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Hawker centre in Chinatown

Hawker tender system — Singapore’s policies are all geared towards making easy money

by Teo Soh Lung

After listening to the latest podcast of New Naratif on Singapore’s hawkersI cannot help but feel sad that Singapore’s policies are all geared towards making easy money.

There is a lack of concern for the well being of hard-working people. The tender system has not changed since the late 1970s and 80’s when my friend and I were young lawyers looking for premises in heartlands to practise law. We didn’t even have a chequebook to issue a cheque for the deposit required for a tender.

We heard of the HDB’s open tender for office space at Alexandra. Excitedly, we checked out the premises – simple concrete premises without any fanciful corridor or walls. We liked the idea of practising law amidst the residents of Redhill, Commonwealth, Tanglin Halt etc. We wanted to make legal service accessible to the ordinary people. And so we calculated our ability to pay the monthly rent and submitted a modest amount with the help of a friend’s cheque. The tender application was fortunately free. We waited anxiously for the outcome. We didn’t succeed.

Disappointment did not dampen our spirit to make another try. When the HDB Kreta Ayer Complex, (a stone throw from the stalls of the interviewees of the podcast) came up for tender, we made another bid. Again we failed.

It was two failures at getting an office space in HDB estates that necessitated the renting of private premises, first in Aljunied and then in Geylang for our practice. We were three women and the first lawyers to set up a legal office outside the city area.

Listening to the interviews of young people like Jia Liang, Yu Ting and Alex brought back many memories about my youth. I wish all of them well and hope they will succeed in achieving their dreams. They are the young people Singapore’s policy makers should be proud of. They do not ask for financial assistance. They only plead that the government as the largest landlord be considerate. It is clear from the interviews that the government should stop experimenting with untested schemes such as the social enterprise hawkers centres.

Everyone who wants to run a business knows that the highest overhead is rent. Staff cost comes next but if one is prepared to slog it out as do these three young people, that consideration is secondary. As long as the rent does not bleed their savings for more than 6 months to a year, success is within reach.

I do not know if the age old tender system is successful in ensuring equal opportunity for all. I have never read any analysis about the system. All I know is that no matter how careful a tender is put out to the public, leaks can happen. It may be the best system to receive the highest rent. But when a business fail, do the authorities take into consideration the premises that may remain vacant until the slow machinery of bureaucracy calls for the next tender. Is there any virtue in enforcing an agreement against the people who folded up their business? After all, they did so reluctantly and definitely with heartaches and financial losses.

I think our government should seriously review the tender system. Needless to say, the social enterprise scheme of managing a hawkers centre is a bad idea and should be abandoned immediately. The people who invented the scheme have no clue of what is truly a social enterprise. For them, it is just another monopolistic way of making easy money without any regard for those who have to pay and suffer.