I don’t think anyone who has ever lived in or visited Singapore would ever argue against the notion that eating is something that almost every single Singaporean is obsessed with. It has even been called our “national pastime” by a former Prime Minister.
In terms of numbers, the F&B services sector is significant. According to government statistics, in 2012, there were 6,700 establishments in the sector, with total receipts standing at SGD$7.86 billion. The sector is also, according to the same published report, growing year on year. The industry is also a major employer, providing jobs for over 175,000 persons here.
Food manufacturing is an equally large industry, contributing $8.4 billion a year (as per 2011 statistics) to our economy (through just 26,653 workers).
While the total contribution of our F&B sector to our nation’s GDP may not seem particularly large (at less than 5%), it is undeniable that food is a national asset that has become one of our country’s most notable signifiers. Our own politicians have reinforced the notion that “a vibrant F&B sector is important for Singapore to remain an attractive city in which to live, work and play” (Minister Lim Hng Kiang, Parliament, 14 January 2013).
To me, and many of my peers, food is one of Singapore’s most vital cultural assets. And one that I feel is not being developed in any kind of holistic fashion.
By comparison, let’s look at other elements of culture that are being holistically fostered. And since I once worked in the National Arts Council, I’ll use what the government has termed the “arts and cultural sector” as our example.
(Now, we can argue to the cows come home whether or not food or dance (or any other fine art form) is a more important cultural asset, but I think it’s pretty fair to say that we have no problem encouraging Singaporeans to eat out, eat widely, and eat well, while on the other hand, pushing our citizens towards what experts claim is great art can be very difficult. The fact that our cultural stats include data like “Percentage of Singaporeans who have attended at least one arts event in the last year” is very telling. I mean, we’d never waste statisticians’ time sussing out the percentage of Singaporeans who have eaten at hawker stalls each year—although that data would be interesting.)
In 2011, the arts and culture sector (defined to encompass cultural heritage, literary arts, performing arts and visual arts) employed a total of 24,400 persons. In terms of economic contribution, in 2011, this sector brought it receipts of SGD$6.03 billion.
Now, while there are many government agencies and institutions that do work to promote and develop the arts and culture sector, including (and definitely not limited to) the Singapore Tourism Board and even the Economic Development Board, it’s worth noting that there exists two entire statutory boards to holistically shepherd the growth of these areas – the National Heritage Board looks after cultural heritage while the National Arts Council looks after the arts.
By comparison, let’s reiterate the numbers for F&B sector: a total of over 200,000 persons working in the sector and a total economic contribution to GDP of $16.26 billion.
Let’s also consider that in addition, or shall we say through, these two stat boards, government funding for the arts amounted in 2012 to SGD$478.9 million. So, to recap, our local arts and cultural heritage scene is being developed by two dedicated agencies with a combined staff strength of maybe around 100 people, plus help from other agencies, and government funding of over S$478 million.
Food, on the other hand, is not managed holistically at all. Instead, different aspects of the industry are promoted, developed (sometimes hindered), and pushed along by a wide varieties of ministries and agencies, all of whom have their own (and often unaligned) agendas and (to use government-speak) KPIs. Some are interested in promoting healthy food; others in driving tourism receipts through food; others in increased productivity in the sector; and others in the opening up of foreign markets for our food entrepreneurs. All, admittedly, good things. But, the problem I have is the lack of a common purpose. And the huge lack of an articulated overall vision driving our efforts to promote our F&B industry and its heroes.
In order to best develop and promote our food industry – and I mean both the services and manufacturing sectors – we need a coordinating body, staffed by people that really know food and the global culinary scene, to articulate a vision and drive really powerful and effective programs that can help us achieve these national goals.
Doing things piecemeal will never holistically help the sector and, more often than not, will only frustrate our food heroes – the restaurateurs, chefs, manufacturers, etc – whose achievements we should be celebrating and promoting at a national level. Singapore is already known for its food scene and its people already well-known as obsessive eaters. But we are facing challenges from within the region and across the globe. If all the disparate players promoting the F&B sector don’t come together properly, with a common purpose – and one that actually supports our food heroes – we will very quickly find ourselves eclipsed by dozens of cities and countries whose cuisine, products, chefs, and restaurants are as worthy of recognition as is ours.
If we really care about food, I believe our government should establish a National Food (or Culinary) Agency, akin to the National Arts Council that can take on the duties of holistically driving our food sectors. This agency should promote our top talents locally, regionally and globally. It should open doors (internationally) for our food heroes to further build their reputations and their businesses. It should fight for our food businesses and help develop or change policies to make doing business here easier and more efficient. It should assist in spearheading new innovations that can help the sector grow. And it should assist in developing capacities and capabilities within the sector. It should educate citizens and food producers alike on diet-related health issues and promote wellness and nutrition. It should promote best practices and learning within the sector. It should work to preserve our food culture and heritage and find ways to archive, showcase and pass on knowledge. It should position Singapore as a true food capital and be able to fund programs and platforms that help ensure or cement this position.
Some of you might say that this is stupid. Why should the government promote what is clearly a commercial industry? But the same argument could then be applied to architecture and any of the other sectors looked after and nurtured by DesignSingapore (funny enough, the Perm Sec who created DesignSingapore had originally tasked its first head with nurturing, as he put it, “fashion, furniture and food”, but that head decided to ignore the third “f”). If you can agree that food is a cultural asset worth preserving, celebrating and developing, than any argument that would negate the idea of a government agency to nurture our food scene would also negate the necessity of DesignSingapore. (However, if you don’t agree that food is a cultural asset, then we will just have to agree to disagree.)
When I look at what is happening in and around our food sector today, and compare it with what is happening elsewhere, I get nervous. I have spent many years, professionally and in my own personal capacity, working as a champion of our top food talents and of our food scene as a whole. But unless something radical happens – like the creation of a National Food Agency – I worry that we will soon be left behind, a once-great food town whose top talents have long since fled and whose greatest hallmarks and contributions to the global food conversation come from decades long since past.