Singaporeans and food: a love-hate relationship

It’s funny how as a nation we absolutely love food but see F&B as one of the least attractive industries to work in.

You know it’s true!

We love talking about food, we impatiently imagine the next meal, we share secret eateries, we gather around huge family meals, we debate the merits of one eating place against another, and we use food as one of the key ingredients holding our national identity together.

Yet not many of us would accept a job waiting tables, cutting vegetables, cooking dishes, preparing drinks, serving cocktails, checking orders, or even running a restaurant.

Why is that?

It could have something to do with the long hours, the irregular shift schedules, the six-day work week, being on one’s feet for hours on end, dealing with unreasonable and rude diners, all for a pretty humble salary.

Yep, these are probably the top reasons why not many Singaporeans would consider taking F&B jobs, no matter how passionate they may be about food.

But that doesn’t stop the industry from growing exponentially! In 2011, it was reported that there were some 6,500 F&B establishments across the island, raking in over S$7 billion in sales (source)! That means we’re probably looking at tens of thousands of jobs in the F&B industry alone, without factoring in all the indirect jobs created by vendors, delivery people, property rentals, advertising, interior decorators, entertainment, etc.

So with slow take-up rates for these positions, businesses turn to foreign labour for solutions.

As one netizen nicknamed Sultan-of-Oman puts it: The way I see for Singaporeans to take up service sectors jobs will be for employers to increase the overall service quality and of course, higher salary. I just talked to a fellow in reservist mate and surprised to hear that a fresh shatec hotel management grad earns $1.2k to $1.4k pm before CPF… And that’s for 4/5 stars hotel.”

But is salary really the main issue? Countries like Malaysia, Japan, and the United States tend to rely less on foreign talent to fill F&B positions, yet the sector is just as demanding and unrewarding as it is here: many short-term contracts, reliance on tips, very low minimum wages, limited career prospects, etc.

So what’s really the issue here in Singapore? The bigger problem at hand seems to be the social value – or lack thereof – assigned to such jobs.

It has become ingrained in Singapore society that certain jobs are more prestigious than others and that certain people are more fit for certain jobs than others. This article suggests that PME Singaporeans are “more attracted to certain jobs in the high-paying finance and management areas”.

Isn’t it strange that for a nation so serious about its food people kind of look down on people working with food?

Look at France, who is also serious about its gastronomic craftsmen and its culinary traditions: not only has it made gastronomy a key part of its soft power strategy, it has managed to make chefs from all over the globe learn their know-how and spread their expertise!

Why? Because the French take their food very seriously. In terms of heritage preservation, gastronomy is high up on the list alongside the protection of historical buildings and the safeguarding of ideological particularities.

As anyone who has ever set foot in a fancy French restaurant will attest, being a French chef, sommelier, or garçon is a prestigious affair.

That’s why the Singapore government and the unions have decided to step in and change things. The Core Executive Programme for Food Services and Retail Sectors, for instance, aims to attract, place, and train Singaporean PMEs in supervisory and managerial positions in the F&B sector.

 

As the SPRING Singapore website notes, “there are Singaporeans and PRs who aspire to develop a career in these sectors, but due to a lack of knowledge of career development and progression opportunities, many do not join these sectors”.

As part of the Core Executive programme for Food Services and Retail Sectors, candidates can expect to quickly acquire of skills and responsibilities that’ll allow them to become managers. Participating F&B SMEs will have to pay degree-holders a minimum of S$2,500 and diploma-holders $2,000, while SPRING will sponsor a one-time bonus of S$5,000 for degree-holders and S$4,000 for diploma-holders upon successful completion of the programme.

Hopefully this programme will develop a strong pool of local PMEs in this industry and allow Singapore to take its rightful spot as a world capital of food!

What do I believe? Every job is a respectable job – the F&B industry is an honest, respectable industry and our attitudes to it should follow.

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AlvinLee

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