If Singapore's 'Unesco' food hawkers are so good, why pay them so little?

At 61, Wang Ah Eng has been selling drinks to Singaporeans at Amoy Street Food Centre for 35 years. She started by helping her father and took over the stall allocated to him at Amoy when he died in 2000.

Her drinks stall, where coffee sells for roughly S$1 (US$0.72) and the last price rise was in 2015, supported her three children and sent two of them to university. But with the long hours and low earnings, none of them will take over the stall when Wang retires despite its subsidised rent.

"It's a pity, but it's only the course of nature," said Wang. "The hours are too long, there are no employment benefits because we're independent operators, and people can make a higher salary in their office jobs."

Wang's story is emblematic of the hawker trade in Singapore. The country is in the midst of a Unesco bid to have hawker culture listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage, but the median age of hawkers is 60 and the industry attracts little young blood.

In a bid to keep the trade alive, the government has handed management of seven new hawker centres over to private enterprises so they can inject the sector with fresh ideas.

But some of these ideas - having hawkers work a minimum number of hours, charging fees for centralised dishwashing, and making consumers put down deposits for trays so they return them - have come under heavy criticism for exploiting hawkers.

Some contracts have required stalls to operate for six days a week or maintain specific operating hours. There were also reports in local media of hawkers signing contracts in English without being given translations when many do not read and write the language, and having to foot legal fees for the contracts.

In response to the controversy, the National Environment Agency stepped in to make five operators change the terms of their contracts.

Some commentators have questioned the designation of the new centres as social enterprises.

Food court operator and consultant K.F. Seetoh said the centres were being run like private food courts, with hawkers charged for coin changes, obliged to hand over a percentage of their profits, and faced with financial penalties for closure.

"Some of these new centres are really nice," he said. "They should just do good maintenance instead of charging for tray returns - you shouldn't pay for civic mindedness. And the management model needs to be reviewed, it shouldn't be modelled after making money."

Of the 114 hawker centres in Singapore, seven are run by private operators designated as "socially conscious". There were 5,943 hawker food stalls in Singapore as of 2015.

The remaining 107 hawker centres run by the government do not impose such rules on vendors. Rental rates depend on bids by the hawkers - about 40 per cent pay a monthly rent of a few hundred dollars, according to The Straits Times. Vendors are free to decide on operating hours and food prices.

Last month, the government promised to refine the socially conscious model by providing more support for stallholders and greater oversight of the new management bodies.

Hawkers are synonymous with Singaporean culture. Eight in 10 Singaporeans eat at a hawker centre at least once a week, and more than a quarter of Singaporeans told pollsters this year that food was more important to them than festivals or traditional performance arts.

Hawker culture in Singapore can be traced to the mid-1800s. Street hawkers took up the trade because it required little capital, according to the National Heritage Board, with stalls sprouting up in Chinatown and Orchard Road giving the masses affordable and tasty local fare.

For sanitation purposes, the government started licensing street hawkers and resettling them into hawker centres between 1968 and 1986. It then stopped building new centres for almost 30 years until 2011.

But while the hawkers have been organised into neat centres, their social mission of providing affordable meals endures.

This has caused a problem for the industry - to keep prices low, profit margins are also low and hawkers end up working long hours to eke out a living, making the trade unattractive to young Singaporeans.

Earlier this month, Singapore's ambassador at large Tommy Koh urged Singaporeans to pay more for hawker food so hawkers could earn more.

"Our hawkers are hard-working people and they work very long hours," he said. "They deserve to make a decent income."

Finding the balance between a decent profit margin and what Singaporeans are willing to pay was what young hawker Gwern Khoo, 38, found most challenging. The co-founder of A Noodle Story, which serves ramen with a local twist, said it took years of small price hikes before he started making money.

Khoo and his business partner Ben Tham used to sell their ramen at S$5 a bowl, but found themselves working 14-hour days and still not turning a profit.

"For two years we were not making much money. One day we got sick of it and increased our price by 50 cents," he said.

Even now, with his ramen selling at S$8, up from S$5, raw ingredients take up 40-45 per cent of the price.

Industry watchers offer a simple solution to the industry's woes: boost profit margins.

"We cannot divorce economics from culture. For a modern day culture, the economics must work out," said Wong Chiang Yin, who previously served on a public consultation panel for hawker centres.

"The price of a plate of chicken rice or wanton mee is S$4 (US$2.90) in Singapore, in Malaysia it is easily 5 ringgit (US$1.20) or 6.5 ringgit in Kuala Lumpur. In Hong Kong, the cheapest meal you can get is HK$30 (US$3.80) to HK$35," he said.

"So in terms of ratio of median household income to hawker food price, Singapore is the lowest, compared to Hong Kong and Malaysia. In other words, we are comparatively underpriced, and hence margins are also lower."

Wong, a self-professed foodie, said hawkers should be able to make S$6,000 a month - taking into account the lack of employment benefits - if Singapore were to attract talent like Hong Kong and Malaysia have been able to.

"If we truly love and support hawker culture, we must put our money where our mouth is."

Khoo pegged the rate at S$8,000 to S$12,000, to make the trade-offs of working long hours in a cramped and hot environment worthwhile to young Singaporeans.

Rents at hawker centres managed by the government range from S$640 to S$3,900 a month with a median of S$1,700. The median rent at new centres managed by "socially conscious" enterprises is S$2,000.

Beyond making the sector attractive, young hawkers also need training, Seetoh said. "It is difficult to get on the street food bandwagon … You can't study it and go into business. Somehow, it is easier to study French food."

He suggested hawker courses that cover every aspect of the trade, including how to market stalls on social media.

"A good recipe isn't enough to get by," Seetoh said.

In 2014, he ran The Street Food Pro 360 programme that taught street food business models, hawker culture, stall operations skills, and promotion techniques.

One of his graduates, second-generation hawker Melvin Chew, 40, of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chap, said he found the tips on operating procedure and social media use particularly helpful.

"Most of the first-generation hawkers like my father know how to cook fantastically but they don't know how to teach. Cooking and teaching how to cook is a different story. You need expert advice and guidance," he said.

Ultimately, Seetoh believes hawker culture should be seen as a public service like buses, hospitals and schools.

"Another government agency should step in and champion this as a culture," he said.

He sees it as a good sign that so many Singaporeans were up in arms when they thought hawkers were being exploited. "Everyone was angry, frustrated and concerned because they love the hawker culture."

This article was first published on South China Morning Post