Petir Explains: Why are hawker centres important to S’pore?

It’s an everyday Singaporean ritual, popping down to our neighbourhood hawker centre, just anytime and always whenever.

There’s that chicken rice. And here’s healthier choice laksa for Dad; maybe we can ˆ this famous bibimbap for Mom. Plus this new Western for the little ones and here’s the nasi padang you heard about from your #squad chatgroup.  

Singapore’s 120-plus hawker centres are a really rojak mix, is what we’re saying. And prices there are very hard to beat. Especially in the newer ones, where they’re set up as social enterprises which provide affordable food. Every stall at the just-opened Senja Hawker Centre, for example, offers at least one main dish costing between S$2.80 to S$3.50. 

World-class too. The United Nations deems our hawker culture as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity and New Yorkers (among many other people out there) can now look forward to chilli crab and chicken rice when they’re hungry.

And you might have noticed even more of them around over the last few years.

In 2022 alone, Fernvale, One Punggol, Senja and Bukit Canberra Hawker Centres opened their stalls, giving hungry Singaporeans another place for a social, sit-down meal.

“Hawker centres play important roles of providing affordable food and common social spaces for all Singaporeans to interact. Over the next few years, new hawker centres will be built to cater to higher demand from the growing population in our housing estates,” stated then-Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan when Singapore’s 12th Parliament opened in October 2011.

“We will improve cleanliness and hygiene standards across hawker centres and review our management approach to ensure the continued provision of good affordable food,” he added.

How did hawker centres become so important to Singapore, though? What do people think of them? And what’s the Government doing to keep them thriving?

The answer lies in Singapore’s past urban policies. That, and thinking about exactly how hawker centres sustain Singapore in more ways than the immediately obvious.    

An urban policy for changing times

Hawker centres today are constantly cleaned and their chairs and tables spaced out logically. All the better to walk between them while carrying that heaping helping of yong tau foo and that less-sugar tau huay.

But these orderly and hygienic mealtimes are a relatively new development when we consider the over 200-year history of modern Singapore.

Sure, there was always street food. One imagines the first coolies polishing off cheap, big bowls of porridge and satay after a long session in the stockyards. And over a century later, dockworkers along the Singapore River draining dry their day’s order of bak kut teh in preparation for the next shift.

Source: National Archives of Singapore

Then, in the years directly before independence, hawking food around one’s neighbourhood was an accessible way for helping support one’s family: three-quarters of Singapore’s population being crammed around the city centre assured high footfall for the savvy small businessperson’s enterprises.

All these had their problems, however. Overcrowding and unhygienic waste processing (there normally wasn’t much access to running water) particularly threatened public health. Cholera and typhoid outbreaks were recurring facts of life in Singapore during all this time, and the wares and stands of street hawkers added to their spread.

So enter the PAP Government and its great island-wide hawker’s registration exercise of 1968-69.

“The objective and long-term solution to our hawker problem is to persuade and educate our hawkers that it is in their ultimate interest to trade inside proper permanent licensed premises, i.e markets and shophouses, where the essential facilities of running water, electricity and proper refuse disposal are available and will attract profitable and stable business to hawkers because of better convenience to customers,” stated then-Minister for Health Yong Nyuk Lin in 1966.

This exercise, accordingly, helped lock in the number of hawkers and allowed for them to be relocated when needed to less-congested streets and lanes.

Source: National Archives of Singapore

It also paved the way for a 1971 to 1986 programme where the Government helped hawkers set up shop in markets and custom-built hawker centres (complete with proper amenities) within new HDB estates. Residents, understandably, would need easy access to food.  

All told, the PAP Government built 54 hawker centres between 1974 to 1979. The Block 505 hawker centre over at Jurong West was the last one built under this programme during 1986.

So here was the Government, overall focusing urban policy since Singapore’s first decade of independence towards making our new nation livable, and later meeting the changing needs of Singaporeans. These hawker centres, most of which remain today (and where you might have that cai png or nasi padang just the other week), are one example.

Popular perceptions: affordable, accessible and clean

And we at Petir.sg are mentioning your previous hawker centre meals with …reasonable confidence.  

Approximately 80 per cent of Singaporeans eat at hawker centres more than once a week. This when one-third of Singaporeans eat out more than seven times weekly. That’s at least (and quite likely over) one meal a day.

And even if we ignore the overall high standard of hawker food (it’s quite up there), hawker centres are just such convenient choices. Exactly 13,570 National Environment Agency-licensed hawker stalls were all over Singapore as of June last year. That’s consistent with an over-decade long figure; Singapore had 13,410 of such hawker stalls as of end-2012.

Plus, hawker centre patrons (read: “you” and “me”) are overwhelmingly on board with these everywhere-also-have eating places.

Source: Visit Singapore

“99 per cent of the respondents were satisfied with the affordability of food options in hawker centres,” shared the Government in June 2019 about the Perception Survey of Hawker Centre Patrons (PSHCP) results from 1,103 members of the public.  

That 99 per cent is impressive, we at Petir.sg note: it’s frankly hard to get near-unanimous agreement on any particular topic.

