Coffee shops
Decline of a lifestyle
High rents are slowly pushing them out of private estates, a sad social blow to retirees. By Seah Chiang Nee
Jan 11, 2014
(Synopsis: Those in HDB estates are largely unaffected, except in higher food prices.)

IN the small neighbourhood where I have lived for 30 years, residents are abuzz over the closure of yet another coffee shop.

For many, it’s a big history-bending deal.

After catering to generations of Singaporeans, this social institution appears to be losing its battle for survival in many private estates.

(The coffee shops in public housing estates, however, are not affected since they are regulated by the government.)
In recent years, three out of five, including one by the unlikely name of Sputnik, have closed in my estate to make way for more profitable ventures.

There were replaced by a bank and a mini-mart, both having offered the owners much higher rentals.

In a related trend, two of the area’s “mom-and-pop” provision shops had made way for a pet shop and a Delifrance.

Several supermarkets have moved in. But it is the decline of the coffee shop that will change lifestyles most.

Their disappearance mirrors a changing Singapore, where many past lifestyles are gradually being erased.
National institution

The coffee shop is an old institution that makes life in one of the world’s most expensive cities more liveable.

Stalls that operate there dish out – for only a few dollars – some of the most exotic Asian dishes, with diversity unmatched in many other countries.

The latest closure came as a number of coffee shops on the island raised the prices for a cup of coffee and tea by 10 cents to one dollar.

The decision was reportedly made by the new owner who wants to open a more up-market Thai restaurant.

To many citizens, especially the elderly, this slow demise is a sad part of modernisation.

The bulk of Singaporeans see the coffee shop as a last bastion in this expensive city for the masses to get cheap meals and idle chitchat.

It is both a lifestyle and a part of the country’s culture.

It is a crucial weapon to combat inflation. The food here is cheaper, with meals averaging S$3 to S$5 – levels unheard of in most developed cities.

The wealthier class, however, favours doing away with it as a necessity for progress.

In a way, the debate reflects the widening rich-poor gap in this city. Each wants something different.

To me, the coffee shop is an important place for social bonding. Here, the middle class and the poor can meet and chat without it costing an arm and a leg.

Will survive, but in different shape

I don’t think it will become extinct.

What will disappear will be the simple creature that offers cheap breakfasts of eggs, toast, and kaya, plus coffee or tea.

There are some 2,000 coffee shops all over the island. It is not known how many have closed.

Many have undergone changes, selling new, modern foodstuff that appeal to the young who generally are not as keen about eating there.

The process of attrition, however, continues relentlessly. Their owners are always looking for higher-paying tenants.

Many of the foodstalls, which have helped keep costs down for residents, are being ousted by bigger, stronger competitors who are not reticent about raising prices.

It is not just the slow passing of an era but the start of another – of a more lavish, materialistic lifestyle that has fuelled America’s financial woes.

Easy-spending youths are more ready to spend S$7 on a cup of cappuccino rather than pay S$1 for a cup of kopi-O.

The government realises the social dangers of its disappearance in private estates and has plans to build 10 new hawker centres.

For the authorities, there is an added urgency. The government will have to provide cheap food for some 750,000 lowly paid foreign workers (excluding maids).

Even as the cost of living soars, the Singaporean’s daily meal remains within reach of most workers and students – thanks to these hawkers and a system.

For as little as S$3, the average Singaporean can have a quick simple meal during lunch or dinner in a coffee shop or hawker centre.

This helps him keep his cost of living down. Retaining the old coffee shop is one issue; another is maintaining its cost-attractiveness.

The ogre of rising land costs is threatening the continuing existence of the S$3 meal in Singapore. Before too long, it will be gone.

Whether it’s public or private premises, the government appears to be adopting a hands-off approach to owners raising rents.

The government is the city’s biggest landowner, controlling about 70% of total land.

Recently, an HDB (Housing and Developm­ent Board) coffee shop changed hands for a record S$23.8mil (RM61.3mil).

In reply to a backbencher’s fears that it would result in rental increases for HDB coffee shop tenants, the government said:-

“Whether (they are) sold or rental eating houses ... these are business decisions in which HDB does not intervene.”

A new breed of hawkers is emerging, made up of young graduates and professionals unable to get a job or earn a fair salary.

They are selling more exotic foreign dishes for anything between S$6 and S$7 each.

Other vendors are foreigners, including Chinese and Filipinos, who can whip up tasty fare for a fair price.

Recently, I ate at a shop operated by a Nepalese who dished out Western meals at prices much cheaper than those sold in restaurants.

Unlike countries elsewhere bigger than us, maintaining a national landmark here carries a high price that not everyone is prepared to pay.

(The original article was published in The Star, Malaysia on Jan 11, 2014)