The famed Sungei Road flea market will be shut down in 2017 to make room for the Jalan Besar MRT station, which is part of Stage Three of the Downtown Line.
The Thieves Market at Sungei Road has been in operation since the 1930s, and has blossomed into a favourite spot for patrons searching for second-hand goods like clothes and even rare antiques and collectables.
The 300 peddlers of the Thieves Market include older individuals who have been in the business for years, as well as younger startups looking for a place to launch their products. Around 70 per cent of the peddlers are aged between 60 and 80.
Overall, the market is a go-to place for both tourists and locals scouting for good deals.
However, Sungei Road MRT station, which is slated to be completed in 2017, threatens the Thieves Market’s very existence.
In 2014, the National Environment Agency (NEA) confirmed to the President of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, Mr Koh Ah Koon, that the opening of the MRT station would mean the shutting down of the flea market.
“We have been here doing business for 70 to 80 years. Now the government wants to use this place. Therefore, they want to chase us – disperse us, not chase us – away,” said Mr Koh.
He told of how the Association wrote in to the Government to request for another space for the peddlers, especially older individuals, to continue with their businesses. He noted that for many older folks, their trade at the flea market had been their source of income for years and that it would be tough for them to obtain new jobs.
Previously, the NEA had turned down proposals for the flea market to move to alternative sites. In July 2014, the Association had written in suggesting relocating to one of four alternative sites near the original Sungei Road location.
However, NEA turned down the proposal, and while it did not provide a reason for the decision, it noted that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) had planned for the four suggested sites to be used for parks and residential areas.
Mr Koh also outlined some of NEA’s suggestions for the displaced peddlers, including taking courses to gain new skills to work in other industries with support from the Central Community Development Council. NEA also offered vendors to bid for stalls to rent in hawker centres.
“If the old folks had the money to bid for a hawker centre stall, they wouldn’t have the need to come here, you see, scorched by the sun, drenched by the rain,” said Mr Koh. Additionally, he noted that the vendors at the market did not sell food anyway.
He suggested that NEA officials survey the site and speak with the people who are part of the flea market to better understand their situations.
The Singapore Heritage Society, a non-profit, non-governmental organization, and the National Heritage Board have both previously emphasized the significance of the Thieves Market as a vibrant community and economic system.
Yet, Mr Koh and the Association remain locked in a battle for the continuation of the flea market, be it in its original site or elsewhere. Mr Koh says the Association is apparently still sourcing for an appropriate site that is undeveloped and that does not obstruct traffic. He hopes that the Government will cooperate as well to ensure the peddlers can continue with what they have been doing to earn their livelihoods.
“We hope that the government could send someone to conduct a ground survey to see our locations to allow the old folks to continue to ply their trade for their livelihoods,” he said, emphasizing that the peddlers aim to use their businesses to support themselves.
TOC visited the flea market just recently this month and spoke with a few of those who peddle their goods. We understand that there are no plans to relocate the market to another location and the vendors are resigned to the eventual fate that they will have to find another trade to ply. The large market, with its mix of vendors, includes those who rely on peddling goods for a living, and those who seem to be doing it to pass time.
Ms Poh (not her real name), a long time vendor at the flea market, says that she, along with some others, will find jobs as wait staff as they can still move around and fend for themselves. Single and living with her sister, Ms Poh says that not all vendors in the flea market are poor. She pointed out that some have children already grown up and taking care of their expenses.
Some who depend on the trade to make ends meet say they will try to continue to do what they are doing, perhaps in areas such as Geylang. However, they admit that business will not be as good as what the current location provides; also, as it would not be a designated spot for peddling, they are fearful of raids by government agencies.
Mr Pang, who has been running his stall for 50 years at the flea market says he has yet to have planned what to do after the flea market closes. He estimates his monthly expenditure to be $1,200, spending on himself and a bed-ridden son who stays with him. When the sales is good, Mr Pang says he can earn up to $40 a day but there are days where he earns nothing. Things have been better in recent days as he shared that the government just recently been giving his family, a monthly financial support of $300 dollars to lessen his worries.
Others, such as Mr Lim, who peddles old coins and currency, says that he has his old customers to depend on who would call him on his mobile, hence he believes he may not be that affected by the closure.