In March this year, Singapore officially submitted its nomination to inscribe Hawker Culture on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Culture Heritage of Humanity. The bid included letters and videos showing community support for the nomination, photographs contributed by Singaporeans and entries to the #OurHawkerCulture photography content and a 10-minute video to explain the country’s hawker culture.
While all these stand testament to the significance of hawker centres to Singapore’s cultural landscape, acceptance into the UNESCO Representative List would promote a greater international awareness of our hawker culture, recognise hawkers’ efforts and encourage future generations to continue the trade.
However, efforts to safeguard hawker culture cannot rest purely on admission into the UNESCO Representative List. A recent experiment with the social enterprise hawker centre model was a step in the right direction to securing public support and awareness, however, this initiative unfortunately got off to a rocky start.
The social enterprise model ‘experiment’
Today, there are seven Socially-conscious Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs) in Singapore, managed by five privately-owned social enterprises.
Proposed by The Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel, the social enterprise management model for hawker centres is built to provide social benefits to the community, employment opportunities for lower-income and less privileged individuals and help to those who aspire to take up the hawker trade.
Through standardisation, centralisation and the introduction of innovation initiatives, SEHC operators sought to improve efficiencies in the hawker centre business, drive increased footfall to hawker centres, and raise the standards of hawker fare.
In 2018, however, a petition signed by hawkers at Jurong West Hawker Centre brought some dissatisfactions to light. At the same time, it uncovered potential ideas to set hawker culture on much a stronger footing for the future. To this end, the petition outlined several changes which must occur:
1. Operators must rethink ways to secure profit
A key issue motivating the Jurong West Hawker Centre stallholders relates to auxiliary costs. Having to pay hundreds of dollars per month for customers to return their trays, the hawkers were feeling the pinch.
Other stallholders at SEHCs have expressed similar concerns over rising costs that they have to bear despite low footfall, leading them to paint SEHC operators as being ‘too profit-motivated’.
While it is perfectly acceptable for social enterprises to be profitable, we need to rethink how they can do so without harming hawkers – the very people that SEHCs hope to benefit. Take Timbre+ for example, consumers are charged for tray deposits, which encourages customers to return trays without levying costs on hawkers.
2. Onerous contracts must give way to greater autonomy
Furthermore, onerous contracts between SEHC stallholders and operators are stifling hawkers. These contracts include somewhat intrusive terms including stipulations on the amount of calories in the dishes that stallholders sell, and the fines payable each day should a stallholder close without giving a week’s notice pre-approved by the managing agent.
One can imagine how these terms restrict stallholders’ freedom in deciding what to serve, and how and when they wish to operate. Hawkers may be better off if those terms were taken out of the contract altogether.
The running of the business should then be left to the stallholders who will be empowered to respond to market forces of supply and demand. If customers, for instance, want healthier dining options or a premium version of a hawker dish, stallholders may be naturally incentivised to tailor their food offerings and pricing strategy based on these market forces.
Free from the artificial restrictions of contractual controls, they could then be more responsive to business conditions and able to earn a fair income that keeps pace with inflation.
3. Taking a ‘hawker-centric’ approach as top priority
We should not fail to appreciate that hawker centres live and die by hawkers themselves.
Therefore, in any future planning or decision-making, the interests of hawkers and how they can be meaningfully supported and engaged must be of top priority. Without input from the hawkers, decisions made may not be beneficial or good for the hawkers’ bottom-line.
This level of involvement would also allow the socially-conscious enterprise hawker centre model to live up to the social aspirations of its moniker.
Hawker centres are ours to protect
As authorities have maintained, the UNESCO nomination is not about staking ownership over hawker culture. Instead, it demonstrates our collective will to protect this intangible heritage and the underlying social values that bind our society.
It conveys our appreciation for past and present generations of hawkers and our commitment to support future generations who take up the trade.
As a result, all stakeholders — including the government, stallholders, centre management personnel, representative groups and the general public — should persist with efforts to preserve the uniqueness of hawker culture in Singapore and what it represents.
This article has been adapted from an earlier commentary: “Protecting our hawker culture requires us to give hawkers more autonomy” by Cheng Kwang Hwee and Tan Lee Cheng, Senior Lecturers at the School of Business, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)