How many ‘preneurs’ do we need?

One of the things that the Singapore government is very good at is coming up with quirky terms and coining phrases. When the late Indonesian President called us “a Little Red Dot,” we proceeded to turn it into a catch phrases of sorts of things. Then there’s the word “hub,” which when used by Singapore’s elite often refers to the fact that we are a “hub” for all sorts of things.

The most inventive contribution to the English language to come out of Singapore is in the play on the word “entrepreneur.” In the early 1990s, when the government tried to get Singaporeans to be more “entrepreneurial” in the technology sector, we had the term “technopreneur,” which was essentially an entrepreneur who had set up a business that involved some sort of technology. In the Singapore context, Silicon Valley is filled with “Techopreneurs.”

The latest group of “preneurs” that the Singapore government is trying to breed are known as “Hawkerpreneurs.” Thanks to UNESCO, the Singapore government has suddenly realized that Singapore’s food vendors or hawkers form an invaluable part of Singapore’s cultural landscape. Hawkers have fed generations of Singaporeans and are the very reason why Singapore is described as a “food paradise.” More importantly (particularly from a government calculation of revenue from elsewhere perspective), whenever friends from abroad come and visit us, we always feel the need to bring them to a “hawker centre.”

There is, however, one tiny snag to this most Singaporean of institutions. Old Hawkers are getting too old to continue doing what they do and the kids simply don’t want to sit over a stove 24/7 to make a basic living. It’s true that many outdoor hawker centres are giving way to cooler airconditioned food courts, but even then, the life of a hawker is tough. It’s long hours and physically demanding. While you do hear stories of how there are hawkers who have made enough for a Mercedes and to send their kids to university; you’ll find that the hawkers who have sent their kids to university for the very purpose of ensuring that their kids will not have to be hawkers. As Tan Tee Seng says in the following article, being hawker was a way for the less fortunate to earn a living and not to set up a “legacy” business: [LINK]

So, the government has a dilemma. It has “hawker culture,” which gives it a source of revenue and the reality that people are not rushing to set up hawker stalls. What can be done about it?

The answer that the government has come up with – is pretty much its answer for everything else. Throw money at the problem until it is no longer a problem. If you look at what the government is proposing for “hawkerpreneurs,” it is pretty much the same as what it has done for “technopreneurs,” as can be seen by the following link: [LINK]

As in the case of “technopreneurship,” it’s a case of offering money, either through direct grants or subsidizing venture capital, as well as making mentorship more easily accessible. The following link from the National Environment Agency (“NEA”) provides an outline of the government’s plans for developing an already developed hawker culture: [LINK]

The latest game is to come up with a course, to qualify young people for “hawkerpreneurship” as is outlined by this article: [LINK]

Yes, there actually is an assumption that since you can get a qualification in “hawkerpreneurship,” bright young things will want to enter the industry. Details of the program can be found at: [LINK]

Unfortunately, our bureaucrats haven’t quite understood that there is a key difference between a technology start up and a food stall. People set up high tech-start ups and slog their guts out because there’s a hope of selling out to a bigger company or through IPO for an untold fortune. There’s the satisfaction of the possibility of changing the way people live through your technology. By contrast, being hawker involves a lot of hard work for a more work and the odds of being bought out by a huge company are nonexistent. Even if you have a qualification in “hawker,” the reality of operating a “hawker” business remains the same.

I’m not against having courses per se. Its good to have people in the food business trained to a recognized standard of things like hygiene and service standards. However, a course and qualification are not going to change ground realities and you’re not going to attract your best and brightest into a business until certain ground realities change.

As I have argued previously, the biggest factor affecting hawkers is rent. Rents for a small stall remain high and as long as they do, the healthy portion of the hawker hard work will end up going to feed the landlords. Think about it, a stall in United Square can be something like $5,000 plus a month. A hawker selling chicken rice at $4 a plate will need to sell 1,250 plates of chicken rice every month just to cover the rent (and food cost hasn’t even been deducted). Perhaps it’s me being what my biggest fan on TRemeritus calls being “inferior,” but I don’t see the prospect of needing to sell 1,250 plates of chicken rice a month just to pay a landlord being attractive to anyone coming out of any of our educational institutions.

So, instead of trying to “glamourize” what is by its very nature a tough business, perhaps the real solution is to look at the original purpose of being a “hawker,” which was to give the poorer people an opportunity to develop a means of making a living.

Singapore currently has plenty of less educated workers from “developing” Asia, who are willing to do the “tough” jobs that our locals won’t do. Perhaps we should make it easier for this group to become hawkers. Sure, they’ll bring certain flavours from their original nations into our food mix but then again, isn’t that a natural part of culture, where people adapt and change things accordingly.

