Stop Building Hawker Centres.. :Till we get it right.

By KF Seetoh - Monday, Nov 12, 2018

A hawker at Pasir Ris laments on a recent Sunday crowd.


All the recent noise and ventilation about the Social Enterprise Hawker Centres, indeed was targeted at nobody- the hawker yelled “tolong”, the people spoke, Government worked on it, the operators tweaked their contracts (albeit baby steps), and now there’s action. Again, I have to thank SMS Amy Khor on personally digging in on the problems and having NEA address the issues. They are indeed positive steps- some of the noose tightening clauses in the hawker contracts are loosened. (https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/new-rules-for-social-enterprise-hawker-centres-from-jan-1-including-standard-termination?fbclid=IwAR2KkqZBmAz1Qmm12r3AWgTM0OUCXblcGJdSjOSBteiGb9vnIwwcG-yCxAE) Among a few tweaks, they can now have up to two days off a week, terminate their contracts earlier by giving up to 2 months notice and will not have their security deposits confiscated if they do not “breach the terms and conditions”. But the operators say they will be “flexible”. I suggest they remove this clause and just be flexible, on both ends.


But we have quite a way to go.
If the objective is to see these hawker centres (please stop calling them social enterprise, just “new hawker centres” will do) as public buildings and social infrastructures that seeks to bond and serve the folks with meaningful and affordable fare, then lets pay more attention to this goal. It means as much the average Singaporeans, and the poorer among us, who depend on in it for cheap and even free meals given by the big hearted hawkers ever so often. The food culture it lent, is also stuff the tourism, overseas Singaporeans unit, trade and industry agencies hawk in their promotion pitches to the world (saw how they were touted in Crazy Rich Asians?). Please treat this public hawker centres like we do the government hospitals, schools and even police centres- we don’t want to farm operations out to bottom line conscious private players in those field. We know they are looking to build even more hawker centres in the near future but I have to respectfully flag down this move, for now at least. The key problem with all the new hawker centres- is footfall, dragged down by the poor by the locations they are in. Think- these hawker centres are huge and sited in less than favourable sites in far flung location already well served by private coffeeshops and food courts. And there are almost 30,000 street food licenses and stalls already in operation in this tiny red dot of our city.


Stop Building Hawker Centres, for now at least.
I suggest a public coffeeshop model, if they feel the area needs a fair priced eatery to serve the residents. A large sized HDB coffeeshop with about 12-15 stalls serving comforting stuff the residents need at more practical hours (like even late into the night for late shift workers or the hungry insomniacs while being mindful of noise pollution) would work better. It is easier to build, manage, and market. Let all the residents know what and who is offering what and when. Work with local food delivery apps, specialising in that area, that can offer a good rate for their services. This can help the tired Singaporean heading home after a long day. Finger tap the app and their comforting bowl of chicken porridge is on the way to their home too, from these nearby located public coffeeshops.


What about the existing “extras” in the contracts
Some hawkers are still concerned about these “extra” clauses and fees that yield no real results. Pasir Ris SEHC by NTUC still has a monthly “promotion” fee of $300 and the hawkers tell me, no real changes in footfall or business returns on that compulsory promotion fee. And the vendors at Ci Yuan by Fei Siong Social Enterprise PL, still has that $600 a month “management fee” ironically imposed by another company, Fei Siong Food Management PL, appointed by the operators to manage them. They have recently changed it to a “non-compulsory” status after the brouhaha, but please, remove it altogether. Be a true social enterprise and provide that management service at no cost as part of your pay-it-forward duty to society. I believe there are a few more contract terms they need be re-looked at or removed, like the profit percentage Timbre charges their tenants in Yishun Park Hawker Cte, should they be profitable. Why do they want to profit in this manner from hawker centres built by public monies.


A second company charges the tenants at Ci Yuan a $600 “supervision” monthly fee.


The original company, Fei Siong Social Enterprise PL contract.


They recently changed that $600 supervision fee to a non-compulsory clause


Take it back NEA
It is already a new world order and new management thinking is needed going forward. It is no longer just about creating hawker stalls for jobless uneducated folks. Today, they become one, because it is a noble and honest business and it’s a calling for many of them, whether or not they are educated, poor or otherwise. We have to look at new ideas in the soft areas of managing this new expectations. They new generations aren’t necessary looking for hipster hawker centres, they seek a reason, a cause, funky, meaningful or otherwise to be a part of this food heritage. The existing NEA hawker centre management model is not creating problems, it just need be improved and adjusted like all rules and regulations everywhere.


I know there are folks out there with diverse backgrounds (including the hard core hawker food fan and hawkers) in this field that can contribute real ideas to craft a new management model and we must include their thoughts and observations. Formulate a new think on this and set this as rules for the new operators, or better still, hire a new team of displaced F&B professionals and relevant retirees who cannot sit still, to run the show, under NEA or an associate arm of the department. This will be a world’s first in terms of managing this unique food culture.


Hawkers Day and the Singapore Hawkers Dialogue.
We so need a Hawkers Day. A weekend perhaps, where we all go all out and celebrate this food culture with friends and the entire extended family, and say hi or thank the hawkers who diligently provides affordable or fantastic hawker food all these decades. Create events or all sorts and I can help organise The Singapore Hawker Dialogue. There are lots of ideas, plans, opportunities and ideals out there. We must bring them together and air these views, even from the humble hawkers to the hawker fare lovers. We can also invite regular visitors and foreign media who love and frequent our hawker centres. This is way better than any Diner en Blanc we can every hold ever. PM me on my FB page if you can contribute and have ideas, and I will see how best we can harness all your energies here and seek top support for it. I think Labour or May Day weekend would be good (after all, it’s a May-day situation and we are looking to save the industry).


Hawkers Assn or Union
There are up to 30,000 street food hawkers or vendors across all platforms in Singapore- from canteens, hawker centres, food courts, coffeeshops etc.. and they are largely unrepresented. I feel a group out there, not just hawkers but many among us, should from, either a casual or official association or a union and represent their needs, concerns and aspirations. They can help discuss, and negotiate with the various organisations and agencies dealing with them. It will certainly help avert another ridiculous hawker centre contract situation.


Oh, By The Way..
The Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage recognition we seek, is about Food Culture, not just history or who does it better or dirtier, my dear Malaysian friends. And no, no one can be happy nor excited being subjected to food poisoning, the deadly group B streptococcus and suspicious meats and supplies offered in a charming little roadside stall with less than acceptable hygiene practices. No thank you. It’s about that intangible food love that brings and bonds a nation and happily supported by all races in society, the government and the industry at large. But we love your food too, kawan, that’s why you gave Johor Kaki a top blogger’s award for promoting your food and he’s Singaporean. Keep calm and carry on the food love, Tony Boey!