Coming Collision Between Singapore’s Government and My Beloved Hawker Stalls?

Tyler Cowen points to this Financial Times piece (subscription required, or visit BugMeNot, or google the article’s headline and click through from Google to read the text).

Singapore is worried about obesity, with 11% of the population considered obese under world standards compared to a 17% world average (which includes countries suffering from famine) and 35% in the U.S.

Singapore plans to restrict advertising for “unhealthy” food and drink aimed at children, as countries across Asia grow increasingly concerned about obesity rates.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said “obesity rates are going up . . . with more fast foods and sedentary occupations” even as more Singaporeans are exercising and fewer are smoking.

It seems odd that they’re focusing on advertising to children when it’s adult behavior identified as a key area of concern:

Singapore has seen a rise in obesity as people increasingly eat fatty foods. About 60 per cent of Singaporeans eat out four times a week or more, mostly in “hawker stalls” and food courts scattered across the city state that sell cheap dishes based on rice and noodles that are often heavy on cooking oil.

Though they do want to ‘do something’ about the stalls as well,

The government has been working with food stall owners to cut the amount of oil and salt used in cooking and persuade them to use brown rice, considered healthier than polished white rice.

Of course, for many of the traditional dishes, the high fat and calorie content was the point, they were cheap ways of feeding laborers. The archetypical example of this is char kway teow, a staple of the hawker stalls today:

On my previous subject of biases, I proudly declare mine here. Traditional Singaporean food, prepared by specialist stalls and sold inexpensively, is one of the world’s great treasures.

My own favorite hawker center is the East Coast Lagoon Village because it pairs the food concept with an open air location on the beach.

And the food? Delicious.

On the one hand, the government actually promotes food stalls, they regular their location but also subsidize rents. On the other the government is beginning to express preferences as to what the occupants of those hawker stalls actually serve. It’s not surprising, and the government wields significant influence generally but through their subsidies and certifications they can exercise as much as they wish.

But there’s few examples of more competitive businesses — large numbers of stalls in a concentrated area, it’s easy to choose and there’s good information on quality, the stalls vigorously work to outdo each other on quality to meet the demands on well-informed consumers. If customers desire brown rice they’ll certainly be provided. And a hadful of stalls giving customers what they don’t want to curry favor with the government will lose tremendous business. So it’s only if the government forces all the stalls to cook contrary to consumer preferences that change will take place.

And a great national treasure — which I admittedly take advantage of perhaps no more than once a year, living a world away — will be greatly diminished.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. And East Coast food is actually considered “expensive” by Singaporean standards. There’s cheaper fare at similar standards elsewhere 🙂

  2. Augh. Dietary fat does not make people fat. Carbs do. I wish governments would do some research before they become the nanny state and kill the rest of us with misinformation.

  3. We should all eat better food
    The delicious stuff sold in these stalls is really bad for you eventhough it tastes great.

    If you refrain from this food however, you will gain less weight and be healthier. If you eat well and do a bit of excercise a few times a week– even just 20 mins every other day on the treadmill, bike or elipticle, you will retain health.

    Avoiding oiled and heavily salted pastas, white flour based foods and white or pilaf rice will be necessary, and limiting beers breads and other carbos will help you stay more fit.

    This will make you live longer and instead of spending money on care for when you cant walk and are old and laid up in some hospital bed on oxygen and with diabetis, why not spend some money now on healthier dishes and excersize (ie running or walking shoes, a mt bike, a gym membership)

    I think we should have lower health insurance costs if we have better health and higher costs if we let ourselves get obese. Its gross and dumb. I think health insurance should be run like auto insurance in that if we do better we save more.

    Unless theres a medical restriction of some sorts, theres little reason for 90% of americans to be obese at all.

    Yes work and stress and depression and even travel can make it hard to break the cycle, but much of that can generally be over cone if we do two basic things:

    1) avoid the food in these lovely pictures except like once or twice a year for a little gimme

    2 adhere to that Nike slogan when it comes to eating well and doing some regular excercize so you dont slowly creep into obesity and…

    Just do it!

  4. Forgive all my typos above– im typing from a phone– while stuffing my face on this bacon cheese burger lol

  5. Prawn Laksa and Wonton noodles! Think I’ll have something similar for lunch tomorrow. Yum yum….

  6. Well, good thing I will be there this weekend. However this would suck from going from NYC to singapore, as jet away puts it, having to experience Bloomberg like rules.

    Guess it just means Malaysia will be experiencing an explosion of food tourist.

  7. Hawker food is the Singapore’s way of life. It will not go away anytime soon. Government campaigns – there always will be – not the first time they try to promote healtier eating.

    A more longer term threat to hawker food is Singapore’s growing affluency. From a poor immigrant society, it is now the world’s wealthest city state. Singaporeans are well-educated, well-travelled and effectively bilingual in English plus their native tongue. Not many young Singaporeans aspire to becoming hawkers.

  8. @Joel – cheaper good food elsewhere? absolutely. an open air evening on the beach comes at a very reasonable incremental price!

  9. Ah….the Hawker Centres are wonderful. The best food for the price…sometimes the best food. The gov has already put measures in place to keep these stalls clean when they moved them indoors and off the streets.

    It’s sort of like putting government regulations on the making of Parmesan cheese in Italy! It’s just wrong! Singapore is the BEST place to get a tasty cross-section of food from the entire Pacific Rim. Time to book a trip there…I’M HUNGRY!

  10. The problem is not FATS, its the simple carbs from polished rice and wheat and white bread PLUS all those sugar. To stop obesity in children, simply stop them from drink sugar load soda drinks, yogurt and ice cream, plus all those transfat margarine and veg shortening.

    The govt should promote LESS SUGAR or more natural sugar instead of refined sugar, if they are serious about obesity.

  11. Gary, do you have any goals for yourself, relating to losing weight? You’re always posting delicious food, but you never talk about exercising while traveling.

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