Government is missing an opportunity to use the hawkers to integrate people and cultures. Instead throwing money at the unwilling, shouldn’t it be trying to cultivate the willing?


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




22 Responses to “How many ‘preneurs’ do we need?”


    Don’t be surprised at all, if many heed the call to become hawkerprenuers. The PAP conducts a lot of social engineering and it’s really amazing how many just follow, just because Pappy says so.

    Like so many heeded the call for retraining, upskilling, reskilling, rebonding,reeducation. Only to kpkb when theyy can’t find jobs.

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  • Hawker Grads:

    Its shows if State wants to push something, that will be pushed through the orifice by force or not.

    Oh no! Sgrean Grads becoming hawkers! Bad for our education system image. Got certificate no job!

    I know! What if what they study is Hawker? Then degree for hawker becoming hawker meana success of education system.

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  • Tremendous:

    There’s an outgoing environmental head trying to be an incoming housing head.
    There’s an outgoing housing head trying to be I don’t know what.
    The outgoing environmental head made the blunder of crafting a hawkypreneur program.
    The outgoing housing head made the blunder of crafting the dovy forest clearance program.
    These days, blunders come in pairs, haha.

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  • HawkerCtr Hefty Stall Rent:

    The hawker centre stall rent is getting incessantly more and more vampirical, truly sucking the blood and sweat of the poor hawker. Hence, the increase in prices of hawker food. On top of that, he is encroached by all sorts of unfavourable terms and condtions imposed by the corporate management that administers the hawker centre.

    Every heartland precinct of 10 blocks of flats should have one hawker centre and a wet market to prevent overcrowding and long, frustrating queues. This can be achieved by reducing the 3m×3m stall rent to $1000 per month.

    With more affordable and convenient hawker centres of walking distance, heartlanders could save time and money eating out, especially good for the elderly and working adults. The ederly could not cook food on their own due to weak legs and/or illness whereas the working adults simply have no time or too tired to cook at home afer a long day’s work.

    So, what is all this convenient talk of Hawkerpreneurs when the authorities themselves stop short of being proactive in tackling the foreseeable issues of having an influx of hawkers, be they entrepeneural or just experimental?

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  • Disdain For Hawkers:

    With the exception of some, the rest just think ‘too highly’ of themselves (especially if got long Q). Beats me why imbeciles still want to patronize these hawkers especially those with attitude problems.

    [Kovan rojak sells at minimum $5 and when ask got $4; shows a black face and raises voice. What a lowlife jerk]

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  • Food Delivery Prenuers:

    I urge NUS to offer a new Bachelor’s or even a PhD for Food Delivery using bicycles.

    This way, our education system will have an extremely high Jobs to Cert match ratio even in a pandemic.

    I will apply for the minister for Manpower job now.

    I must sacrifice my genius for singapore.

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  • I won’t be surprised that the clearly clueless party comes up with degrees for pros, pimps, taxi-drivers, etc etc etc.

    The party has made many questionable and laughable ‘innovations’ in the past, but this has to take the prize for being most innovative.

    The thinktank who invented this deserved a payrise certainly!

    And how many dafts and idiots voted for this?

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  • Foo:

    Built more hawker centre 1st.then talk

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  • xoxo:

    Just a few.
    Ah Long-preneur.

    But the best would be KICK-a$$preneur!!!

    Kick the asses out!!!

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  • PAP the disaster for SH:

    The signal is pretty bad that the PAP govt is sending – current Poly and ITE graduates better withdraw from your courses AND ASK THE PAP for fees refund.

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  • xoxo:

    By the way,WHAT IS TRUE meritocracy?
    Do we practise real meritocracy here?
    A decent example would be our 1G leaders who accepted humble salaries to serve the nation n helped build our families.

    A FAKE MeLEEtocra$y is what we have now!
    The elite$ behave no less like bandits of days gone by pillaging and robbing and BULLYING THE WEAK N POOR.

    Does this look familiar?

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  • NotMyProblem:

    Food Delivery Prenuers:
    I urge NUS to offer a new Bachelor’s or even a PhD for Food Delivery using bicycles.

    This way, our education system will have an extremely high Jobs to Cert match ratio even in a pandemic.

    I will apply for the minister for Manpower job now.

    I must sacrifice my genius for singapore.

    For that job of Minister for Manpower, can you have sex in small space?

    Most important can you bull shit and lay?

    On top of all, can you say “YES” very loudly?

