Hawker/ Food Court/ Kopitiam

The Road to Becoming a Hawker: I Used My Skillsfuture to Take NEA’s Hawker Development Programme. It Was Good, Very Good, Then Bad, Very Bad.

The first day of the course – food safety, hygiene course. Have you been a dirty little boy or girl or folx?

I’m thinking of making a mid-career switch: I have interesting ideas for food, I can cook (check out my IG stories), I don’t have rich parents, and I want to be a boss. All these factors point to becoming a hawker. I used my skillsfuture to attend the Hawker course so it was free.

What is the Hawker Development Programme?

It’s for anyone who is interested to be a hawker.

There are 3 stages but it’s not compulsory to go through all of them. If you’re ready and confident, you don’t even need to take the course. Or you can take stage 1 and immediately open a hawker stall. Or you can take stages 1 and 3, skipping 2. Or go directly to Stage 3.

Stage 1: Theory (5 days). I used my skillsfuture.

Stage 2: Internship at a hawker (8 weeks, you get paid $1000 a month)

Stage 3: incubation period. If your business proposal passes, NEA will give you subsidies to open a stall. But take note, NEA only passes a few proposals each month. It’s very competitive. Make sure you present the best possible version of your proposal.


Stage 1: Theory (5 Days) – This was the one I attended. The theory consists of 4 modules in 5 days.

Day 1: Food Safety Course

Once you pass today’s class, you can be a hawker.

The contents of the course about food safety on preparation and storage are commonsensical—don’t take money and handle food with the same hand, don’t leave food out, etc. It’s commonsensical but necessary.

In the morning, the instructor gave a theoretical lesson. Followed by a test. I was the first to finish and got full marks.

In the afternoon, there was a practical test, testing if you’re hygienic. I role-played as a hawker using Monopoly money. Once you pass, you can go work at a food establishment.

I like this instructor who is flamboyant and makes a boring class interesting.

Day 2: Hawker Cooking.

Today we cooked. But before cooking, there was a theoretical lesson on the ingredients, equipment to use, etc. This was the moment when I learned about chicken powder and premixes and gravy powder. Yikes, they sound really unhealthy. They are the reason why hawker food is cheap but I promise when I open a stall, I will never use them. I’m not saying that it is wrong to use them, just that it’s not my style.

Before we cooked, there was a theory lesson.

After the theory lesson came the test.

I KNEW 0 OUT OF 10 QUESTIONS FOR THE TEST. I’m an extremely amazing test taker. In O levels prelims, I scored 100% for my geography MCQ. In university, I scored 91% for a MCQ test, the next best score was 78%. For WSET Wine Level 1, I scored 93%, the highest in class. In the Food Safety test the day before, I scored 100%. It’s not that I’m smart. I pay attention and repeat the instructor’s words in my mind . I memorise things. This was the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE I DIDN’T KNOW MOST OF THE ANSWERS.

The reason: the instructor didn’t teach! The instructor, who is also a trained chef, was talking about his experience and giving tips on cooking several dishes. This sharing was captivating and invaluable and I took much notes. But nothing he shared was in the test!

I knew this before the class. It’s called “Mise En Place,” getting the ingredients ready before cooking.

HOWEVER, I prefer listening to him share to the hard facts in the textbook. The information in the textbook is useful but they are facts that I can read myself. He’s a walking library with knowledge that cannot be found in books. I’d suggest scraping the stupid test and let the chef share more. What is the point of the test anyway?

Chef Michael Lau demo-ing. That phone in front of the food was used as a camera to broadcast on screen. So cool. I love technology.

In the afternoon, we paired up and cooked. I was paired with another student who sells fried carrot cake. His stall ranks highly on my list of Best Carrot Cake in Singapore. Heng, I didn’t say anything negative about his carrot cake. He did the heavy lifting and I was his sous chef.

My hardworking partner David while I chao-keng.
We made this chicken stock.

We made a chicken stock and used it to cook fish noodle soup 鱼片米粉. The other hawker dish we made was fried rice. The chef shared many tips on how to achieve wok hei for fried rice. For example, the first thing that enters the wok shouldn’t be garlic; it goes in midway the process, after eggs and rice. What a revelation. (I may share the tips in another post.)

