Singapore Revisited Log 5.3: Where is the Cheap Food?

The last time I checked, my hand stopped growing since puberty. So it couldn't be a growing hand and there was no doubt about it - burgers in Singapore are shrinking as you read this. I clearly remember we needed two hands to hold a burger. That was the gold standard of burgering. Today I would look silly holding a burger with both hands. What next? Holding a burger with two fingers like a tart?

It couldn't be my imagination or a result of memory loss. I noticed hawkers decided to serve their Char Siew in Wanton Mee wafer thin like beef slices used in Gyudon. I wouldn't think that was done to cater to the aging Singapore population who couldn't chomp at meat chunks so heartily like the past anymore.

Elsewhere when Tucky drove me to one of the places of our teenage days 'tea garden', he warned me drinks in Mc Donald's were no longer 'affordable.' Well, we used to buy a drink and sat down in Mc Donald's to chat nights away even before we entered the working world. Why did we feel the pain buying a drink as full fledged working adults? Because $3.10 for a small Iced Lemon Tea. I rubbed my eyes and thought I was still in Perth. What happened to 'affordable Singapore'?

The following week, I met Aku and Ah Mag for a meal in Kovan Hawker centre. I ordered Kway Zhup and was billed $3.50. Fair price these days, said Aku, though, "The guy serves a bigger portion at Lorong Ah Soo for the same price." As I rolled the few uninspiring small pieces of intestines about in daze, I hoped he was right. We were already in a hawker centre, what would the prices be in a coffeeshop or foodcourt? Surely even three-meals Balakrishnan would think thrice before commenting about affordable hawker food these days, if he knew better.

When mum asked me how many rolls of Chee Cheong Fun I wanted to eat, I glanced at the price list and widened my eyes. $2.20 for a single roll of plain rice flour sheet in soy sauce? Ok, I know it was unrealistic to expect 40 cents per roll like the past but how much money do Singaporeans need to spend to fill the stomach these days? Is it almost time to cook our own food in Singapore instead of dining out? That isn't a bad thing really, considering how many Singaporeans I met told me they wanted to migrate but balked at the idea because they couldn't cook a pea and would "die out there."

You know, I wouldn't blame the hawkers. Many of them cited high prices of food supply these days forced them into a corner with only 3 options to choose from. To increase the prices of their products, downsize the portion to maintain the same price or end their business. From the prices of raw ingredients I saw in the supermarket, I wouldn't fully agree. Supplies should be still affordable for hawkers to produce food at low prices. Labour cost remain notoriously low in global context. The remaining culprit has to be rental cost. Commercial rental cost is ridiculously high in Singapore today. In the past, hawkers were able to keep their food prices low because they did not have the same level of overhead pressure. At the very least, they broke even and earned nothing. A hawker today will lose a fortune or even be debt ridden if he screws up his venture. Many hawker stalls these days operate on a 24 hour basis in order to keep afloat, just like taxi driving.

I asked a noodle stall operator in Singapore how much he was paying to his landlord. He told me, "$6,000 a month." I estimated his profit margin to be about $1.50 per bowl and made a mental calculation. The poor chap would have to sell 4000 bowls of noodles to pay off his rental before he could start earning his salary. Assuming he worked 6 days a week, 8 hours a day, he will need to sell 18 bowls per hour in order to pay rent only, excluding other overheads such utility bills and transport. Would you expect a hawker to sell 60 bowls of noodles per hour (1 bowl per min) for 8 hours straight on? Not possible. No wonder they need to operate 24 hours to make a reasonable profit.

Even in "expensive expensive Australia", commercial rental is dwarfed by the Singapore figures. Say a lunch bar at Fremantle, considered a prime area, would require a more manageable $400-$500 a week. Perhaps that is why food operators in Perth reminds me of hawkers in the past in the sense they seem more relaxed and happier. They do not rush or bark at you. Incidentally, the only hawker that gave me a shit face and a rude attitude was actually a Singaporean who runs his stall at Spencer Village. I never ordered from him since and never again. I didn't move to Perth to take these nonsense from hawkers. I simply cannot understand why Singaporeans will tolerate bad attitude just to get a taste of the food they enjoy. No wonder it is so easy for the government to screw our butts and call us softies in our faces.

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