It was a short, and seemingly harmless rant on Facebook — posted after a Friday evening beer with a fellow hawker.
Daniel Goh, the founder and owner of The Good Beer Company, had criticised an old National Environment Agency (NEA) hawker licence rule as "stupid" and "onerous".
To Goh's surprise, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan agreed with him — and publicly instructed NEA to remove the rule "with immediate effect".
Speaking to Yahoo Singapore on Tuesday morning, Goh felt Vivian's response was “stunning”, and also “a very, very good thing” for Singapore’s hawker industry.
The post, which Goh put up on Friday, 10 January, was a picture he had snapped of a list of terms and conditions printed on the reverse side of the hawker licence owned by his neighbour, a "zi-char" seller in his 60s.
Goh recalled that he was chatting with the neighbour over beer that day, while the latter was reworking his stall after taking a break for a few months. The "zi-char" seller had reprinted and laminated his license, which is required to be displayed on every hawker stall in Singapore. He was reading the conditions when he realised he did not understand the third rule, said Goh.
It reads, “In the case of a cooked food stall, no restaurant type of dishes shall be sold unless the licensee has been authorized to do so in writing by the Director-General of Public Health.”
“He showed it to me, telling me that since I was more educated I might be able to understand it better,” said Goh. “But when I saw it, I, too, was wondering why it was so clumsily worded.”
Goh said he spoke to some people in the industry and found out that the rule came about because in the 1970s and 80s, the government did not want people to sell “restaurant type” food in hawker centres to ensure that they would not charge “restaurant type” prices. This was done to keep food affordable for the masses.
“That rule does make sense, and would have been relevant in the 70s and 80s to contain food inflation — don’t charge restaurant-type prices because most people can’t afford to eat like that,” he said. “These days, a lot of people who go to hawker centers can afford to pay a little bit more, so I guess it became obsolete.”
New concepts by hawkers
His main concern in highlighting the rule, however, was chiefly because he was concerned that rules like that would prevent new hawkers with innovative ideas from entering the scene.
“The terms and conditions don’t affect me because I sell beer, but I’m really happy that this ruling has been removed,” he said. “New hawkers will be able to enter the scene because they won’t be scared to try new concepts, (allowing for) a lot of innovation in the hawker scene… that’ll be a very, very good thing.”
“Why should excellent food innovations happen outside of hawker centers?” he continued. "It’s sad if we are held back in any way from innovating. Hawker heritage is really important to us and we’ve been trying very hard to revive it but it’s all been going downhill."
In a statement, the NEA clarified that the term “restaurant type of dishes” refers to “zi-char” dishes, a term used to refer to Chinese-style food dishes that are usually ordered in groups and served together with rice. These dishes could include fish head curry, barbecued or steamed seafood, vegetables cooked in various styles and more.
Further, said a spokesperson for the agency, the condition was put in place in the past in consideration of the nature of "zi-char" stalls that involve heavy cooking.
“Also, zi-char requires sufficient space for food preparation and storage, and higher electrical power for larger refrigerators to store the various ingredients typically used in zi-char dishes. Hence the licence condition required stallholders selling zi-char dishes to seek NEA’s approval, so that these operational requirements are addressed upfront,” she added.
The spokesperson added that in view of the fact that most hawker centres are now outfitted with exhaust systems and higher capacities of electrical power, NEA will act accordingly to update its licence conditions.