NTUC responded to the recent controversy with regard to its impending acquisition of Kopitiam Group on ST Forum page today (6 Oct).
Understandably, with the acquisition, the public fear that NTUC Foodfare will monopolize and become the largest landlord of all hawker centres in Singapore eventually. This would mean higher operating costs to all hawkers, thereby making hawker food more expensive for consumers.
Popular food guru KF Seetoh of Makansutra echoed such fear on his Facebook page recently.
"..the plot thickens. Now NTUC will be 'food centre influencers', when they eventually take over Kopitiam's 80 food courts, coffee shops and hawker centres (added to NTUC's own 14, 10 and 9 respectively)," Mr Seetoh wrote.
"Of course their interests in being a 'cooperative' had blurred over the years. They now have more than enough profits to buy Kopitiam (not some small company mind you). NTUC will soon take over 120 food courts and hawker centres..and counting..and these hawkers are not unionised, they have to do whatever the U says, or else leave."
"Now, they will also control our public hawker centres as NEA is slowly relinquishing their hawker centres roles to NTUC," he added.
Mr Seetoh fears that NTUC will eventually destroy the competition by becoming the largest operator in the hawker food scene. He noted that Singapore's hawker food scene was already very successful and famous without NTUC's management.
He advocates to keep hawker centres out of NTUC's control, "I am sure NTUC is very capable of raking in even more monies (I lost track of how much they made 'for the people') in other areas. Please keep this one out of their control."
NTUC says they offer affordable food to the people
In her letter to ST Forum, Ms Shona Tan, the Chief Brand & Communications Officer of NTUC Enterprise Cooperative, wrote to say that NTUC Enterprise and its social enterprises aim to ensure that everybody has access to affordable, quality goods and services.
"This intended (Kopitiam Group) acquisition will allow us to do this by expanding our social footprint," she wrote. "Current plans include increasing the number of Rice Garden stalls islandwide where meals can cost as low as $1.50. This would allow us to reach out to more people."
She described Rice Garden as a "social outreach programme" of NTUC Foodfare, which provides affordable as well as nutritious meals at hawker centres and coffee shops.
"NTUC Foodfare also supports existing and aspiring hawkers who wish to manage their own food stalls under the Rice Garden Business Community Partnership Programme," she added.
"Stall operators receive assistance in funding, equipment, training and marketing. The sourcing and procurement of food supplies and raw materials via NTUC Foodfare's central kitchen and supply chain network are available. This helps them with food preparation and better management of business costs."
She did not say what will happen to stall rentals after the acquisition but only that if the acquisition materializes, NTUC hopes to "leverage each other's strengths and, with the greater synergy, hope to provide better experiences for our stall operators, customers and employees".
"NTUC Enterprise is committed to do good and improve the lives of families in Singapore," she promised.
It remains to be seen if the NTUC Enterprise's promises will come true. But whatever is the case, the fact remains that when NEA outsources a hawker centre built with public funds to an operator, a middleman layer has been introduced into the equation.