Loving Singapore’s “cheap” hawker food

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“I love local hawker food. There are not many countries in the world like Singapore where one can easily find reasonably priced food with the same high level of hygiene and great variety.” – MP Baey Yam Keng, in the wake of his recent $2.50 nasi padang.

Many people in the middle- and upper-classes love to cheer Singapore’s delicious cheap food. When my foreign friends ask me what’s great about Singapore, I often cite this (among other things).

Unfortunately for us all, it is a boast loaded with classist undertones. The main reason a country as rich and expensive as Singapore has such cheap hawker food is that many labour inputs are underpriced. Everybody from the lorry driver to the dish washer to the hawker is being underpaid. Indeed, for a country with a negligible agricultural sector, one would expect (the imported) food to cost more than in many other countries.

It is analagous to another statement I often hear from the globally mobile who choose Singapore: “One great thing is that maids are much cheaper/more available than in other big cities.”

The fact that these two statements are celebrated in daily conceptions about Singapore is proof of how we’ve internalised the country’s drastically unequal wage structure.

In effect we are proclaiming “Hey, we are one of the richest countries in the world, with more millionaires per capita than anywhere else AND we have an endless flow of cheap labour to serve you.”

We massage our conscience by telling ourselves that we are providing jobs and opportunities for people with none, but in truth it is simply modern labour exploitation. Not just of the low-wage foreigners, but also all Singaporeans whose wages are held down, people who would earn more in many other developed cities.

Of course, social inequalities are much discussed here today; but I’m writing this note because I’m starting to pay more attention to how they are embedded in our vernacular.

So the next time somebody promotes Singapore’s cheap hawker food, I wonder: should it be a source of pride or embarrassment?


Note: A common retort against higher food prices is that many people in the lower middle class will be severely affected. But the point is that there is a broad swathe of Singapore’s population–perhaps 30-50%–who should arguably be earning more than they currently are, i.e. with a more equitable wage structure, the lower-income people should not worry about higher food and transport prices because they will be earning more.

Note 2: An economist’s abbreviated explanation for Singapore’s current wage structure might be that in a global city with free labour movement, there will necessarily be a huge wage gap between most people engaged in “non-transferable services”, such as washing dishes and giving massages, and those in “transferable services”, such as banking, whose wages will be bid up to global norms.

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