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A Way of Life

Hawker centers are a crucial part of the Singaporean way of life. But in an increasingly digital world, how do hawkers embrace the opportunities offered by technology?

Hawker centers are an integral part of Singaporean society, but as one of the last bastions of cash transactions, they risk being left behind in the nation’s push for digitalization. With its roots as a development bank, DBS has partnered with grassroot leaders, with the support of Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), to offer technological solutions that protect the livelihood of traditional businesses and enrich the community.

The skies are still dark when Benson Low arrives at his stall in Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market & Food Center. It’s been the same routine for the past three decades at this hawker center: arrive before 5 a.m. and get the stall ready to open at 6 a.m., when he starts cooking laksa and prawn mee until after the lunch trade. He then packs up, preps for the next day, and does it all over again.

Benson Low works behind the counters at Ah Seng Laksa & Prawn Mee at Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market & Food Center.

These days, his 28-year-old daughter helps him out at the stall, the fourth generation of family members to work behind the counters at Ah Seng Laksa & Prawn Mee. “Nowadays, you don’t see fourth generation stalls,” he says. “It’s not easy. You need to upgrade yourself to sustain your growth.”

During the pandemic, his business, like many others, took a battering, and his earnings were slashed by about 90%. Government restrictions meant that the usual foot traffic from nearby offices in Singapore’s CBD slowed to a trickle, further exacerbated with the limit on group sizes.

A collective effort

These challenges did not go unnoticed by DBS, whose teams were assessing the hawker center most impacted by the restrictions to pilot the bank’s new Adopt-a-Hawker Centre initiative. With its downtown location, now a ghost town as people were working from home, Tanjong Pagar Plaza Market was chosen, with 50 participating stallholders taking part in the pilot program.

First launched in September 2021, DBS’s Adopt-a-Hawker Center goals are twofold: bolster hawkers’ earnings by organizing group buys, and equip hawkers with digital tools, which include helping them dial up their presence online and across social media platforms.

The bank-sponsored group buys, which continue to this day, take a very ground-up direction at DBS. Staff in business units across the company all reach into their own pockets and pitch in to help the hawkers. Purchased meals are then donated to worthy causes, including to front-line staff at hospitals and needy households.

“The Adopt-a-Hawker Centre initiative attests to the collective efforts of the private and public sectors, and grassroots organizations, to build a stronger community by bolstering hawkers’ livelihoods and equipping them with the necessary digital tools and know-how to drive business growth.”

– Shee Tse Koon, Singapore Country Head, DBS

Digital tools for growth

Hawkers also enjoy visibility on the DBS PayLah! mobile application, where customers can browse its Hawkerpedia feature including over 10,000 stalls that accept digital payments. Hawkers can also offer delivery services via the app’s WhyQ function.

When the program first launched, DBS approached the government to offer their support. To this day, the bank remains the only corporate partner to continue championing the hawkers with eight “adopted” hawker centers, and two more planned in the pipeline.

According to DBS, digital transactions at participating hawker centers have increased more than six-fold compared to 2020, with more than half of the QR payments conducted via the DBS PayLah! app.

More than half of the QR payments at participating hawker centers are conducted via the DBS PayLah! App.

For DBS, the commitment doesn’t end with digital adoption. Hawkers are continually kept abreast with the latest developments, including scam awareness workshops, and new e-payment features.

Their efforts have paid off. After the launch of the initiative, participating hawkers including Benson saw their monthly earnings increase by 15–30%. Along with the easing of restrictions and other government support, Benson has seen his business return to pre-Covid levels.

“The older generation believe that cash is king, but I tell my mother that it’s different now,” says Benson. “The e-payment machine is like an assistant. Digital is the best way for hawkers.”

Digital transactions at participating hawker centers have increased six-fold year-on-year.

Empowering future generations

Inscribed in 2020 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, hawker centers play a crucial role in communities, acting as a social place for people from diverse backgrounds and cultures to come together. “I’m grateful for DBS because they have a good heart and help us hawkers, and grateful for our grassroot leaders for their efforts coordinating with DBS,” adds Benson.

By empowering microenterprises with digital solutions, DBS is ensuring hawkers like Benson will remain a part of the country’s digital transformation and continue representing Singapore’s multicultural heritage for generations to come.

“Under the Digital for Life movement, one of our aims is to harness the strengths of the people, private, and public sectors to empower Singaporeans with digital tools and skills to embrace the economic opportunities that digitalization can bring. DBS’s Adopt-A-Hawker-Centre initiative is a good example of such a partnership and we encourage more corporate partners and individuals to join us in enabling Singaporeans to pick up digital skills and knowledge to enrich their lives.”

– Douglas Goh, Director, Digital Engagement & Adoption, SG Digital Office, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)

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