Chef teaching us how to achieve wok hei. Must flip wok but it’s really heavy. Time to hit the gym.
This was chef’s fried rice.
David cooking fried rice.
This was our fried rice. Not too bad, right? I think we mastered 70%. With more practice, we could be good.
I cooked this fish soup!
This was chef’s fish soup.
David and I cooked this. My ikan bilis were so amazing, so crispy. I brought the soup home to eat and it was so tasty when the noodles absorbed the broth. Hey chef, watch out. Disciple will overthrow the Master. lol.

I have been to countless commercial kitchens before but this was the first time I cooked in one. I understand if a person does it repeatedly over years, it gets tiring like any job. But it was exciting and fun for me.

Also: we needed to clean the kitchen at the end of the day. I don’t even clean my own kitchen at home. lol.

I was so exhausted when I reached home that even my little finger had cramps. I’m not joking.

This module, I feel, is the most important among the 4 modules. The chef-instructor is awesome. Unfortunately it lasted only for a day. I thought 2 days should have been more appropriate for this module.

Days 3 & 4: Hawker Entrepreneurship

I was most looking forward to this module but it was most disappointing. Instead of 2 days, this module should have taken only a day, maybe even half a day. My course mate said, “They just want to earn government’s skillfuture money.” Lol. Not I say one ah. Don’t POFMA me.

Sounded useful but it was barely.

To be fair, they provided useful information such as recommendations for suppliers, operating costs, etc. But this is a list and lists are easy to read. The most useful exercise, which can be completed in an hour, is the calculation assignment of the start-up costs, ingredients cost, etc. But strangely, they kept the worksheets and didn’t return the worksheets back to us. Luckily, I took photos.

Do you know it takes at least 30K to start a hawker stall?

Besides what I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the class is useless and stretched so long that I’m typing this blog entry in class (note the present tense!). Later, I spoke to some of my classmates and we all agreed that the class shouldn’t take 2 days. The teacher was trying her best to stretch the class by telling us her life story and platitudes and motivation quotes, and giving us very long breaks. Our lunch was 2 hours long. After lunch, she talked for half an hour, and we had a break for an hour and half. I want to emphasise that it wasn’t the instructor’s fault. It was the syllabus which was so simple that there was really nothing to talk about. I feel my life slipping away from me like I am in a hot tub with a slitted wrist.

NEA Talk

NEA came in to give a presentation on the 3 stages of the Hawker Development Programme. This was very useful and many of us had many questions for them. This was about five thousand times more useful than the “Hawker Entrepreneurship” module and eight thousand times more useful than the next module.

Day 5: Digital Workplace

Return me the time I wasted here.

After two days of wasting time, this UTTERLY USELESS, AWFUL module was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was juggling my day job and attending the class at the same time so this complete waste of my precious time incensed me. Now I have to work weekends to cover for the work I miss. I’m sure other participants have work too. It’s not okay to waste our time.

How useless was the class? The class included activities such as arranging pictures of technology (TV, pager, radio, handphone, etc) chronologically like we were 5 years old; many useless, promotional videos like advertising for Paynow or driverless vehicles or at least SEVEN videos on cashless payment or a Singapore Police Force video or 2 videos on fake news (how are these useful for hawkers???). Just let us stay home, give us the youtube links, and call it a day.

One course mate texts me the exact question as I am typing this blog entry:

This course mate also pointed out the contradiction that today’s lesson told us NOT to use social media for fear that our personal information would be leaked but the day before, we were encouraged to leverage on social media for publicity.

I also want to observe that this module talked about Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) where companies cannot ask you for your IC number but in every assignment we did, we had to write our IC number. The assignments also ask for very private information such as our monthly expenditure. Also: we were forced to have our photos taken for contact tracing but they could have used our attendance. Why were photos necessary? Was this the 90s? If they want to host the course, at least make sure they abide to the teachings.

Later, I asked another course mate, an older one in his late 50s, if this module on digital workplace was useful to him. He replied no without any hesitation. At the end of the day, we were to evaluate this more-painful-than-my-root-canal module. Many course mates were in a dilemma. We hated the module, of course, but didn’t want to give negative feedback in case it would affect the evaluation of the instructor. Again, I want to highlight that it’s the problem of the course material, not the instructor.

