Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rationalising hawker food

Old news, but Minister for Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan (cue the mix chorus of booing and guffawing) has suggested that hawker centres should be professionalise, on top of being “nationalised” – i.e. “next generation of hawkers in new hawker centres must also be Singaporean.”

And in a typical Post-General Elections 2011 move that is as unsurprising as the accusations of nepotism and cronyism, which are of course officially ill-informed, MEWR (RAWR!!! Purrrrr……) has conducted a consultation exercise to gather public suggestions. Nothing wrong with that, because most Singaporeans are fairly acquainted with hawker food.

Balakrishnan shared his views, “It's not as if anyone can just walk off the street and say I'm going to make the world's best char kway teow. There's an element of training, exchanging of best practices and recipes. And we need in a way to professionalise our hawker centres and our hawkers."

What strikes me most is the word “professionalise”. It invokes a systematic rationalisation of the hawker trade.

For those familiar with George Ritzer (or Max Weber), it’ll come as no surprise that as a highly urbanised (and continually modernising) cite-state, the symptomatic drive to control and standardise eventually extends to an “everyday life” domain and industry that is the hawker centre.

The PAP government also employs the very populism it condemns, and in saying the next generation of hawkers must be Singaporean, effectively spews the kind of nationalist rhetoric it believes will help win back the votes it is entitled to.

One component of the existing set of controls hawkers are subjected to is the National Environment Agency’s food hygiene grading. On the one hand, it represents the government’s leadership in ensuring continual good hygiene practices in all food and beverage outlets here.

On the other hand, the idea of control and grading is characteristic of a highly intelligent and rational(ised) state, steeped in Confucian principles as it remains subscribed to the same “meritocracy” that has driven, for example, our education system (renowned for its streaming and differentiation of students).

This is a language the establishment understands. A citizenry, that is socialised into this language, not only understands it too, but also abides by its rules and stays within its discursive parameters.

What is “good” or “passes” according to a set of prescribed standards, concocted by a select few, mostly and mostly likely to be the privileged and elite, will be accorded a certain grade or status others believe to be superior.

We understand, in isolation, that an A grade is higher than and superior to a B grade. That order seems logical, thus accepted. However, we don’t question the sets of rules and reasoning that necessitates grading and tiering. We also don’t question how the bases for grading may appear to benefit a certain group, a certain aesthetic and so on. It is deceptively reasonable, logical and rational.

I am also interested in the use of professionalisation as a front for standardisation. To employ a “purist” foodie stance, one steep in culinary nostalgia and gastronomical romanticism, the evolution of “good food” (subjective nonetheless) is premised on competition, improvisation and well-kept secrets. Standardisation curtails this.

George Ritzer conceptualised McDonaldisation, a phenomena that characterises modern society and it pursuit of efficiency, calculability, control and yes predictability. With standardisation, we have predictability (and control, of course). These are the symptoms of a highly rational society.

The respective conceptualisations of rationalisation and McDonaldisation by Weber and Ritzer, are reactions to what they perceive as the process of modernisation in the Western context. Come on, as if there is an idea of an era preceding the modern, right? Well, modernisation (and its dehumanising qualities) and the values ascribed to it are just as socially constructed as the values people ascribe to “purist” ideas of nostalgia, romanticism and irrationality, or anything associated with being “human”. Let’s call a truce until the next paradigm arrives.

Why does good food taste good? I believe in the properties of differentiation, improvisation, competition and secrecy, as these ensure the next generation continues to get “good” food.

Maybe the government’s idea of innovation and creativity does not extend to the food and beverage industry, specifically the hawker industry, and this doesn’t figure in the grand scheme of “progress”.

There is this constant obsession with finding the best practices, benchmarking and standardising, so that we can sustain something we think is good for everyone else. This is corporate Singapore, but do we understand the implications of our decisions and actions? Or are the problems created by our decisions best left for the next generation to solve?

Professionalising and nationalising the hawker trade need not be bundled together. If the PAP government wants to win votes based on invoking populist nationalist sentiment, it should articulate in isolation that hawkers be mostly Singaporean. As for “professionalising” and ensuring good “standards” and practices (which essentially point to standaridsation), it is a whole different story altogether.

George Ritzer assessed that while the process of McDonaldisation is a highly rational(ised) one, it begets irrationality, in the form of excessive red tape and resultant lower quality of work.

The professionalisation and probable standardisation of the hawker industry will result in easily replicable but nevertheless good and rational practices which ultimately can be done at a lower cost – use foreign talent!

Based on my interpretation, professionalisation and nationalisation here seem at odds with each other. Perhaps Balakrishnan will explain more in the future as to what he means by professionalisation and its parameters.

By the way, the bak chor mee stall I regularly patronise is manned by Chinese nationals, and I somehow crave the same good taste at a consistently low price.

1 comment:

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