With the advent of universal public education, the ability to read and write is taken for granted in the developed world today. Yet in Singapore — one of the most educated societies on the planet — about 2.7% of the population above 15 years old was illiterate in 2018. Lest this seems like a small number, this represents 141,951 people, more than 100,000 of whom are elderly.

In a rapidly digitalising society like Singapore, many of these workers are increasingly at risk of being left behind. It is nearly impossible for such individuals to use modern technology, most of which demand at least a basic reading ability. Lacking such basic skills means that many such individuals are at risk of social exclusion, being unable to effectively participate in a tech-savvy society.

Local F&B firm Fei Siong finds itself in such a predicament, with illiterate workers among its 1,600-strong headcount, even as it embarks upon digital transformation. Moreover, even for its literate workers, who are largely older folk aged 40–60, cyberspace is an unfamiliar and even threatening new world.

Fei Siong operates a chain of outlets via around a dozen different brands selling traditional hawker fare like fishball noodles and curry rice. Most of Fei Siong’s workers are more familiar with Chinese dialects rather than English — the lingua franca of the technology world.

“The government says: go online, while the police are warning you: be careful of scams,” says Makansutra founder KF Seetoh in a phone interview with The Edge Singapore. While scams are a real threat, robust government campaigns to be vigilant against such cyberthreats may have inadvertently sent the message that the internet is dangerous and threatening. The elderly may therefore be afraid of exploring this brave new cyber world.

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At Fei Siong, founder Tan Kim Siong considers his staff as his family, and believes that digital transformation is a journey that should not leave anyone behind. “We needed a cost-effective solution that could overcome language barriers, ensure consistency in training, and provide the ability to track each employee’s learning progress,” shares Mervin Lee, vice president of Fei Siong’s corporate development group.

This led Fei Siong to partner local start-up ArcLab, which has hosted courses in 17 languages on its Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform. The two firms teamed up to develop an upskilling solution for Fei Siong’s staff in a cost-effective manner, ensuring that its training programme caters to all workers. Videos and pictures are used to convey information, and instructions, if any, are written in plain and simple language to ensure ease of understanding. The digital solution is also available in Chinese to cater to Fei Siong’s non-English speaking workforce.

This upskilling SaaS solution is just one part of a firmwide digital transformation drive. Fei Siong outlets now use enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems through tablet computers to better manage inventories. Additionally, Fei Siong is gradually introducing the use of cashless payments at its outlets — most hawkers typically still prefer cash.


See: Gain an advantage over cyberthreats with FireEye Mandiant’s new SaaS platform


Tech for the techless

The narrative that dominates the tech world today is about who can create the most elaborate, beautiful and cutting-edge user experience (UX) for the digital native user. Yet these fancy bells and whistles can often prove alienating to the digitally illiterate. To ease latecomers into the contemporary wave of digital transformation, sometimes less is more.

For the ArcLab team — most of whom are in their 20s — developing such solutions has involved transporting themselves from a “4G world” to a “2G world”. The team brushed up their Mandarin skills and went on the ground to better understand the needs of the Fei Siong workers. Challenging preconceived notions of what good tech looks like, seemingly intuitive actions like pushing the “play button” to watch a video may not hold true in the “2G world”.

ArcLab’s CEO James Chia, at 43 years old, can probably better empathise with the need to bridge this cross-generational digital gap. During his experience selling bubble tea as a university student in the early 2000s, he observed that “deskless workers” like F&B staff often have less access to and familiarity with technology than PMETs (professionals, managers, executives and technicians). “If we don’t understand them, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice,” Chia tells The Edge Singapore. He notes that Facebook regularly holds “2G Days” to ensure their products will perform in less tech-savvy markets.

Fei Siong’s upskilling solution adopts the “less is more” approach. The user interface is simple and no-frills, with users only having to press simple navigation buttons. Quizzes are presented in a multiple-choice format to check if workers have grasped the knowledge presented. Even a 3G phone, says Chia, can access the SaaS solution. “We deliberately decided not to build a native app, so everything is hosted directly on the browser,” he says. This cuts down the number of steps needed to access upskilling modules as employees do not have to download an app via the App Store or Google Play. This helps to make usage as straightforward as possible.

