Yesterday when I was reading the Sunday Times, I saw a highlighted commentary about hawker centres by the new Straits Times editor, Warren Fernandez. Initially I thought, that sounds trivial, I should spend my time reading about more weighty world affairs, like Bashar al-Assad killing more rebels in Syria. But then I was really keen to read something by Mr Fernandez. After all, he is the new ST editor and he must have some serious grey matter. And so I did.
Hawker centres, he pointed out, started in the 1960s as a way to resettle squatters and give them some means to provide for their families. Hence rents were heavily subsidised. Since then, hawker centres have played an important role in keeping food prices affordable and he hoped that it would continue, for the sake of lower-income Singaporeans who are more vulnerable to food inflation.
But it was his next point that really struck me.
The flip side is also worth considering: Hawkers also need to earn a living. While some do make a tidy sum, many earn just enough to get by. So if Singaporeans who lament the widening wage gap are serious about wanting to close it, one way would be to let our hawkers earn a decent living, with rising incomes and due respect, as the keepers of a national treasure (hawker centres). Hawkers should not be asked to hold off on raising their prices when their costs are rising, whether for rentals and other fees charged by government agencies, or the costs of food and materials. That is tantamount to asking hawkers to subsidise some who are better off than them.
Some will howl at any suggestion of higher prices and be ready to hurl their noodles at me.
But hold on, and consider a troubling mindset that seems to have emerged in some quarters, which applies as much to hawker fare as bus fares: We all want it good – and not just good, but better from year to year – but we also want it cheap, preferably as cheap as it always used to be.
There’s just no squaring this circle…. unless we accept that some costs of providing services in the local economy can, and will, rise, then wages of those performing those services will remain stuck. Then, all the talk about the critical importance of closing the gap between the rich and the poor will remain just that.
I believe that it behoves all Singaporeans to reflect on Mr Fernandez’s comments. To me, it cuts to the core of a critical question: the hypocrisy in our society. We say we want to be an inclusive society and leave no one behind. Yet ask us to pay 50 cents more for a bowl of noodles to the humble hawker, and we complain.
We talk about the importance of halting climate change. But everyone says, I still want to take my long-haul flight to Europe every two years, medium-haul flights to Japan and South Korea every year and quick getaway flights to Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia three to four times a year. Everyone says, I want my car.
There’s certainly no squaring that circle, either.
At this juncture, may I mention that timeless quote
The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates
So, my dear GP students, everything is relevant to GP. You’ll find that even reading and thinking about our humble hawkers can give you fascinating insights and sumptuous food for thought on issues that affect all of us.
That’s why I say this is a wonderful subject that allows you to read about, think about, talk about anything that concerns or intrigues you as a human being. To be an outstanding GP student, don’t just read and acquire facts. Engage with the world around you; engage with the people around you. Desire to understand the world you live in, and perhaps you may find your place in it.
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