Cheap, clean and healthy? Singapore’s transforming hawker centre culture

Hawker food is diverse, cheap and readily available. The government is addressing health and hygiene concerns as well as channelling efforts into getting Fintech technology into hawker centres but progress is slow.


Hawker culture is changing fast. Hawkers used to trade with pushcarts while dodging the authorities. Today, young people would rather write blogs or listicles about hawker food than run a hawker stall.

A survey conducted by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources found that 73% of respondents visit hawker centres at least once a week. Its variety of good, cheap, local food attracts both tourists and locals.

Hawker food is cheap, delicious and healthy, despite what many people think

Chicken rice is still available at around S$4.25 (US$3) in some hawker centres. People sometimes worry about how healthy and hygienic hawker food is because of the low price. Many assume that hawker food is oily, has little nutritional value and is high in calories. However, on closer inspection, delicious and healthy meals are available. An example is sliced fish noodles, a combination of noodles with fresh sliced fish and different vegetables in a wonderful broth. Low in fat, it provides both protein and carbohydrates. If you are not a fan of noodles, sliced fish soup is another choice. Popiah is another healthy option with only 188 calories and seven grams of fat per roll.

If hawker food is healthy, is it produced in a sufficiently clean and hygienic way? It is a pertinent question, and in the past, the answer would have been ‘No’. Now, and in the future, the answer might be ‘Yes’. Hawker centres are now built to higher standards than they were 10 years ago. In today’s new markets, hawkers and wholesalers sell their groceries in a dry environment instead of traditional wet markets.

Standards are now in place to ensure markets are hygienic and new hawker centres will work with the Employment and Employability Institute to help cleaning contractors apply for a grant to bring down cleaning costs. An integrative dishwashing system will be brought into these new centres to keep the crockery clean.

The government is working hard to raise the standards in hawker centres

The government has laid down standards or policies on hawker food safety and public environment cleanliness. Following a number of food safety and environment cleanliness issues, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) now focuses on eliminating unsafe hawker food handling practices and provides guidelines for hawkers and consumers. The National Environment Agency (NEA) regularly visits 107 hawker centres to ensure they are kept clean and that food is prepared in a clean environment. They conduct spring cleaning as well as regular repairs and redecoration in those centres.

In addition, the Singaporean government is pushing hard to introduce Fintech payment systems to make trading easier. The government will provide a broad platform to encourage the development of innovative ideas and solutions. The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) will support trials of new concepts by funding half of the costs, up to a maximum of S$200,000 (US$141,186.74) per project.

Fintech users also benefit from government support schemes. “SPRING Singapore will provide Singaporean start-ups grants matching S$7 (US$4.94) for every S$3 (US$2.12) raised, up to a cap of S$50,000 (US$35,296.58),” said Deputy Prime Minister and MAS Chairman, Tharman Shanmugaratnam. The government is doing all it can to make hawker centres cashless as well as clean.

Some hawker traders have already adopted Fintech

Their efforts have delivered some results. Harry, a hawker stall owner from Tiong Bahru Market, admits that it would be better if hawkers only had to pay attention to preparing and cooking food, leaving the payments to Fintech. Many stall owners now accept payments via smartphones, without any upfront costs and cancellation fees. When they use Fintech systems, customers and hawkers do not need to worry about cash and change so the perennial lack of ATMs at hawker centres is no longer as problematic. Based on a MAS study conducted with KPMG, the social cost of cash and cheques is estimated to be around 0.5% of GDP, or about S$2 billion (US$1.412 billion) per year.

Liquid Pay is a good example of the Fintech system working well. According to its own customer experience feedback, Liquid Pay users take some time to familiarise themselves with it, but the system eventually makes their lives much more convenient. Most young people are becoming more used to making payments with their smartphones.

When you want to buy food at a hawker centre, you might need to check your wallet first to see whether you have the right change. Liquid Pay and other Fintech users now can simply order food without hesitation, then take out their smartphone to pay for it. And in Singapore, Liquid Pay has already set up partnerships with traditional hawker centres to hasten the move towards cashless markets and lower the cost of cash handling. However, not everybody is used to Fintech yet, especially older people. The move to completely clean and cashless hawker centres throughout Singapore won’t be a quick and easy process but it is underway.