Singapore's Hawkers Raise Prices for First Time in 40 Years

Many of Singapore's renowned Michelin-starred hawkers are grappling with global inflation.

<p>Elena Aleksandrovna Ermakova / Getty Images</p>

Elena Aleksandrovna Ermakova / Getty Images

Walk into just about any hawker center in Singapore, and there isn’t just one story; there are hundreds. From a Hainanese chicken and rice chef who quit his stall after forty years, only to open a new one just two stalls away — they’re calling it the “Chicken Rice Wars” —  to a woman slinging fish balls reportedly only to customers she likes, hawker centers are more than just food courts. They’re hubs of culture, a part of Singapore inextricable from the national identity.

And while Singapore has evolved into one of the most expensive cities in the world, renowned for its architecture as well as the sheer number of luxury shopping centers, there has always been one thing that has remained consistent despite the melange of cultures and shifts in identity: The food at hawker centers has remained accessibly priced.

During a recent one-week stay, I gorged myself at hawker centers across the city-state, with meals costing no more than $5, inclusive of nasi lemak, a simple coconut rice served with fresh sambal and fried fish, as well as laksa wherever I could spot it. But the idyllic lifestyle of slurping up Michelin-starred soya sauce chicken and noodles for just $3 may be disappearing. While prices at hawker stalls were steady for almost 40 years and counting, hawkers all over Singapore are taping up signs to announce that they are raising their prices.

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It’s not for a lack of business. About 83% of Singaporeans visit a hawker center at least once a week for a meal, according to the Singaporean government. This makes sense: After all, a meal here is often more affordable than cooking at home, and certainly more convenient altogether.

Rent isn’t the problem, either. Hawker centers were first created as a more controlled alternative to open-air street food carts, and have since become UNESCO protected sites funded by the government. Instead, hawkers have been forced to raise their prices as a result of global inflation, which has driven up the cost of just about every ingredient coming into the world’s second busiest port.

“Singapore imports 95% of everything we eat,” KF Seetoh, a leading journalist on hawker centers, who went on to create the popular hawker food guide, Mankasutra, says. “Everything, from transport, ingredients, manpower, even housing has gone north, all, directly affecting the ability of hawkers and the food and beverage trade to survive,” he added.

Related:NYC Gets Its First Hawker Center — with Vendors Straight from Singapore

And while the price increase hasn’t been drastic, it’s definitely caused knee-jerk reactions, and Seetoh says that “everyone seeking good hawker budget meals has been affected.”

<p>Roslan Rahman / AFP via Getty Images</p>

Roslan Rahman / AFP via Getty Images

When I visited Maxwell Hawker Center during lunch hour, that didn’t seem to be the case. It was difficult to even move, let alone find a table. Queues for stalls snaked through the unairconditioned hall, and one, for the famous Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice stall, stretched out the front doors all the way around the block.

But one stall, Hajmeer Kwaja, which sells Mee Goreng Mamak, a Singaporean-Indian vermicelli fried with tomato sauce, had clearly made significant price changes, and even had a rare sign explaining the circumstances.

The sign explained that the price increase was necessary in order to “keep up with inflation and the rising costs of suppliers.” And so, despite a full plate of food only being $4.50 ($3.34 USD), the stall was empty.

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“While some have been fortunate enough to only have to raise prices of some items, others haven’t been as lucky,” Mohammed Kassim, who runs the stall with his family, said, adding that he and his family were forced to raise prices 50 cents across the board. “The price of vegetables and meat forced us to increase our prices, and our business hasn’t been the same.”

Wiliam Wong, who serves Kaya Toast, a buttered toast slathered in coconut jam in Amoy food center, is a more fortunate hawker. Wong, who runs the stall with his family, says that they “only had to raise prices 10 cents for certain items because of some ingredients getting more expensive.” He points to a can of condensed milk and explains that while Coffee C (coffee with condensed milk) has increased, Coffee O (coffee without condensed milk) has remained at its old price.

“Even still, it’s an unimaginable price for some customers,” Wong adds, rushing to fill another order.

One of the more interesting nuances of this situation is that no one hawker could raise prices on their own. According to Seetoh, they all had to do it simultaneously. “That same stall five steps away faces the same problems,” he says. “They waited for the first person to adjust upwards, then joined them, and now, they compete in quality.”

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While many, if not all, stalls raised prices, there are still exceptions to be found. Elin Chow helps run Ah Gong, a stall that specializes in minced pork noodles at Maxwell center. She sells two versions — a soupy version of the dish, and a dry version. While she was forced to raise prices due to inflation, she only did it on one version of her dish. She says she raised the price of the drier noodles as opposed to the soup noodles because “it requires more sambal for seasoning,” and the ingredients to make sambal, she explains, are more expensive now.

And yet, despite the squeeze, Chow still offers an even lower price, reserved for a select few. “The older people might not have a lot of money, the prices everywhere are too high for them I think,” she says. As a way to help out, she offers her pork noodles for just $2.50 ($1.85 USD) to any elderly customer who visits her stall, a $2 decrease from the standard offering price.

“It's only natural that prices rise,” Seetoh explained. Adding that “Singapore food, as a developed country, counts as the cheapest, even compared to developing nations, dollar for dollar and in terms of value.”

As for whether hawker stalls as a way of life are going to disappear, it’s highly unlikely. But it’s worth heading to Singapore to experience the vast array of foods while you still can. 

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