Strong public views on social enterprise hawker centres will lead to change: Makansutra's K F Seetoh

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
(PHOTO: K F Seetoh)

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story mentioned that Timbre+ Hawkers imposed a management fee of $120 per month on the hawkers at its social enterprise hawker centre.  Timbre+ Hawkers has clarified that it does not impose such a fee. The story has been updated. 

The public’s “indignant” responses towards some practices by operators of not-for-profit social enterprise hawker centres are heartening and encouraging, said Makansutra founder K F Seetoh on Friday (19 October).

The food critic, who has in recent months raised concerns about the management of such hawker centres, said in a sit-down interview with Yahoo News Singapore that such public reactions would pave the way for changes in the business model. 

His comments come after Jurong West Hawker Centre announced on Thursday that it is changing its tray return policy. Customers patronising the place are now required to pay a 20-cent deposit to collect clean trays for use, and be refunded when they return them to the collection points.

Previously – as Seetoh had written on his Makansutra website on 9 October – hawkers paid a 20-cent fee for each tray returned to their stalls by customers. The cost can vary from $400 to $800 per month, Seetoh noted.

Jurong West Hawker Centre is one of 13 such centres managed by five private social enterprises and cooperatives – Fei Siong Social Enterprise, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre+Hawkers, Hawker Management by Koufu and OTMH by Kopitiam.

Seetoh believed that the “noise” generated from the debate on social enterprise hawker centres would enhance Singapore’s chances to gain recognition from UNESCO for its hawker culture. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced at this year’s National Day Rally that Singapore would nominate hawker culture for its second UNESCO inscription, highlighting that it reflected the daily lives of Singaporeans.

In his interview at Golden Mile Food Centre, Seetoh explained, “The angrier you get, the more alerted (UNESCO is) to the love people have for this food culture…I am happy and proud that people are indignant and banging their tables.”

In his latest post on Facebook two days ago, Seetoh highlighted that hawkers at another social enterprise hawker centre, Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre, are contracted to open 24 hours a day with two days off per week, as indicated in their “51-page” contract.

The hawkers would face a fine of $250 for each day they close without approval, he said. 

The contract also included a clause that dictates the amount of vegetables and calories each dish should have as well as one that requires hawkers to maintain an “A” rating from the National Environment Agency (NEA), he added.

In his entry on 9 October, described by him as an open letter addressed to Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor, Seetoh highlighted that a former tenant at the same hawker centre was made to pay a monthly “penalty fee” of at least $2,000 for the remaining months left in their contract or till another tenant was found for the stall.

In August, Seetoh also highlighted on his website that hawkers at such centres pay an average of $4,000 per month, inclusive of extra costs incurred by coin-changing services, crockery washing, collection and return, as well as management fees for spot checks on food quality and operation. The total costs are more than what the highest bidder in the popular Maxwell Hawker Centre would have to fork out, he said.

Seetoh had previously pointed out that Fei Siong imposed a management fee of $600 per month on the hawkers at Ci Yuan Hawker Centre. In a report by Channel NewsAsia, Khor clarified that the management fee was optional.

“The hawkers think these (various costs) are approved by the government,” Seetoh told this reporter.

Given the vast differences in the tenant contracts for the different social enterprise hawker centres, Seetoh called on hawkers to “band up and form a union” and involve members of the public to advise them on legal and other operational matters.

Seetoh reiterated his longstanding position that ultimately, the authorities should take over the management of these hawker centres and charge hawkers a lower rental fee than market rate.

Hawkers in NEA-run hawker centres typically pay about $2,000 to $2,300 for rental and collection costs while cleaning costs are optional. According to Lawrence Tan, who runs Kopi More at Golden Mile Food Centre, a hawker who chooses to engage external cleaners would incur costs ranging from a few hundred to a thousand dollars per month.

These total costs are less than the average $4,000 in rental and other costs that hawkers at social enterprise hawker centres – as highlighted by Seetoh – would have to pay. 

“Why you hand to these KPI, profit-driven companies to run these hawker centres? To be fair, nobody knows how to run hawker centres except the NEA. Not even the big boys,” said Seetoh, who praised the government for its ability to build thriving hawker centres.

Where the government should step aside from is the promotion of hawker culture and leave the task to the public including food writers and bloggers, Seetoh added. 

In response to the public debate on social enterprise hawker centres, Khor said on Friday that the NEA will work closely with operators and hawkers of such centres to address the concerns raised, especially the issues of cost and contractual terms used by operators.

The NEA “will not hesitate” to take errant hawker centre operators to task, Khor said.

“I have asked NEA to quickly iron out the problems and to do a stock-take of the Social Enterprise model…NEA is already reviewing the contractual agreements with the view to prescribe some of the terms used by operators in these contracts,” she added.

“We will continue to fine-tune the management model, to safeguard the interests of Singaporeans – patrons and hawkers – and achieve the objective of ensuring that Singaporeans have access to affordable food and hawkers can make a decent living.”

In response, Seetoh said that the points highlighted by Khor were “100 per cent spot on” and that the viability and sustainability of social enterprise hawker centres should be addressed.

“But as I have said before, the government does not have the silver bullet solution. They should work more closely with the community…to formulate a better strategy in developing these social enterprise and incubation models,” he added.

Related stories:

NEA ‘won’t hesitate’ to take action against errant hawker centre operators: Amy Khor

Jurong West Hawker Centre to change controversial tray-return scheme

More than 40 aspiring hawkers have applied for NEA’s Incubation Stall Programme