The only useful part was when the module introduced food photography and videography. But the school should have employed a teacher who knows about food photography to teach us. Hire me!

Conclusion: What Should Have Been Included in The Course

First, I want to conclude by saying what is good about the course:

-food safety module (commonsensical but necessary)
-cooking in a professional kitchen (fun!)
-providing us a list of kitchen equipment suppliers, ingredients suppliers, etc.
-giving us worksheets to calculate the start-up costs, ingredients cost, how to price the food (but unfortunately they kept the worksheets and didn’t return the worksheets back to us)

What they should have included:

-how to set up a stall. For instance if you’re selling bak chor mee, what equipments are necessary? Where do you place the equipments in a small hawker stall to minimise movement and injuries? Get equipment sellers to class to introduce the type of equipments and functions. I visited a few sellers, spoke to them, and learned way more from them in 15 minutes than the NEA course.

-What is the SOP? Using bak chor mee as an example, what should you do first? Blanch the noodles? or cook the minced meat? How to take order, cook, serve, and collect money in a smooth and efficient manner? How to set up, close, clean stall?

-basic culinary skills like knife skills, stir frying techniques etc. Some of us are trained chefs, but many others are homemakers, retirees, or people looking to change careers. There is an assumption that we all know how to cook but when I saw how some people hold their knives and how they didn’t dry their wet and slippery chopping boards, I was scared that a mishap would happen.

-Workplace safety is so important I can’t believe the course neglected it. What the basic precautions and preventive measures are to avoid injuries in the kitchen—like always dry a wet chopping board—and if accidents occur, teach us the basic medical or homeopathic treatments.

-how to pick a good supplier and establish a relationship. How to balance pricing and quality of ingredients. Get suppliers to come to class and talk.

-basic employment laws if we hire assistants. How much to pay part timers? What benefits to give them? How to prevent exploitation? Conversely, what should we do if assistants steal from us? (This is quite common.)

-basic legal rights as small business owners

-funding and bank loans that hawkers can apply as small business owners

-a discussion on the pros and cons of being a hawker vs setting up a home business

-catering to group buys or large scale catering

-Take the course via Zoom instead of meeting physically. Because COVID. With the exception of the second module on “hawker cooking,” all other modules could have been done online. A woman coughed on me on my way to the school. I have been compromised. The last module of the course, “Digital Workplace,” is about digitialising Singapore yet we still met physically. More plotholes than a time-travelling movie.

ps: I have an interview with NEA for Stage 2 of the Hawker Programme and I asked them to do it via Zoom–because COVID–but they insisted on face-to-face. Really, what’s the point of the “Digital Workplace” module? Where are the governmental measures to prevent COVID?

-This course takes on the very old fashioned pedagogy of instructors talking, students listening. This is ineffective. Have a roundtable discussion. Get hawkers, both successful and failed, to share with us their stories. Let us ask them questions. Every instructor in the course operated in restaurant business, which is different from hawker business. By the end of class, everyone of us was more apprehensive than assured when it should have been the other way round.

Once, I asked my good friend, “Why do poor people (by poor people, I mean me) have so many problems?” She replied, “It’s because one mis-step and their lives are thrown in chaos, they have no safety net.” People taking this course are keenly aware of it. We are scared, we stay up at night to worry.

The start-up fees to be a hawker are 30K—one course mate (single mother) approached me and confided that she has 3 sons and 5k savings, her youngest only 2 years old, they cannot last for more than a few months–and if we fail, the money is gone. That’s why many of my course mates (myself include) are hesitant to take the first step to become a hawker. Isn’t it better to be a grab driver, one course mate asked. At least the 30K savings are safe in the bank and you get a car to drive.

Or in my case, isn’t it better to persevere in my profession rather than making a risky mid-career switch? We can’t stand up again if we fall. That’s why getting seasoned hawkers for a roundtable discussion to provide their expertise is important to, if not assuage our fears, help us reach the decision of becoming a hawker or not.


Written by Dr. A. Nathanael Ho.

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