in our young people that the world is indeed an unstable place.
We cannot be ostriches who bury their heads in the sand, believing that it will always go well for us in Singapore.
At home, we have discussed the chicken export ban with our kids to try to inoculate them on how to adjust and adapt to an increasingly unstable world.
If more of us were to do so, maybe the silver lining, from the Malaysian fresh chicken export ban, is that we will come out of this mini-crisis a little more resilient than before.
Top photo by Hor Teng Teng