Singapore's hawker scene has been doing a roaring trade in the past five years, with cooked food stalls almost fully occupied and few of them staying vacant for more than three months.
But with more than 800 new stalls coming on board in the next 12 years, food experts and hawkers say that more needs to be done to attract new blood.
Among their suggestions: let hawkers hire foreigners, who cost less, as assistants; air-condition some of the new centres; and showcase young hawkers more, such as through a television show.
Earlier this month, the Government announced it will build 10 new hawker centres by 2027, on top of the 10 that it had pledged in 2011. The first two new centres will open in Bukit Panjang and Hougang this year, and others will be built in currently underserved areas, such as Choa Chu Kang, Bukit Batok and Sengkang.
Altogether, the 20 new centres will add more than 800 cooked food stalls to the existing 6,046 managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) as of January, about a 13 per cent rise in supply.
There are also a few hawker centres that are privately owned and managed, such as the Lau Pa Sat food centre in the Central Business District.
The NEA told The Straits Times that, as of January, more than 98 per cent of its stalls were occupied, consistent with the rates in the past five years. Vacant stalls are put up for tender every month, and only Singaporeans and permanent residents can bid for them.
Several hawkers said that, to fill hundreds of new stalls, more needs to be done to attract the younger generation to the trade, especially as many veterans are likely to retire in the next decade.
Sulaiman Abu, who is in his 50s, is one of them. The owner of the D'Authentic Nasi Lemak stall in the Marine Parade Food Centre said he plans to retire soon and have his children, who help out at the stall, take over.
"But it's very hard to tell if other young people will want to become hawkers. It's long hours and hard work. I wake up by 4am and work at least 12 to 14 hours every day," he said.
Mr Sulaiman is one of several master hawkers under the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme, a collaboration between NEA, the Workforce Development Agency (WDA), property firm Knight Frank and The Business Times that started in 2013. It helps to train people to become hawkers and aims to preserve Singapore's much-loved hawker heritage.
The WDA said 46 trainees have completed their foundational training under the pilot, and some are in the midst of on-the-job training with the master hawkers or have just completed it.
Of the trainees who have completed both components, 17 have opened their own stalls or are working with their trainers.
Mr Sulaiman said the Government could help further by allowing hawkers to hire foreigners as stall assistants. Currently, they can hire only Singapore citizens and permanent residents, but not many want to take up the job, he said.
Leslie Tay, a food blogger and author who runs the website Ieatishootipost.sg, said air-conditioning at hawker centres and larger stalls might attract young hawkers. Shared facilities such as refrigerators for ingredients could help lower costs.
"Air-conditioning is becoming a real necessity. The younger generation have higher expectations and the authorities need to look at how to meet their needs," he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAMANTHA GOH
Get MyPaper for more stories.