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For all of us

Singapore, renowned worldwide for the quality and variety of its hawker food, has been facing the problem of its decline for quite some time now. It’s not an easy job being a hawker: long hours, rising stall rentals, and the society’s nouveau mentality to menial labour has made the profession undesirable to the younger generation, who have bought into the dream of the high life. They would much rather be bankers, selling baloney and bubbles, than follow the footsteps of their forebears, earning their keep a few dollars at a time providing stressed masses with God’s gift to weary people: a steaming hot plate of char kuay teow.

The death of the hawking industry would be a huge loss for Singapore. The thought of an overworked population not having access to good cheap food is a scary one, but the loss of hawker food would be a death blow to the already tenuous shroud that is our Singaporean identity.

So when the government announced, after months of gathering industry and public feedback, that it wanted to make the hawking profession “attractive and honourable”, it was expected, but I baulked a little at the choice of words. We’ve always been relatively good at making things “attractive”, but “honourable”, to be frank, is out of the government’s league.

I do not mean it derisively, but honour is not easily bestowed by measures or means. You can fake it, much like the ornate robes worn by university professors at graduation ceremonies to instill a sense of pomp for the day, but real honour is bestowed by the people.

I’ll be blunt and honest here. We are really, really stingy when it comes to according honour. Whether we got to this point because of massive doses of competition, the effects of globalisation, or remnants of a survivor mentality that is still embedded in us, I’ll leave that discussion for keener minds. I think we can all agree that we aren’t a very generous people, particularly when it comes to our own. I’m guilty as charged.

Economically it makes sense to “move up the value chain”, but it is naive to look at value in purely economic terms. People do not climb the next rung of the economy ladder for a myriad of reasons, some by choice and others by circumstance. Dignity and honour should be found at all levels, and in all jobs. Professor Lim Chong Yah’s proposal to address income inequality and Ho Kwon Ping’s call to complete the wage reform in neglected sectors, based on my very, very rudimentary grasp of economics and through the lens of the state media, may come across as radical or extreme, but the spirit of their message is one we need in our stage of societal evolution. I think citizens need to understand that there are associated costs that come with caring. We can expect the cost of consumables to go up as we make livelihoods for lower-income jobs more equitable and sustainable. We need to decide, as a society, if we are willing to pay the cost to realise our ideals. There is no magic bullet, no grandfather who’ll pay for our moral high ground. Eventually we’ll need to pay for it, because we believe we cannot go on exploiting the downtrodden just so we can reap the benefits of a good life at a low price.

But I digress. The wage structure is but part of honour, and has been debated vigourously as of late.

How do we accord honour? How do we bring dignity to jobs that at the lower rungs of this man-made ladder to which we all seem enslaved?

Be nice. That’s a helluva good start.

Smile, and say your thank-you’s. To the cleaners, to the hawkers, to the construction workers. To all the ones whom we pass by; the ones we’ve taken for granted; the ones we’ve derided by telling our children they’ll end up there if they don’t study hard, be nice. Recognise their contributions to our lives, and express a little gratitude.

It’ll go farther than any government programme to instill honour and dignity.

Daniel Goh, this post is for you. I don’t drink alcohol, but for inspirational stories like yours, I just might have to pop by Good Beer and raise a glass. Erm. Mug. Yes I’m new at this.

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