Since July 2011, the famous Sungei Road Thieves Market, or Flea Market as it is sometimes known, has been reduced from its original size to facilitate the construction of the upcoming Jalan Besar MRT train station.
The station is expected to be completed by 2017.
But the flea market, which has been around since the 1930s, will cease to operate a year earlier, in 2016.
That was the deadline given by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to the vendors, or hawkers, there, many of whom are in their 70s and 80s. However, the exact date of the last day of the market is still up in the air.
The hawkers’ predicament has left them in the lurch, with an uncertain future, and for the past three years they have been trying to seek clarity from the authorities, to no avail.
So far, the association have written to the Prime Minister, the URA, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, the NEA, the Singapore Land Authority, and even the Member of Parliament for the area, Denise Phua.
All the various agencies and government departments they have approached have declined to meet with their representatives from the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods.
The association has also written to the Prime Minister of Singapore in 2012, requesting for an alternative location for the hawkers to continue their trade.
“As the construction of the MRT is expected to be completed in a few years’ time, we are uncertain of the future, in particular, the operation of the society,” the association’s letter said.
Urging the Prime Minister to preserve the market as part of Singapore’s heritage, the association added, “We understand the development and progress of the nation cannot be compromised but to have [the market] continue its operation would preserve its heritage as uniquely Singapore.”
The letter, signed off by the association’s president, Koh Ah Koon, was copied to the Ministry of National Development, the National Environment Agency (NEA), and MP, Denise Phua.
About one and half month later, the NEA responded to the letter.
“As you are aware, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) developments plans for Sungei Road are expected to be initiated after the completion of the Jalan Besar MRT station in 2016,” the Director of Environmental Health Department of the NEA said.
The agency added that it “will work with the URA to give the vendors advance notice to cease their operations on the site once the detailed implementation timeline is confirmed.”
The NEA said vendors “who wish to seek alternative avenues to continue their business may bid for the Piece and Sundry stalls in hawker centres during the monthly tender exercises.”
For those who do not wish to continue their trade, the NEA said the Work Development Authority (WDA) and the Community Development Councils (CDCs) “will assist them individually to explore job opportunities and even render financial assistance where necessary.”
Despite the offers of assistance from the government agencies, no clarity as to the future of the market itself was forthcoming, with the NEA saying that plans for the area are yet to be finalised, and thus it could not provide any answers to the vendors’ questions.
Nonetheless, the next two years, the association continued to try and engage the authorities on the issue.
In 2015, a volunteer who stepped forward to assist the association, Mr Larry Lee, sought a face-to-face meeting with the NEA.
In his email to the NEA in August this year, Mr Lee explained that the Sungei Road market has the potential to become a tourist attraction such as Portobello in the United Kingdom and the Paddington Flea Market in Australia.
Mr Lee asked for a meeting with officers from the National Heritage Board, the URA and the Singapore Tourism Board, along with those from the NEA, to “share our ideas on how to make the Sungei Road Flea Market an attraction to local and foreigners to visits.”
The NEA responded, reiterating that development plans for the area will only be known after the completion of the Jalan Besar station, and that it will arrange for a meeting with the association together with the URA.
However, no such meetings have taken place till date.
In the meantime, there is growing anxiety among the hawkers as the date of the cessation of operations nears.
“The vendors here are quite disappointed that the government has not clarified whether they will be given another location to ply their trade,” Mr Koh told The Online Citizen (TOC).
He reiterated that the hawkers are not asking for or demanding that they be allowed to remain in Sungei Road, but that they be allowed an alternative location for their business.
“If the government needs the place for redevelopment, we are willing to move to another location,” Mr Koh said. “We have to… and even after we moved to a new location, it will also be temporary, we won’t expect to remain there permanently.”
The association had suggested four potential alternative sites, all of which are around the Sungei Road area – Rochor River, at Kampong Bugis along Kallang River, behind Sim Lim Tower and a roadside near Jalan Kubor Malay cemetery.
The NEA, however, said that it would “not be possible to accede to your request to relocate” the market.
Mr Koh explained that the hawkers do not want to depend on handouts from the government, and prefer to remain self-reliant and independent.
“Shutting down the market will mean taking away a source of income for many elderly folk here,” Mr Koh told the media last year. “Most of us have little education or are illiterate.”
When TOC asked some of the hawkers what they would do if the market was closed down, some said they may have to resort to illegal hawking to make ends meet.
They also felt that the NEA’s suggestion for them to take up hawker stalls was not practical.
“If we had money to rent and set up such stalls, would we be doing this here?” one hawker asked.
As for the suggestion that the hawkers could go for retraining to acquire new skills to do alternative work, some of the hawkers balked at the notion.
“Look at some of them, they can’t even walk properly and you are asking them to go for retraining?” Mr Koh said. He also dismissed the suggestion for the vendors to become food hawkers in a hawker centre.
“We’re not selling food, so a hawker stall space makes little sense.”
When TOC visited the market last Monday to speak to the hawkers, the skies were covered by the haze. Yet, the hawkers were still out there. In fact, that day was a busy one for them, which was rather unusual for the first day of the work week.
Among those out there on Monday was 81-year old Mr Pang, who lives in a rental flat nearby with his two children, one of whom has a medical condition. This meant that the other sibling had to be home to look after him.
Mr Pang has been selling his knick knacks at the market for 50 years to raise his sons.
“If the government gives us an alternative location to continue our business, that would be best,” he told TOC in a mixture of Chinese and Hokkien. “That’s what we hope for. Otherwise, how do old folks like us make a living?”
When asked if what he earns everyday is enough to pay for his and his sons’ living expenses, Mr Pang said, “It is not always that we manage to sell anything. Some days, we don’t sell anything at all.”
In the meantime, all eyes are on the new year which will signal the death knell of one of Singapore’s most famous historical site – if the authorities insist on ceasing the market’s operations permanently.
*In our subsequent reports, we will feature the hawkers who ply their trade at the Sungei Road market.