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  • Prof Wei Shin YU:

    Hi Guys
    My NTU colleague Prof Yeo first coined the word “technopreneur” in the canteen around 2001. So he should take the credit, not the SG Gov.

    Similarly, I claim half the credit for banning chewing gum in SG (– the other half goes to someone who jammed MRT doors). In early 1990, while I was Town Councillor in charge of Env & Maintenance, Kim Seng residents complained about crewing gums on the common area of a HDB precinct, which turned black and impossible to remove. I happened to speak to a reporter, who then paid a visit to the site and published in Straits Times.

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  • Harder Truths:

    Citizens need to look at the bigger picture. And it does not involve hawkers per se. it is about ‘dumbing down’ the local population to areas where the FT cannot or could not work, while at the same time pretending to employ locals in recognised jobs.

    The Old Dead Despot was the instigator for this. He wanted every taxi driver and garbage collector and – ye – hawker – to have a degree. He has now got part of his wish fulfilled.

    What next? There are many other bullshit degrees for similar types of occupations waiting for the $G core.

    This is a critical sign that the jobs given to FT are never going to come back to local-born. So there will be other similar made-up positions for the stupid sheep to fill up.

    While the FT run the island, locals will be forced into the low-paid service sector jobs where they will cause no trouble, are easily replaced and earn only enough to make ends meet. A clever way to keep the locals occupied, desperate and they will continue to vote the regime every time hoping things will change.

    This is the new $inkapore. We should get used to it.

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  • Servants in yr own country:

    Lau Lee says if you have a bad gov, you will become servants in other countries.

    Now that we have a “good” gov, we can enjoy being servants in our own country.

    Lau Lee, you getting up to save Singapore?

    Harder Truths: While the FT run the island, locals will be forced into the low-paid service sector jobs where they will cause no trouble, are easily replaced and earn only enough to make ends meet. A clever way to keep the locals occupied, desperate and they will continue to vote the regime every time hoping things will change.

    This is the new $inkapore. We should get used to it.

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  • Gimmickry:

    Local talents are pushed down the bottom of the professional ladder to become security guards, PHV drivers, food delivery riders, etc. as PAP’s immigrant talents climb to the top. Immigrants are not stupid. If they can land themselves in some cushy jobs with a fake degree or a Diploma/MBA from some backstreet college or unknown university, why would they want to be a hawker? All they need is some help with getting a Work Pass and HR connections from within their community. And they are large enough in number to integrate among themselves. This introduction of a diploma course to make hawkering look “sikit atas” is another gimmickry. Customers are not going to ask the hawker if he has a Diploma in Hawkering before placing their orders. If the food is lousy and over-priced, a Diploma in Hawkering is not going to help.

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  • Too Much Heaven:

    Having Too Much Heaven
    Savaging like raven
    Raiding reserves odd and even

    Sheeples are sheeples
    When will they ever learn
    Little do they earn
    Like ashes in urn

    This land is a dot on the map
    Small but promising
    But in its Next Lap
    The promised Swiss Standard of Living
    Is nothing but Crap

    The tide has turned
    Life becomes Swisscidal
    What was built is now beginning to burn
    All that’s left is a Legacy of a Very Huge Scandal

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  • xoxo:

    Trump called to * MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN*.

    From hawkers’ sons to PMEs back to HAWKING again?!


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  • Playing with words:

    This is flipping Roti Prata!
    If jobless rate high, i can make jobless rate zero by creative policy making where those jobless are classified as students. If student they are not jobless. They are students.

    I am so good, i should be President of the USA !

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  • xoxo:

    Expect the F gahmen to increa$e G$T after increa$ing medi$hit premiums.

    After $quandering $100 Billion,a big chunk going to NON-sgs,the F Gahmen are going to #crew sinkaPOOReans again!

    This govt needs to be sacked!
    New import of COVID CASES after painstaking measures.
    This is plain stupid n irresponsible!
    They will divert attention n make sgs take responsibility for their errant conduct!

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  • Jobless Rate said so low?!:

    If jobless rate is so low despite covid, despite GDP so low, i wonder whats the issue with jobs when there is little to almost no unemployment reported??

    The hawker and job focus suggests big issues.
    But the state media reported jobless rate is so low that in america thats probably called Full Employment.

    Use your brains.

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  • xoxo:

    Post-COVID expect more importations of FTs.

    Therefore,more sg-PMEs need to be displaced tp *CREATE JOBS FOR FTs* in order to attain their final objective of 10M.

    MORE HAWKERS are also needed to serve these FOREIGNERS.

    MORE *HOOKER-preneurs* may also be needed???

    This is a lousy govt getting lousier n lousier!

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