I’m passionate about cooking and I’m pretty good at making Singapore’s favourite breakfast – carrot cake. Those who have been following me @ravenous_writer and drchanskitchen.com would be quite familiar with images like this one. While there are some shallow folks who think that cooking is unbecoming of a man of my status – which is rather low considering my mediocrity, a few friends who have tasted my cooking suggest that I take up hawkership as a “sideline”.
So how much would I need to charge for a plate of chye tau kway like this if I wish to maintain my family’s current lifestyle? Probably $20. I’ll forgive you for saying yao mo gao chor ah? That’s why I shouldn’t be a hawker – if I have better options.
Then, we read about Ms Elayne Ang who had worked for more than 15 years in the banking industry and then decided to take a leap to become a hawker, whipping up carrot cake and Hokkien mee in a greasy, smoky, noisy, cluttered cubicle. News like this is bound to raise a few eyebrows in class conscious Singapore, but on social media, everyone other than Amos Yee knows the politically correct thing to say.
Ms Ang explained: “I had a decent salary. But there was office politics, it was always an ever-running sales number, and we were always in a rat race. I was thinking to myself, ‘Do I want to continue this in my 40s and 50s?”
That reminds me of my friend M who started out as an insurance agent. He was doing very well, but was sick and tired of a job that required him to pester and badger his contacts. After saving enough for his dream job, he opened a florist shop and gave up insurance. But while passion for flower arrangement was one thing for M, he didn’t realise how many customers would end up owing him money. He lost his entire investment in less than 3 years and was forced into hawkership, selling claypot rice at a food court.
Used to conducting his business at Starbucks and Coffee Bean and later his sweet-smelling florist shop, M found the new job utterly exhausting! He had to wake up before the crack of dawn to shop for ingredients and after all the cooking, he had a lot of washing up to do after the dinner crowd, closing his stall at 10.00pm, leaving him little more than 4 hours’ sleep every night. He hated it! He swore that the only reason he was persevering was because it paid for the bills. Once all his debts were settled, he happily handed the stall to the next financially embarrassed guy. After a short stint at a bar to “rehabilitate” himself, he managed to find a more suitable job as a manager in a wellness company.
I don’t know Ms Ang as well as I know M, but with her education, her knowledge and experience in the banking sector, there are many ways to get out of the rat race. She could be as passionate about carrot cake as I am, but do we need to be hawkers? For me, being a hawker would take all the fun and passion out of cooking. I hope I would never be forced into hawkership. Cooking to earn a living would be a mechanical chore and worse still, a tiring and menial vocation like the one M was forced into out of necessity. I can’t imagine the size of the claypot M will throw at me if I ever hint that he might have a chance to rediscover his passion for hawkership if the spa where he works now closes down.
The hawker business still boils down to targets – as in how many plates of carrot cake you can whip up in a day to cover the rent and other expenses. Of course, we shouldn’t judge because there may be things that Ms Ang has not told us and that goes for the folks who see her as a poster girl as well. I can only wish her all the best; as a hawker for the rest of her life or a quick exit from hawkership when all is well.
For me, I would not even run a restaurant, let alone a hawker stall. It’s not that I look down on hawkers as some moronic moralists would suggest. Truth be told, I’m already on the wrong side of 50 and I’m happy cooking for family and friends. It’s better that I leave hawkership to some youngster with a diploma in biotechnology. Biotechnology? Yao mo gao chor ah?
Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Amy Khor announced on 11 Jan 2021 that the government will launch a new work-study programme in March to train polytechnics and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) graduates to become hawkers. The Work-Study Post-Diploma (Certificate in Hawkerpreneurship), which comes under the SkillsFuture Singapore work-study programme, is the first of its kind.
Dr Khor (PhD, Land Management) said: “With the increasing recognition and appreciation of hawker fare, setting up a hawker stall can be considered as a gateway into the F&B sector, and there could be budding food and beverage entrepreneurs who may aspire to join the hawker trade.”
