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‘Chicken-rice crisis’ as Singapore’s national dish hit by Malaysian export ban

<i>Heather Chen/CNN</i><br/>Chicken seller Mohammad Jalehar and his wife at their market stall in Singapore.
Heather Chen/CNN
Chicken seller Mohammad Jalehar and his wife at their market stall in Singapore.

By Heather Chen, CNN

Mohammad Jalehar was a teenager in the 1990s when he heard warnings about looming food and water shortages in Singapore.

“Whenever our government would clash with Malaysia’s, we were told that there would be no more meat or fish or vegetables coming in from Malaysia to feed our families. Water would also be cut off,” he said.

Now in his 50s, the chicken seller who runs a stall with his wife at a wet market in the Bedok South district feels like history is repeating itself.

For decades, Singapore, a rich but land-poor island nation, has relied on its closest neighbor Malaysia for a third of its poultry imports. Every month, about 3.6 million mostly live chickens are exported to Singapore, then slaughtered and chilled.

But Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob last week announced drastic measures: his country would ban live chicken exports to Singapore from June in an effort to tackle a domestic shortage that has sent prices soaring.

The ban is expected to hit Singaporeans hard, not least because the city-state’s de facto national dish is chicken-rice — and aficionados say replacing fresh meat with frozen simply won’t do.

And while the Singapore government has given assurances there will still be more than enough chicken to go around, traders say poultry prices are bound to rise sharply. Currently, traders pay $3 for a whole chicken, but they expect prices to surge as stocks dwindle and that price could soon increase to $4-5 per bird.

“Every pinch hurts,” Jalehar said. “Suppliers are telling us to prepare for higher prices. One chicken now might cost a dollar more, but where will I get the extra money I need to buy 100 birds for sale? Will my customers also accept the costs?”

The “chicken-rice crisis,” as it has been dubbed, is just the latest sign of the food shortages that are being felt across the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Covid-related supply-chain problems and extreme weather are all contributing to the shortages and forcing prices higher.

In the United States, Asia and Africa, potato shortages have caused fast food restaurants to run out of products like french fries and chips.

In Malaysia, the rising cost of feed has sent chicken prices soaring 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 for its own shortage, which could drag on for months.

Chicken sellers in Singapore said customers were this week trying to get ahead of the looming ban by buying in bulk, but the sellers faced shortages while trying to replenish their stock.

Elderly chicken seller Ah Ho and his son Thomas, 58, said the price of chicken had already been high for quite some time. “The business of selling chicken has been on the brink for months so it hasn’t been anything new for us,” Ho said.

Their chicken stall had run out of stock, with even less popular items such as gizzards having sold out. “Our fate is now in the hands of suppliers and how much they want to jack up prices to turn profits,” Thomas said.

For the father and son, who have been in the business for more than three decades, survival has always been hard — but now it is about to get harder.

“Nobody knows what’s going to come in the next month or so, or how long this shortage will go on but with the way that it’s looking, it might finally be time for us to throw in the towel and close shop,” Thomas said.

‘Chicken-rice crisis’

Fears of a chicken shortage were also evident in the countless snaking queues 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 that while they will continue serving chicken-rice, they will stop serving other chicken dishes if they cannot secure fresh meat.

At the Katong Mei Wei Boneless Chicken Rice stall, another popular destination for the island’s foodies, loyal patrons like Lucielle Tan were getting their chicken fix ahead of the ban.

“Have to enjoy it while we can for as long as 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 simply isn’t an option.

“Frozen chicken? You expect us to cook chicken-rice using frozen chicken? It will not 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.”

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