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Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education, at the Launch of the Hawkers' Development Programme, at Ci Yuan Community Club Atrium

Published Date: 20 January 2020 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources

Colleagues, members of the hawker trade, chefs, friends

Ladies and gentlemen

1. Thank you for inviting me to this event today. Every Singaporean has a view on hawker food, and today's event gives me a reason to say my piece, less as the Minister for Education, but more as a Singaporean.

2. We all love our hawker culture. So much so that we asked for it to be enshrined in UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Losing this culture will be a great tragedy for Singaporeans. So I asked myself three questions when preparing this speech.

3. First question: Is hawker culture waning or weakening in Singapore?

4. For me that is not possible. Hawker food features almost daily in our conversations with friends and family. We swap recommendations for the best stalls, and can discern the slightest difference in texture and taste of two famous stalls selling the same dish. When we are overseas, what we often miss most about Singapore is the hawker food, and overseas Singaporeans continue to be brought together by hawker food. When we return from overseas travel, our favourite hawker centre is often a first port of call.

5. Hawker culture in Singapore is therefore alive and well and there is no risk of it disappearing. It has to be, because culture is about how people live, and hawker food is such an integral part of Singapore life. It's entwined with our memories, our identity, our lifestyle. For most Singaporeans, to us it says, "Home".

6. Second question: Are hawker culinary skills weakening in Singapore?

7. The answer is also no. Recipes of hawker food are everywhere – on the Internet, in cookbooks, or scribbled on pieces of paper from what we heard from our mothers and grandmothers, or sometimes from just observing people cooking. My wife has many such scribbles of paper lying around at home. I am sure there are many secret hawker chefs amongst us, who have tried creating our own favourite dishes.

8. My wife and I lived for a year in Switzerland when I was awarded a scholarship to study a Masters there. We went there, and she got pregnant and had a lot of cravings, so we tried to hunt down some ingredients. There was one Asian stall in the town that we stayed in, and we found that they sold assam. So with assam, it meant that we could cook mee siam, so we went on to hunt for the other ingredients and started making our mee siam. We went there in January, and by May or June, we had more or less perfected our mee siam recipe. We also started steaming our own rice cakes, and made both black and white carrot cake with them. I invited my foreign friends, and they had no idea what that was, but when I asked them they said it was not too bad.

9. Two years ago, I attended a resident's pot-luck party. About 50 neighbours came. The last to arrive were a pair of young brothers who held professional jobs. But they came late because they took longer than expected making their own hokkien mee, which was very very good.

10. Recently, when a new hawker centre near my constituency was going to open, I received hundreds of enquiries from residents who expressed interest in renting stalls. And all of them will tell you stories that, at some point in their life they had run a hawker stall or a canteen stall in a school or factory. I don't know how good they are, but the sheer amount of interest was quite amazing. And I am sure that amongst them, there are some who are very good too. The art of cooking good hawker food definitely lives amongst us.

11. Third question: Is the hawker trade waning in Singapore?

12. I am afraid I can't say a firm 'No' to this last question. As much as hawker culture and hawker culinary art is thriving in Singapore, it does not necessarily mean that people want to ply the trade for a living. There are challenges that make people hesitate – long hours, hard work, business risks. So just passion alone, though a very good starting point, is not enough.

13. NEA and MEWR have done a lot, to build new hawker centres, help moderate the cost of operating a hawker stall, and ensure that hawkers are treated fairly. But the skills to run a stall and serve 200 or 300 customers a day is quite different from serving up five friends at home with our own hokkien mee or bak kut teh. This is why we are launching the programme today. It does not make the hawker trade thrive overnight, but I think it will help in a meaningful way.

14. We had launched similar programmes in the past. I was responsible for one of them when I was with the Singapore Workforce Development Agency more than 10 years ago. Subsequently, Project Dignity was roped in to deliver training in the preparation of hawker food. In 2013, we attempted the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme.

15. But none of these programmes gave the push needed by the hawker trade. Because the issue is not just a matter of teaching cooking skills. We need to address the deterrents of long hours, hard work, business risks, etc.

16. We hope the Hawker Development Programme we are launching today will address some of the gaps of previous initiatives. The training component is straightforward – it will be delivered by Nanyang Polytechnic's Asian Culinary Institute.

17. In addition, there will be a 2-month apprenticeship when aspiring hawkers will work with experienced hawkers in running their stalls. Following this is an incubation component, during which aspiring hawkers can obtain stalls through NEA and test the feasibility of their plans under the guidance of their mentors. They will also receive funding support for five months from SSG and NEA.

18. This programme needs to translate the organic passion that exists for hawker food into greater participation in the hawker trade. The mentors are key to the success of the programme. So I have to thank mentors such as Mr Syafiq Lee of Ashes Burnnit, Mr Philip Tan of Mei Ji Fishball Noodles, Mr Badrol Hisam of Power Nasi Lemak, Mr Melvin Chew of Jin Ji Teochew Braised Duck and Kway Chup. There are many more.

19. If we are indeed talking about a culture, we must expect it to evolve, and embrace its evolution even if it is in many directions away from what we are familiar with.

20. For example, the invention of pre-mixes for laksa, chilli crab, mee rebus, bak kut teh, are very much welcomed. Not the real thing, but they should be welcomed. I thought they tasted great, and Singapore travellers are packing them into their check-in suitcases to satisfy their cravings overseas. They serve a very practical purpose. And so we should welcome them. We should not be purists.

21. Likewise, it is not a bad thing for hawker food like popiah, satay, bee hoon, mee pok and roti prata to become chain stores. It means the ability to produce these dishes with consistent taste has become an industry capability. Hawker stalls getting their ingredients from central kitchens is also not a bad thing, as it ensures lower cost and affordability. So, to me, I would also embrace this evolution.

22. Conversely, there will be hawkers that insist on not relying on third party suppliers, and they will wake up at 3:00 AM to prepare all their ingredients by hand, from chilli and gravy, to fish balls and curry puffs. We should celebrate them, appreciate them, and value them, and if we need to pay a bit more for their work, we should pay for it. After all, it is a craft, and a labour of love.

23. This kaleidoscope of developments is what makes our Hawker Culture worth safeguarding as an Intangible Heritage. But an enduring aspect of culture is that it always involves being passed from person to person, from one generation to the next. This is why the mentorship part of this programme is so important. And this is why the ultimate ingredient for the hawker food we love so much is people passing their skills to the next generation. I want to acknowledge our mentors for their generosity of spirit, and for coming forward to champion the hawker trade and keeping the culture alive.

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