The National Environment Agency (NEA) and SkillsFuture Singapore (SSG) will work together with Temasek Polytechnic to launch the programme as a new track under the Hawkers’ Development Programme (HDP), which was started in January last year to equip hawkers with the relevant skills and competencies to run a hawker stall. It all sounds pretty formal and structured, except that your char kway teow and wanton mee uncle or auntie won’t be mounting the podium to lecture. There’s a two-month classroom-based training followed by a four-month apprenticeship and a six-month mentorship with experienced hawkers in the trenches. After that, they even provide “incubation stalls” to give the nestlings a sheltered start. This Incubation Stall Programme supports aspiring hawkers by providing them with pre-fitted stalls and subsidised rentals for over 15 months.
Veterans in the business of hawking will coach aspiring hawkers on how to run the business successfully. Mentors will receive a monthly stipend of $500 while the apprentices will get $1,000.
Yao mo gao chor ah? $500 for you to mentor someone to take over your business? How much is the veteran’s legacy really worth? Aren’t they afraid of getting mediocre mentors? Talk is cheap. Praises are cheap. Awards are cheap. Do people really respect hawkers when they complain about small increases in what they charge while their landlords and suppliers charge them a lot more? It’s not what you say. It’s what you’re willing to pay.
According to the Straits Times, more than 170 people have completed the training stage of the HDP, and 41 of them are moving on to the final stage of setting up their incubation stalls. Let’s see how long they can last. And I’m not saying this because I have no confidence in our youngsters. I’m saying this because I hope our biotechnology or engineering diploma or Nitec certificate holders could be freed to be employed for their real expertise as soon as the economic situation gets better. We’d be fooling ourselves to think that the Hawkers’ Development Programme was implemented in response to the UNESCO’s listing of Singapore’s hawker culture as an intangible cultural heritage on 16 Dec 2020. Which is kind of embarrassing for me because I can’t wait to travel to Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan and even Indonesia for some real street food.
It doesn’t take too high an IQ to figure out the real purpose of these programmes. It also doesn’t take too much EQ to figure out that in spite of all the politically correct statements we hear on social media, with Andrew Loh being vilified on the Singapore Matters (a shamelessly PLP) page as a snob looking down on the hawker trade, it’s an undeniable fact that the hordes of Singaporean parents who paid through their noses to send their children for tuition and enrichment classes to better their grades had absolutely no plans for grooming them to be hawkers. Singapore Matters’ claim that the young diploma or Nitec certificate holders may still find fulfillment in hawkership and their parents may still be proud of them have completely missed the point. Even if they had the same kind of luck as in 塞翁失马,焉知非福, you don’t have to tighten your belt to spend all those thousands on tuition and enrichment courses (or music/ballet lessons) to have your children become hawkers.
The real reason for these programmes may be easy to deny but more than a little obvious for those with a little common sense. ITE and poly people are first to be “sacrificed”. If unemployment numbers get any worse, our degree holders will be next. So I’m just wondering, would a hawker with a degree charge more than a hawker with a diploma who would in turn charge more than a hawker with a Higher Nitec certificate who would in turn charge more than a hawker with a Nitec certificate? If they all charge the same, shouldn’t we patronise the hawker with a degree to get more “value” for money? After all, the sugar babes who are graduates are entitled to ask for more from their sugar daddies, right? A new round of glorification for hawkership may follow, but deep down, we all realise that the only jobs that are truly respected in this society are those that don’t ask you to be cheaper, better and faster.
$500 a month to mentor budding hawkers? Hawkership is honourable, respectful, fulfilling and not to be looked down upon? Are the realists looking down on hawkers? As the tussle continues between the realists and the PLPs, the hypocrisy of the latter is all too obvious as they lowball the Hawker Mentors and Emeritus Hawkers while justifying the astronomical pay of some other mentors.