Mohammad Jalehar was a teenager in the 1990s when he heard warnings about impending food and water shortages in Singapore.
“Whenever our government clashed with Malaysia’s, we were told that no more meat, fish or vegetables would come from Malaysia to feed our families. The water would also be cut off,” he said.
Now in his fifties, the chicken seller who runs a stall in a wet market in the Bedok South district with his wife feels like history is repeating itself.
For decades, Singapore, a wealthy but land-poor island nation, relies on its nearest neighbor Malaysia for a third of its poultry imports. About 3.6 million mainly live chickens are exported to Singapore every month, where they are slaughtered and refrigerated.
But Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced drastic measures last week: his country would ban the export of live chickens to Singapore from June in a bid to address a domestic shortage that was pushing prices up.
The ban is expected to hit Singaporeans hard, not least because the city-state’s de facto national dish is chicken rice – and enthusiasts say substituting fresh meat for frozen one simply isn’t enough.
And while the Singapore government has assured there will still be plenty of chicken, traders say poultry prices will rise sharply. Currently, traders pay $3 for a whole chicken, but they expect prices to rise as supplies dwindle and that price could soon rise to $4-5 per bird.
“Every sniff hurts,” Jalehar said. “Suppliers tell us to prepare for higher prices. One chicken may cost a dollar more now, but where do I get the extra money I need to buy 100 birds for sale? Do my customers also accept the costs?”
The “chicken-rice crisis”, as it is being called, is just the latest sign of the food shortages being felt around the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, Covid-related supply chain problems and extreme weather are all contributing to the shortages and forcing prices to rise.
In the United States, Asia and Africa, potato shortages have left fast food restaurants out of products such as French fries and chips.
In Malaysia, rising feed prices have pushed chicken prices up in recent months and retailers have rationed sales in response.
With the last live chickens from Malaysia arriving in Singapore for slaughter on Tuesday, the city-state is now bracing itself for its own shortage, which could drag on for months.
Chicken sellers in Singapore said shoppers this week tried to get ahead of the looming ban by buying in bulk, but the sellers faced shortages as they tried to replenish their stock.
The elderly chicken seller Ah Ho and his son Thomas, 58, said the price of chicken had been high for some time. “Selling chicken has been on the brink for months, so it’s nothing new to us,” Ho said.
Their chicken stand sold out and even less popular items like gizzards sold out. “Our fate is now in the hands of suppliers and how eager they are to drive prices up to make a profit,” Thomas said.
For the father and son, who have been in the business for more than three decades, survival has always been difficult, but now it’s getting harder.
“No one knows what’s going to happen in the next month or so, or how long this shortage will last, but with the way it looks, it may finally be time for us to throw in the towel and close shop. said Thomas.
The fear of chicken shortages was also evident in the countless twisting rows that formed at chicken rice stalls across Singapore.
Owners of Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, one of the island’s most popular eateries, have said they will continue to serve chicken rice, but will stop serving other chicken dishes if they can’t get fresh meat.
At the Katong Mei Wei Boneless Chicken Rice stall, another popular destination for the island’s foodies, loyal customers like Lucielle Tan got their chicken fix before the ban was introduced.
“We have to enjoy it while supplies last,” Tan said.
While a short-term solution could be to import more frozen chicken from countries like Thailand and Brazil, for legions of chicken rice sellers across the island, it’s just not an option.
“Frozen chicken? You expect us to cook chicken rice with frozen chicken? It won’t taste good,” hawker Madam Tong said with a laugh.
“If that’s the case and you’re happy with that kind of quality, you might as well go to Malaysia and eat chicken rice there lah†