Food on a Crowded Island: Food & Class

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Cultivate member and erstwhile West Oxford resident Joel Lazarus is away on a year-long sojourn in Singapore with his family. So much is he missing the VegVan that he’s decided to stay in touch in blog format. This is the second in his series in which he tucks into the social and environmental dimensions of how this small, crowded island feeds itself. 

Hello again from Singapore! I am thrilled to hear that the wet winter is behind you all back in UK and the sun has returned to warm your hearts! Great news!


To refresh your memories, in my last blog I was talking about how Singapore is often described as food heaven. From the experiences of my first weeks here, I confirmed that there were, indeed, mountains of sumptuous delights to tempt and tantalise. However, I highlighted how incredibly cheap much of the food was and invited readers to join me in going beyond the surface to learn more about Singapore’s food and where it comes from. Before we do this, though, the first thing I need to do is to give you a more vivid sense of what and how Singaporeans eat. So, in this blog, that’s what I’ll do. But, of course, not all Singaporeans are the same, and not all Singaporeans eat the same. I’m not just referring to ethnicity here, but to differences of class. So, in this blog, I’ll be looking at the differing diets of Singaporeans through the prism of class.

supermarket stacked with ice creamsOver the past several decades, the globalisation agenda has, like pretty much everywhere else, driven a process of rapidly rising income inequality. Singapore is no exception. Indeed, according to the most commonly used measure (the Gini coefficient), Singaporean society is now more unequal than any other First World nation. It is also the only developed Asian country without an economy-wide minimum wage. Consequently, in Singapore today, there is a small but sizeable elite who has seen its tax burden fall and its slice of the income pie rise considerably in recent years; a large, well-off professional middle class; and a growing working-class stratum (around quarter to a third of the population) struggling along as they support the rest by looking after their loved ones and building and cleaning their homes, shopping malls and offices. A lot of these people are foreigners – one in five families have live-in maids (usually from Philippines or Indonesia) who get around just £200 a month!; South Asian and Chinese men get about £400 and £800 respectively for construction work – but many locals fare little better. Local cleaners, for instance, only get around £500 a month. If you want to understand how this inequality plays out, there’s no better way than to look at what and how these three different groups eat.

The rich

Just last week, Singapore was ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the most expensive city in the world. Yet, this ranking seems more a reflection of the transnational bourgeois lifestyle that this index seems to capture. I have no doubt that if you spend your days with the air con blasting away, driving your fancy car instead of making use of the incredible and cheap public transport system, and dining out on artisan breads, fine wines, and what’s left of the world’s blue-fin tuna, then Singapore is going to set you back a few bob. And that’s just how the wealthiest live here. They inhabit a bubble within which they travel from home in quiet, verdant Bukit Timah on to skyscraper office, luxury mall, restaurant or gym. If you want a sense of the incredible opulence I’m talking about, take a look at this – The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. It’s just off the charts! I’ve never seen anything like it. Check out the dining options – another world!

The middle class

supermarket beef pie 2As for the middle class, their prosperity, combined with Singapore’s position as global commercial hyper-hub, has enabled them to munch themselves silly on pretty much any food item you can think of. I think I even saw a packet of frozen Aunt Bessie’s Yorkshire Puddings the other day! No joke! I definitely saw some English mint sauce! To give you an example of a well-stocked middle-class supermarket, here are a couple of photos from the Cold Storage supermarket in nearby Sengkang. The upshot is that now one in nine Singaporeans are obese.

The poor

There’s only one way that around 1.5 million people here get by on such very low wages – very cheap food. As I mentioned in the first blog, you can eat out in a ubiquitous food court here for as little as £1.50 or £2. Let me show you what I mean. A few days ago, I went to a food court in Sengkang. There’s a photo of the food court below.

I was feeling, erm, well, rather peckish that day, so I had the greedy-boy set meal at Big Bites, an excellent vegetarian Indian place there. Check out the photo of my meal. I didn’t eat the dairy stuff, promise! This generous lunch set me back a whopping £4! Now, tell me what can you get for £4 in a prosperous English town or city these days?

You can also buy cheap, fresh produce here. The previous day I went to my nearest ‘wet market’ to buy the week’s supplies for myself, my wife, and our three young kids. Check out the photo below. Pineapples, mangoes, watermelon, aubergines, herbs, and loads more. All for £25!

To be clear, I’m not claiming that it’s much of a life – the work-eat-sleep cycle of capitalist wage-labour – but it is doable here on such little money because food can be bought so cheaply.

Sengkang Food Court  Greedy Boy  Fresh produce from the wet market

So, there it is – a visual feast for you. And that’s what class in the globalisation era tastes like in Singapore. In the next blog, I’ll start to dig deeper into the food issue here and try to find out how exactly the system works here, particularly how exactly food can be this cheap. In the meantime, I’ve already had a few thoughts about the factors at work here and I’ve put them into a longer piece in which I look at Singaporean food through the lens of globalisation. This can be read in the second edition of an excellent, brand new magazine called Unforgiving Servant which can be subscribed to here. This issue is all about the political economy of food.

Next week, we’re off to Siem Reap in Cambodia to check out Angkhor Wat for a week! Lucky us! I’ll be back in touch in April for another blog installment. Till then, eat your Cultivate greens!