Cheap meals under threat

January 9, 2011
Singapore Democrats

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Seah Chiang Nee
The Star

The growing number of corporate-run air-conditioned food courts that sell higher quality food may portend the start of a more lavish, materialistic lifestyle.

The deepening trend of price increases in Singapore appears to be laying siege to the remaining bastion of cheap eating – the small food stall.

I am referring to the thousands of small eating places in neighbourhood coffee shops and hawker centres that traditionally provide cheap meals for the masses.

It is an institution that makes life in one of the most expensive cities in the world more livable.

Mostly run by families or individuals, these stalls dish out, for only a few dollars, some of the most exotic Asian dishes, with diversity unmatched in many other countries.

Even as the cost of living soars, the Singaporean’s daily meal remains within reach of most workers and students – thanks to these hawkers and a system.

For as little as S$3-S$5 (RM7-RM12) a dish, the average Singa­porean can have a simple meal quickly every day – and at prices less than in most advanced Western cities.

Recently, a spate of reports indicated that this last bastion of cheap food is under siege by forces trying to push prices higher.

So far, the wall has largely stood firm – and Singaporeans can still have a meal for S$5 or S$6 (RM14) – but parts of it may have been breached.

The first threat is the growing number of corporate-run air-conditioned food courts that sell higher quality food at S$7-$10, (RM17-RM24) and eating into the hawkers’ profits.

These are pulling away professionals and white-collar workers so successfully that a few vendors are tempted to be a little too ambitious – selling food at restaurant prices.

A great deal of anger recently arose following reports that one stall was charging S$17 (RM40) for a bowl of laksa that normally costs S$3.

In exuberant mood, some other stalls have joined in – selling nasi padang at S$13 (RM31) and prawn noodle at S$11 (RM26), all unheard of until now.

The practice is being pushed in a few cases into the heartland hawker centres.

A Bedok stall reportedly charges S$6.60 (RM15.60) for a packet of nasi lemak, something that Bangladeshi workers perfunctorily pick up for S$1-S$1.20 (RM2.40-RM2.60) to bring to the worksite.

“I hope this is not trend-setting,” exclaimed a nurse, who almost has all her meals out.

“The day our hawkers start charging S$10 (RM24) for chicken rice, I’m done for!”

So far, not too many are following suit.

Most are level-headedly holding to their charges for fear of losing customers.

In perspective, most suburban food-stalls and coffeeshops are still selling chicken rice or laksa for S$3, and a cup of coffee for S$1.

This battle to draw the line is being watched with concern by Singaporeans.

The food stalls have been a government triumph from many years ago, started to replace an army of street vendors selling food house to house.

That Singapore could provide a worker’s meal for S$5 is really a bit of a wonder – considering the country imports 90% of its food needs.

But with the government’s preoccupation of maximising gross domestic product (GDP) growth, few are prepared to predict the future direction of the hawker stall and cheap meals.

At last count, some 13,500 licences had been granted to run shop-stalls (at privately-owned coffeeshops) and a further 14,100 given out to food stalls at 30 government-operated food centres.

A general fear is that, given the govt’s corporate-mindedness, it may one day transfer the whole food business to the private sector, and that could spell an end to the era of the S$3-S$5 meal.

One major threat is imported inflation. In recent weeks, a cup of coffee had risen by 10 to 20 cents, thanks to the global price hikes of sugar and coffee as well as oil.

Vendors, however, complain their woes are also largely caused by high rentals due to government policies.

Take my estate, where I have lived for 26 years.

In six months’ time, it will lose the third of its five coffeeshops, to make way for more profitable ventures.

Two others had closed their doors in as many years, one replaced by a bank and the other by a mini-mart, both of which had offered the owners higher rentals.

There has been little survey, and so it is not known how many of the 2,000 coffee shops in the republic have shared – or will share – this fate. In the corporate world, few people see these places as an important way of Singapore life.

To me, the coffeeshop is a Singapore institution for social bonding of residents – especially for retirees to meet and chat without costing an arm and a leg.

I don’t think it will ever become extinct, but what will disappear will be the simple creatures that offer cheap food for people with a modest income.

Many of these smaller food stalls, which have helped keep costs down for residents, are being ousted by bigger, stronger competitors who are not too shy about raising prices.

It is not just the slow passing of an era but the start of another – of a more lavish, materialistic lifestyle that has fuelled America’s financial woes.

http://thestar.com.my/columnists/story.asp?col=insightdownsouth&file=/2011/1/8/columnists/insightdownsouth/7750303&sec=Insight%20Down%20South