Food guru KF Seetoh from Makansutra wrote an open letter to Senior Minister of State Dr Amy Khor on Tuesday (9 Oct) imploring her to preserve Singapore's public hawker centres. In essence, Mr Seetoh is against the government appointing a 3rd-party, the so-called "social enterprise" operator, to run publicly funded hawker centres.
In his letter, he told Dr Khor that hawker centres cannot be compared to private food courts. Mr Seetoh suggested that those Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs) should be compared to the other 100 plus established NEA-run public hawkers centres instead.
"The difference is quite stark. Private food courts can charge and levy any amount they deem fit as it’s a private enterprise," he noted.
In his letter, Mr Seetoh further shared more unfair practices adopted by some of the "social enterprise" operators against hawkers.
Dubious practices used by SEHC operators
Mr Seetoh highlighted the plight of a hawker operating a noodle stall at one of the SEHCs. After a year, the hawker decided to quit and give up their $4k a month stall as they could not sustain the business at the SEHC.
"To my horror, they are made to pay up the remaining years and months of rent and fees left in their contract, or till another tenant is found," he said.
Also, note that the new tenant found is subjected to the approval of the operator. Since then, the hawker has moved out and started running his stall at a coffeeshop.
"They now have to pay up the monthly 'penalty' fees in the SEHC and also for rents (at) their new stall," Mr Seetoh explained.
And, the one-sided contract also stated that the SEHC operator is entitled "at any time" and "from time to time" to increase service charges and monthly rental fees.
Mr Seetoh said, "This is rather ridiculous. Landlords do not charge tenants for standard contract offer letters in market practices. Worse, they say there’s even a clause that allow landlord to raise service and monthly fees anytime with given notice and that it is binding."
Please Take Back Control of Public Hawker Centres, NEA
In his letter, Mr Seetoh appealed to the government to consider taking back control of the publicly owned hawker centres. He is of the opinion that the SEHC operators are not totally clear and mindful as to how hawker centres should be managed to public satisfaction.
"There are almost 30,000 hawker street food licenses in Singapore and only 6000 are sited in 114 public owned hawker centres. I urge NEA to run these 6000 like they always had, effectively and with minimal fuss, using even a market rate bidding system with minimal control on service and operation," Mr Seetoh appealed.
"The NEA are trained to have Singapore Civil Service obligations when they run it. The private operators don’t. These 114 public owned Hawker Centres are created for, and powered by the people, which makes it such a great culture for the other 24,000 private stalls to emulate. Even our PM sees this as Unesco Intangible Award worthy."
"These revenue hungry private operators can rightly do their commercial rental and operation model, on a mutually agreed buyer-seller agreements in the privately owned coffeeshops, food halls and markets, canteens, food courts etc.. but please keep them away from our public hawker centres," he said.
"We have to preserve low operation cost so hawkers can comfortably offer cheaper meals for poorer customers in our midst who depend on it, preserve this food heritage and encourage a new breed of hawker to rise to the fore and address continuity and sustainability."
In any case, with regard to the struggling noodle hawker who needs to pay a monthly "penalty" fee after abandoning his stall at the SEHC, Mr Seetoh has suggested to him to write to Dr Khor.
"I have suggested that this hawker write to you personally to share their struggles (and the likes of them) with you, so you can factor their concerns moving ahead as you craft even better policies for the public owned hawker centre operations in future," Mr Seetoh appealed to Dr Khor.
However, it's not known if Dr Khor would act on it to help the poor hawker, as she might just conveniently say it's purely a commercial matter between the buyer and seller.