Dear NEA, don’t peg hawker rentals to market rates

By KF Seetoh - Tuesday, Jan 04, 2011

Rents for hawker stalls pegged to market rates can spell doom for our food heritage. Keep it true and affordable for us, NEA.


I’ve mentioned it before and now I will, like a cranky middle-ager- harp on it again, as I feel it is really important. I read and hear with trepidations the news about how the National Environment Agency (NEA) will still be pegging the rentals of the new hawker centres to market forces recently. Yet in early Dec 2011, NEA said it’s meant for the less blessed folks in the society who can see it as a form of entry level government subsidised business start-ups.


The questions recently posed by MPs (Members of Parliament) concerned about the implications of rising food cost was simply brushed aside with a usual “we are monitoring situation” and “ it will still be cheaper than food court rentals.” Among the better things this government did was build hawker centres and source the world for and approve basic ingredients on behalf of the nation. They scour the region, demand good products at the lowest price possible and then tell the farmers they are sourcing on behalf of Singapore. And since itinerant hawkers were taken off the streets into street food hawker centres over 50 years ago, it offered self-employment opportunities for many displaced folks then and provided very affordable meals for the masses. The prices of hawker fare had been relatively affordable due to two factors- cheaper ingredients and low rentals. It’s not even a joke when people here say eating out is cheaper and more convenient than cooking at home. Now, and for some time already, hawker stalls rentals had been pegged to market value and forces. This can be very discouraging for a potential entry level hawker. Remember, our heartland hawkers sell food that feeds this country, at a price that even our economically challenged fellow Singaporeans can afford.


Nothing against chicken rice or nasi lemak, but are our hawkers centres destined for the same fate as our shopping …


The rental of average hawker centre stalls hover around $1500- $2000. The prime places like at Maxwell Food Centre can go up to three thousand or more. Most chicken rice sellers worth their salt knows that only fresh chilled chicken must be used, as this is a dish so popular, everyone can tell if you missed that beat and will avoid you like the plague if you compromise.


Stall rentals at Maxwell Food Centre can go up to 3000 or more.


Hawker centres are a subsidised form of food business meant for entry level food entrepreneurs who can in turn, offer cheap meals for the public. Please do not use the HDB model of subsidising, unnaturally mixed with market forces, where a public flat can hover just below $1 million today. A few points here, I reiterate again, to ensure a continuity on our food heritage- both psychologically and physiologically.


Do not allow sublets. If they give up their stalls, rent it to someone else who wants it. Assert more policing measures to those who sublet but hang around a bit each day just to beat the system and fool the enforcement officers. In the long run, budget tight Singaporeans will hold the shortest end of the stick as prices will rise proportionately.


There should be a pricing control policy. All hawkers should be made aware of it. Put up recommended and accepted price charts prominently on various popular food items and hawker centres. Even the Coffeeshop Association folks are doing so with a few hundred of their members. Price control – This ensures that hawkers who illegally operate sublet stalls cannot adjust their prices northwards for economic convenience. This can have a contagion effect on the other hawkers.


Etiquette. I know they have failed before in introducing it at Zion Road hawker centre, but it would be good to still forge on and encourage customers to return their food tray to the stewarding area/station. This just augurs well for a more graceful society. Many are already doing so in fast food chains. It will also lessen the sorely deficient manpower supply pressure on cleaner’s jobs in Singapore.


Handmade muah chee is a fast dying tradition in our local hawker culture.


Protecting heritage food masters. There are many fast fading humble “artisanal” hawkers selling heritage food that are not as profitable. We salute the masters of handmade gems like Teochew muah chee, sat kay mah, ah balling, glutinous rice (both sweet and savoury) and we also commend the pohpiah man (who makes his own pohpiah skin), the humble fried fish ball and taukua hawker, Indian Appam, Malay epok epok and even the disappearing Lo Mei seller. Allot some stalls at hawker centres just for them at special prices. They form a backbone of our food culture. It would be a sad chapter if, because of the need for “market forces” to pervade, everyone made logical decisions, and we all find only chicken rice, chap chye png, fish ball noodle, porridge, nasi lemak, mee goreng and roti prata in our hawker centres.


Social Entreprise. I support the idea of providing means for the displaced to operate some sort of a cooperative chain or independent hawker stalls. But they must be provided a decent level of training in some street and comfort food school and fight, like their competitors, for the customer’s business and not their compassion. Singaporeans are known to give generously, but not at food centres.


The committee tasked to formulate ideas for this new generation of hawker centres will do so by end January 2012, and move on with their lives. As encouraged by the government, let not just them be your voice, lay your ideas and concerns down for them to crunch before crunch time. Watch this space for more.