“On the quality of food (e.g. ingredients, portion, taste) in hawker centres, 98 per cent of the respondents expressed that they were satisfied. 87 per cent of the respondents were satisfied with the dining environment (e.g. ventilation, cleanliness, hygiene) in hawker centres,” further shared the Government.

Other data points from the survey follow: 91 per cent of respondents are overall either very satisfied or satisfied with hawker centres. 39 per cent of respondents aged 40 years and above visited hawker centres most often; this compared to 28 per cent of those aged 30 and below.

In recent years, new hawker centres provide a wider range of food choices — one can find protein bowls, or quesadillas beside the usual wanton mee or mee rubus stalls.

More choices for foodies then.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said at the opening of Bukit Canberra Hawker Centre last December: “The important thing is to have choices. We have some that are more expensive, and some that are more traditional and simpler that cost less.”

Indeed, other than pricing food items below S$3.50, some hawker centres also feature various discount programmes such as Community Health Assist Scheme as well as Pioneer and Merdeka Generation cardholders.

Additionally, the survey’s respondents mooted having more activities taking place at hawker centres — flea markets, musical performances and workshops were especially-wanted options.

Eat, then browse, then take in a local troupe doing their thing while Ah Pa watches an instructor teach how to repair a table (then quite possibly interrupting to show the instructor how that’s really done)?

Even if you haven’t experienced these extra-value activities first-hand, you likely think that all wouldn’t be out of the bounds of possibility for Singapore’s hawker centres.

More than food: hawker centres are also about a good place

That sentiment’s reflected in the same Government survey.

“91 per cent of the respondents agreed that hawker centres promote interactions among people from all walks of life, and are good places to interact with friends, family and neighbours,” shared the Government.

Expert researchers have documented this truth too.

In particular, they’ve written that Singapore’s hawker centres are urban fixtures “that often have been the kitchen, dining and living room for many people”. Also that these centres help form Singapore’s languages and identity.   

In other words, hawker centres are more than spaces for dining, then dashing. People don’t always just eat there. They linger, whether over well-deserved drinks, a catch-up chat with friends from the neighbourhood, or when people-watching during a slow afternoon.   

They are, in fact, community hubs. They add character to Singapore’s neighbourhoods. They help fight the cost and pressures of living.

Other than digging into affordable, delish food, Singaporeans can also do good at hawker centres.

For instance, the Heartland Pays It Forward movement, which allows people to buy meals for the needy at selected stalls at some hawker centres.

So that’s why Minister Balakrishan emphasised them being “common social spaces for all Singaporeans to interact” that October 2011, when he mooted building more.

And that is also why the Government manages this aspect of Singapore’s cultural heritage carefully — everyone wins when hawker centres thrive.

Sustaining the nation

“The continued vibrancy and sustainability of our hawker culture have been longstanding priorities for my Ministry,” shared Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu in February 2021.

“The recent inscription of Singapore’s Hawker Culture onto the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has given this an additional boost.”

So, the Government meets the challenges of hawkers.

It froze hawker stall rental increases during the worst of the pandemic and in fact decreased rental rates for almost six in 10 hawkers then.

Where manpower’s a key concern these days, the centralised dishwashing services of the Productive Hawker Centres programme and subsidies for automation and technology under the Hawker’s Productivity Grant alleviate this lack.

There’s also the Hawker’s Development Programme, which lets new hawkers apprentice with seasoned ones (good technique isn’t simply from books or internet videos!). Almost 400 aspiring hawkers had participated as of October 2021.

Concurrently, the Hawker’s Succession Scheme helps retiring hawkers pass down their wok-fu to suitable successors.     

“To maintain a conducive environment in our hawker centres, NEA regularly refreshes hawker centre design and infrastructure,” further wrote Minister Fu.

“New hawker centres built since 2011 feature bigger stall sizes, wider aisles and High Volume Low Speed fans to improve ventilation and keep the centres cool,” she added, listing too the family-friendly amenities (seating, diaper-changing facilities) and new technologies (centralised dishwashing, automated tray returns) there.

These are all good for a pleasant meal outing. Not least since most hawker centres (87 as of December 2020) are no-smoking public community places — and the smoking corners in the ones remaining are being progressively removed.  

And for this online age, the Government gave out the inaugural Progressive Hawker Centre Awards last April. (Click here to see if your favourite place made it.)

Source: The Federation of Merchants’ Associations / Facebook

“With the launch of the inaugural Progressive Hawker Centre Awards, we want to recognise the efforts of hawker centre operators and associations in enhancing productivity and digitalisation, and keeping our hawker centres clean and vibrant,” said Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor when presenting the Awards at the third annual SG Hawker Seminar.  

“I hope that these collective efforts will contribute to future-proofing our hawker centres and hawker trade, and safeguarding our hawker culture for future generations of Singaporeans.”

That’s a sentiment we can all get behind. Culture and life can be complex and ever-changing. But when you’re at your favourite hawker centre for that affordable chicken rice and quality time too —  life gets deliciously simple.  

 Cover photo credit: Philip Lim/ Facebook