Singapore’s hawker centres are vital to its very sense of identity, but the nation’s cooks are worried. At one noodle stall in east Singapore, an “uncle” sprays every note with sanitiser before putting them in his drawer.

Cash has been the most common way to pay for food at Singapore’s neighbourhood food markets. How can stall owners – many of whom are elderly – continue serving up Singapore’s supper safely?

The nation is turning to QR code payments, already very popular in China, to ditch cash and keep the teh tarik flowing. GovInsider spoke with Minister for Communications and Information, S Iswaran, to find out more.

Support for hawkers

Singapore set up a new unit in May to support two particularly vulnerable groups – the elderly and hawker stall owners – with subsidies and digital support. The government is giving out a bonus of SG$1500 over five months to encourage stall owners to start accepting QR code payments and avoid cash. They will need to accept at least 20 payments of minimum $1 each by May 2021 to qualify.

“Our objective is to reach out to and persuade 18,000 hawkers by the middle of next year to adopt the SGQR code digital payment solution. To-date, we have about 5,400 of them who have adopted it,” S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information said at a tour of a hawker centre today.

The new SG Digital Office recruited 1,000 full-time staff and volunteers to visit all 112 hawker centres and wet markets in June and help people sign up for the payments. “They have reached out to about 16,000 stallholders and now, they are trying to reach out to some of the HDB heartland coffeeshops and so on,” he said.

The unit will also provide one-on-one help at community centres for seniors and hawkers to learn to use smartphones.

A matter of survival

Hawkers have been selling food through delivery apps as footfall fell earlier this year with Covid-19. Now as customers return to the favourite stalls, QR code payments can continue to enable easy online payment.

“What COVID-19 has done is accentuate the means and the impetus of digitalisation,” Minister Iswaran told GovInsider. “For many businesses, digital transition has now become a matter of necessity and, I would say, survival – whether it is being able to sell online, take payments online, link up with logistics companies for last mile solutions and so on.”

Accepting QR payments will help traditional businesses like hawkers get more comfortable with other digital services, he added. “The mindset is now open to the idea, and they are able to see the benefits of it, and they are able to adopt it for the purposes of their business and enhancement of their productivity.”

As shops and hawkers reopened after Covid-19 closures, adoption of digital payments has gone up. “In the last two months alone, about 1900 have adopted the SGQR code solution,” he said.

Singapore is hoping that adequate training, support and incentives will encourage hawker aunties and uncles to get familiar with online payments.