By Terry Xu
Citizens following the saga of the Bedok hawker centre at Block 538 revolving between the National Environment Agency, Aljunied Hougang Punggol East Town Council might have not really been able to grasp what the whole issue is about.
For those who are just tuning in to the story, here is a short recap by visual aids created by Roy from thehearttruths.com
While The Heart Truths gave a blow-by-blow account of the exchanges between AHPETC and NEA, what was not clear was the views of the hawkers and residents involved. To shed a bit more clarity, TOC spoke to the hawkers at Block 538 and asked them for their version of their story and how they felt about the developing issue.
The usual practice?
Speaking to one of the stall owners who does not wish to be named, he said that it is common practice that the hawkers will provide the cover/scaffolding for the cover while the town council does all that is required to have the hawker centre cleaned. He complained about the town council not cleaning up the ceiling and exhaust pipes despite closing down for 5 whole days.
He commented that it is disappointing that there had been more reporters dropping down to ask what the situation than the MPs from Workers’ Party dropping down to check on them. According to him, none has dropped down to speak with the hawkers yet. He also said that has been only one person from the town council who dropped down to ask about the issues surrounding the cleaning of the hawker centre.
Perhaps the MP as assumed to carry on the practice from last year? Not so, according to another hawker who operates the minced pork noodle stall in the hawker centre. He revealed that because the hawker centre has just been upgraded and reopened in March 2011, there was no major spring-cleaning conducted last year. This somewhat contradicts AHPETC’s account about the cleaning works that was done to the ceilings, beams and exhaust pipe last year.
There is also some uncertainty about whether the cleaning will proceed as scheduled as indicated by the Workers’ Party – this might now be postponed to March next year as some of the hawkers indicated that they do not wish to close their stalls for another 5 more days for cleaning this year. Closing the stalls for the cleaning, would mean paying the rental for nothing and bearing the loss of the profit which may cost them more than a thousand dollars.
However, whether or not NEA is willing to close an eye to this arrangement to bypass one major spring-cleaning is another issue on its own.
The hawkers at Block 538 whom we spoke to were not pleased that they paid $140 for the scaffolding, without the intended cleaning being completed. Some wanted to request for the sum of money paid to be reimbursed.
The cost of $140 for the scaffolding was also quite high according to some of the hawkers, who opined that it normally costs $50 or $80, depending on the complexity of the exhaust fans. In the case of Block 538, it was said that the cost was even higher because no contractors were willing to take up the job due to the sudden request and also unique nature of request. The hawker whom TOC spoke to was not too happy about the amount paid as the covering was not really properly done up.
Two petition letters were sent to Straits Times on 3rd June 2013 by hawkers of Blocks 511 and 538. These petitions raised a few interesting questions.
Why was the petition not addressed to the Town Council? Instead, the petition was sent directed to the press without any initial or indication of the person whom drafted the petition. Does this also suggest that both petitions originated from the same person?
TOC earlier received an email prompt from a person named Micheal Tan on 2nd June 2013, stating that a petition will be sent with regards to the hawker issue, which The Real Singapore also received a copy of. We wrote back to the person seeking to know more but there has been no reply from this account since and this mail account seems to have been randomly created.
With regards to Block 511, the stall owners interviewed said that they have not been informed that they would need to pay any money for the cleaning of the hawker centre. And with what Workers’ Party has reiterated again and again, they have not asked the hawkers to pay for anything.
A case of total miscommunication?
Just recently, it has been revealed online that the chairman of the Block 538 Market Association, Mr Ng Kok Khim, was a recipient of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) long service award as well as being highly likely a PA member given that he was part of the audit committee of Marine Parade. He was also the person whom the scaffolding company, ATL, submitted the quotation for the cleaning of the high ceilings.
Notwithstanding his political affiliation, his experience with the cleaning process of the hawker centre should have enabled him to advise AHPETC about their duty to erect the scaffolding for the cleaning. If the town council has been duly informed, it is reasonable to assume that they would have enough time to erect the scaffolding and still complete the cleaning within the stipulated.
The defence so far put up by the town council is that NEA failed to explain the matters properly. The key question to ask is why AHPETC seems to have depended solely on the exchange with NEA to determine the extent of work that needed to be done in cleaning the hawker centres. They could have visited the hawker centre themselves prior to the cleaning exercise to understand the concerns of the hawkers. Given that they are doing this for the first time with this hawker centre and should not base solely on NEA’s email notification stating that the hawker association will manage the scaffolding.
NEA, on its part, also came out unnecessarily harsh against AHPETC in strongly worded statements, which were widely carried by the newspapers. Should that be the expected response from a government agency, even if to defend its public image of impartiality and right to due process?
Incidentally, the first story published on this issue was about the hawkers were being asked to pay for scaffolding by the AHPETC (Straits Times story). Now that TOC has shed more light on the concerns of the hawkers involved, it might suggest that the entire slant of the story thus far, about how the issue has been overtly politicised, has been blown out of proportion. The mess we read in the papers now seems more like an exaggerated case of miscommunication.
TOC also dropped down to the hawker centre at Block 511 to ask if they were affected by this issue. Stall owners have said that their cleaning has not been carried out yet but will be due soon on 24th June 2013.
They express their concern over the fact that they have not received any information from the town council or letters about the impending cleaning exercise. The cleaning due on 24th June 2013 will be carried out for 3 days.
Hopefully, there would not be a re-occurrence of the Block 538, in the interest of the hawkers of Block 511.