Based on the concept of “nano-learning”, information is presented in bite-sized chunks of 5–10 minutes. Not only does this prevent information overload, it also allows for workers to be trained in a time-efficient manner. Lee says that workers typically use the training modules during lull periods when there are few customers, or when commuting to and from work. Employees without smartphones can use tablets at each outlet to access these courses.

Designed for the field

This is in contrast to Fei Siong’s previous training practices, which required trainers to conduct in-person sessions off-site. Employees’ disparate schedules had to be coordinated on a large scale, with management juggling the unenviable task of ensuring that a steady roster of trainers would be available to conduct the sessions in the appropriate language. The need for workers to leave their workplaces to attend training sessions meant that productivity often suffered.

Digital courses are designed by six certified trainers handpicked by Lee, most of whom were previously outlet managers. The trainers are thus able to create modules that are relevant to the employees, including informal training in skills such as cash handling and customer service. The trainers are attached to each of Fei Siong’s brands and staff can call them for additional technical support. The trainers also occasionally conduct outlet visits to train workers as well.

Lee, a former civil servant at Workforce Singapore, says: “When we design a module, we give it to the staff to try and we see how they use it.” This allows module designers to further tweak their module design. Insights could be as simple as avoiding the colour red for navigational buttons. Illiterate workers perceive red as a warning colour, potentially making them more cautious about pressing such buttons.

For now, as Fei Siong is in the early stages of rolling out this new technology, adoption rates are still expected to be relatively low as staff take some time to adapt. “We are focusing our efforts on improving the adoption rates for the coming months, as we believe that mobile learning is the future for frontline staff,” Lee tells The Edge Singapore.

Progress and tradition

As traditional hawking increasingly becomes a dying trade, is digital transformation the answer to keeping it alive? At the very least, Fei Siong’s Lee believes that digital transformation will weaken the trade’s barriers to entry. Staff will be able to learn the culinary arts efficiently while simultaneously streamlining the operational side of running a food business.

Yet Seetoh of Makansutra argues that large commercial hawker chains like Fei Siong are the exception in Singapore’s hawker scene. Most hawkers, he says, just do not have the economies of scale to implement digital transformation. He argues that the capital outlay of implementing digital solutions risks compromising the attractive pricing of hawker food in Singapore, which are as famous for their affordability as they are for their taste.

For instance, while food delivery apps are potentially effective channels of distribution, the cost of relying on such services makes them less attractive for hawkers. The fees for using apps like Foodpanda or Deliveroo, says Seetoh, can reach up to 35% while hawkers make no more than 12–15% from their cheap delights.

These apps, he surmises, are catered more towards higher-end food businesses rather than low-cost options such as local hawkers. Digital technology could also disrupt traditional business practices that are central to the hawker culture. Seetoh explains that many hawkers have deep networks with existing suppliers that are not wired. With an entire traditional business network using cash to supply the ingredients that give hawker food its distinct flavour, replacing traditional business practices with digital ones is easier said than done.

“Food is a very offline thing. Some foods weren’t created for deliveries. That’s what makes our food culture great,” Seetoh tells The Edge Singapore. Popular zi char fare such as hor fun just does not taste the same after delivery unlike Western fare such as burgers, he contends. Trying to evoke the heat and noise of a traditional hawker centre in a sterile cloud kitchen and operating a delivery-only model is perhaps a step too far — even in these post-Covid days.

Then again, perhaps there exists some room for compromise between the demands of progress and preserving tradition. Market food stalls in London have taken readily to using cashless payments, while in China, street food vendors routinely accept payment via Wechat or Alipay. For more ambitious hawkers striving to match Fei Siong’s scale, however, the question of digital transformation is perhaps one of “when” rather than “if”.