The history of Singapore’s hawker culture and how it’s related to our cost of living

The origins of Hawker Culture in Singapore can be traced all the way back to the mid-1800s.

Back then, street hawkers would ply the streets selling an array of food offerings to earn a living. It was a popular occupation amongst many early settlers and immigrants as it required little capital and minimal skill.

After World War II, street hawking continued to thrive in Singapore as many who were unemployed turned to hawking to earn their keep. More and more hawkers began to congregate in hotspots, with the ensuing crowds blocking out entire streets causing obstructions to the traffic.

Unlike the hawker centres we see today, hawker centres in the 1950s and 1960s had a reputation for unhygienic food. Many of the hawkers lacked access to water as well as proper facilities for cleaning and waste disposal. This led to public health concerns, as hawkers were linked with cholera and typhoid outbreaks.

Problems arising from street hawkers then pushed the Government to regulate the hawkers and relocate them into purpose-built hawker centres and markets with proper sanitation and amenities.

street hawkers after 1980s

Over time, hawker centres evolved beyond food centres to become a symbol of heritage and culture.

Today, Singapore has more than 110 hawker centres across the island, and there are plans to construct even more to better cater to our population, as well as to keep food prices affordable for all Singaporeans.

Providing more affordable food options for Singaporeans

Other than the Government-owned hawker centres, did you know that there are also hawker centres that are run by social enterprises in Singapore?

Essentially, these social enterprise hawker centres (SEHCs) are set up to create social benefits which include offering more affordable food options for Singaporeans at hawker centres and helping aspiring hawkers.

For context, in 1995, NTUC Foodfare was established to help moderate and stabilise food prices for Singaporeans during the introduction of Goods & Services Tax (GST), when there were profiteering practices among some industry players.

As one of the social enterprises under the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), FoodFare aims to make healthy meals affordable for all by helping to regulate the prices of everyday essential meals.

NTUC FoodFare Rice Garden

A mixed rice meal with two vegetables and one meat item at Rice Garden, a Cai Png store run by NTUC Foodfare, can go as low as $1.50 for Comcare cardholders and $2.00 for concession members!

Currently, there are seven SEHCs operating across Singapore. These SEHCs are managed by five social-enterprise entities such as Hawker Management by Koufu, Fei Siong Social Enterprise, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre+Hawkers, and OTMH by Kopitiam.

Reportedly, 13 more new SEHCS will be ready by 2027.

Now, you know where to get affordable and healthy Cai Png from!