A post on what appears to be an overpriced plate of “economic rice” went viral online last week. The story, which first appeared on social media platform Facebook (see below), was then picked up by the mainstream media, particularly the Chinese press.
In the post, the cost of the plate of rice, which consisted of 2 meat and 1 vegetable dishes – a staple selection among Singaporeans – was $6.60, which was (almost) double the normal or average price of such an offering elsewhere in Singapore.
[To be accurate, the dishes were a serving each of sweet-and-sour pork, a piece of otah, and a serving of long beans vegetable.]
Adding to the controversy was where the food court involved, Koufu, was located – in the premises of the Sengkang General Hospital, a public facility in the heartlands. Shouldn’t staple food in the heartlands be affordable? $6.60 for a plate of “economic rice” certainly would not be considered so by anyone.
When approached by the Chinese press, a spokesperson for Koufu admitted that it was indeed expensive, but explained that this was due to the cost of rental. He added that the company would look into whether the food prices in its food courts needed to be reviewed.
It is not surprising that the story struck a chord with many Singaporeans. After all, one in four of us (24%) eat out daily, and more than half (55%) of us have our meals out-of-home weekly, according to a 2018 Nielsen survey.
Also, food costs is a substantial item on the household expenditure of many, especially for the lower-income.
A Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) report in 2018 found that “a majority of households have a larger proportion (from 12% to 14%) of household expenditure on eating out as compared to households with higher income (11.8% of household expenditure on eating out).”
“This implies that lower income households spend a larger proportion of their disposable income on food and [are] thus more affected by the cost of eating out,” the IPS study said.
The study also found that Sengkang led the list for the most expensive basket of food used in the Makan Index, an indicator of the cost of eating out in Singapore. The index focuses on only 3 types of eating places: coffee shops, hawker centres and food courts.
The Index was then compared across different planning areas and its correlation with socioeconomic characteristics of the planning areas was analysed.
The study found:
“[The] cost of eating out differs across planning areas.
“Specifically, Sengkang, Tampines, and Sembawang are among the top three planning areas with high Makan Index score and Ang Mo Kio, Queenstown and Bukit Timah are among the planning areas with low Makan Index score.
“The price difference between the planning areas with highest (Sengkang) and the lowest (Ang Mo Kio) Makan Index score is about 22.9%.
“Mature planning areas tend to have a relatively cheaper basket of food items as compared to a younger planning area. In general, the price difference between mature and younger planning area is about 7.7%.”
For example, economic rice in mature areas is $2.97, while in non-mature areas it is $3.19. That’s a difference of 7.41%.
Kopi O in mature areas is $0.88, while in non-mature areas it is $1.01 – a difference of 14.8%.
Another interesting point which the IPS study found was how lower prices correlated with the socio-economic characteristics of the areas.
For example, “the Makan Index is negatively and significantly correlated with certain socioeconomic characteristics in the planning areas.”
“Specifically, lower food prices are correlated with planning areas with higher income diversity, a higher percentage of residents aged 65 and above, and a higher percentage of households staying in rental flats.”
At the end of the day, with Singapore being one of the most expensive countries in the world to live in, it is important that staple food is kept affordable, especially at outlets where the masses have their meals.
And happily, by and large, so-called hawker food is still relatively affordable in most areas.
But if the IPS study is anything to go by, you might want to visit the older housing estates, if you are looking for cheaper food!
As for Sengkang, well, it leads the list for prices of economic rice. And with Koufu keeping prices up, it may continue to lead the pack for the time being.
All eyes now on whether Koufu will reduce prices at its Sengkang General Hospital outlet.