Just how many “preneurs” does Singapore need?
By: Tang Li
Singapore — One of the things that the Singapore Government is very good at is coming up with quirky terms and coining phrases.
When the late Indonesian President B J Habibie called us a “Little Red Dot”, we proceeded to turn it into a catch phrase. Then there’s the word “hub”, which when used by Singapore’s elite often refers to the fact that we are a “hub” for all sorts of things.
The most inventive contribution to the English language to come out of Singapore is in the play on the word “entrepreneur”. In the early 1990s, when the Government tried to get Singaporeans to be more “entrepreneurial” in the technology sector, we had the term “technopreneur”, which was essentially an entrepreneur who had set up a business that involved some sort of technology. In the Singapore context, Silicon Valley is filled with “technopreneurs”.
The latest group of “preneurs” that the Government is trying to breed are known as “hawkerpreneurs”. Thanks to Unesco, the Government has suddenly realised that Singapore’s food vendors or hawkers form an invaluable part of the country’s cultural landscape. Hawkers have fed generations of Singaporeans and are the very reason why Singapore is described as a “food paradise”.
More importantly (particularly from a government calculation of revenue from elsewhere perspective), whenever friends from abroad come and visit us, we always feel the need to bring them to a “hawker centre”.
There is, however, one tiny snag to this most Singaporean of institutions. Old hawkers are getting too old to continue doing what they do and the kids simply don’t want to sit over a stove 24/7 to make a basic living. It’s true that many outdoor hawker centres are giving way to cooler airconditioned food courts, but even then, the life of a hawker is tough. It’s long hours and physically demanding. While you do hear stories of how there are hawkers who have made enough for a Mercedes and to send their kids to university; you’ll find that the hawkers who have sent their kids to university do so for the very purpose of ensuring that their kids will not have to be hawkers.
As Tan Tee Seng says in the following article, being a hawker was a way for the less fortunate to earn a living and not to set up a “legacy” business:
So, the Government has a dilemma. It has “hawker culture”, which gives it a source of revenue and the reality that people are not rushing to set up hawker stalls. What can be done about it?
The answer that the Government has come up with -– is pretty much its answer for everything else. Throw money at the problem until it is no longer a problem. If you look at what the Government is proposing for “hawkerpreneurs”, it is pretty much the same as what it has done for “technopreneurs”, as can be seen by the following link:
As in the case of “technopreneurship”, it’s a case of offering money, either through direct grants or subsidizing venture capital, as well as making mentorship more easily accessible. The following link from the National Environment Agency (NEA) provides an outline of the Government’s plans for developing an already-developed hawker culture:
The latest game is to come up with a course, to qualify young people for “hawkerpreneurship” as is outlined by this article:
Yes, there actually is an assumption that since you can get a qualification in “hawkerpreneurship”, bright young things will want to enter the industry. Details of the programme can be found at:
Unfortunately, our bureaucrats haven’t quite understood that there is a key difference between a technology start-up and a food stall. People set up high-tech start-ups and slog their guts out because there’s a hope of selling out to a bigger company or through IPO for an untold fortune. There’s the satisfaction of the possibility of changing the way people live through your technology.
By contrast, being a hawker involves a lot of hard work for more work and the odds of being bought out by a huge company are non-existent. Even if you have a qualification in “hawker”, the reality of operating a “hawker” business remains the same.
I’m not against having courses per se. It is good to have people in the food business trained to a recognized standard of things like hygiene and service standards. However, a course and qualification are not going to change ground realities and you’re not going to attract your best and brightest into a business until certain ground realities change.
As I have argued previously, the biggest factor affecting hawkers is rent. Rents for a small stall remain high and as long as they do, the healthy portion of the hawker hard work will end up going to feed the landlords. Think about it, a stall in United Square can be something like S$5,000 plus a month. A hawker selling chicken rice at S$4 a plate will need to sell 1,250 plates of chicken rice every month just to cover the rent (and food cost hasn’t even been deducted). Perhaps it’s me being what my biggest fan on TRemeritus calls being “inferior”, but I don’t see the prospect of needing to sell 1,250 plates of chicken rice a month just to pay a landlord being attractive to anyone coming out of any of our educational institutions.
So, instead of trying to “glamourise” what is by its very nature a tough business, perhaps the real solution is to look at the original purpose of being a “hawker”, which was to give the poorer people an opportunity to develop a means of making a living.
Singapore currently has plenty of less educated workers from “developing” Asia, who are willing to do the “tough” jobs that our locals won’t do. Perhaps we should make it easier for this group to become hawkers. Sure, they’ll bring certain flavours from their original nations into our food mix but then again, isn’t that a natural part of culture, where people adapt and change things accordingly.
The Government is missing an opportunity to use the hawkers to integrate people and cultures. Instead of throwing money at the unwilling, shouldn’t it be trying to cultivate the willing?
This article first appeared on BeautifullyIncoherent