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Hawker centre problem is faced with stubbornness, wilful ignorance, and apologia at every turn

by Lim Jialiang

Dear MP Lim Biow Chuan

I don't even know how you managed to be put on the defensive when Gary Ho posted about Old Airport Road Hawker Centre, and the misguided assumptions that you made have lead me to shake my head like I was in a club. But allow me to rebut some of yours.

First of all, Foodfare doesn't force hawkers to stay open for extremely long. What they force hawkers to do is to keep a minimum of 8 hours of opening time. This is problematic because it doesn't account for the amount of work they have to put in before service. Some stores manage better, like roast meat stores or chicken rice stores. Other stores, like places selling noodles and the like, are limited to the amount of stock they can make for the day. This can take anywhere from 4-6 hours to prepare. So realistically, even if a hawker only starts their operations at 8 and ends at 12, the work before, and after, add up to a lot more hours than what we see. Imposing a minimum opening time is a slap to the faces of long time hawkers, many of them in their twilight years, and can only work for so long. Let's try not to kill our potential UNESCO Heritage before getting it.

Other issues include having to submit to Foodfare a week in advance on when they want to take a break, submit to approval. These take away autonomy and choice, two things that your parents had when they were hawkers. Don't take my word for it - the application form is online and for easy viewing.

Secondly, you say that "What Foodfare wanted to do was to manage the food centre such that it will not become a empty food centre in the evening." There are reasons why Hawker Centres these days tend to empty out during dinner. Firstly, it points to the fact that maybe more people are choosing to cook their own food at home for dinner, which is a good development.

Another more likely answer is that the development of integrated malls and an explosion in F&B options, the prevalence of delivery apps, as well as changing consumer tastes all lead to hawker centres being de-emphasised as a dinner location. As a result, most hawkers have shifted focus to working the lunch crowd. Hawker centres are by far the best choice because of the relatively quick turnover for tables and the speed at which hawkers serve their food. We have imposed a moratorium of building hawker centres for over 2 decades till 2012, and we are somehow surprised that some other form of dining and eating out has superseded hawker centres? Come on. Let's be real here.

Clause of operating hours as indicated in the application form of NTUC Foodfare

Thirdly, you say that there's no punishment if any hawker closes early, or breaks any of the clauses. If there are no punitive measures involved, then as any decent lawyer will tell you, what are these clauses in the form for? Leave them out lah.

This is the crux of the problem now - these contracts rob our hawkers of dignity, and when people confront the problem, NEA and other establishment figures turn defensive and say "it's not all that bad." Throughout this whole debate, I have wished to see some of Singapore's much boasted pragmatism. Instead, we are faced with stubbornness, wilful ignorance, and apologia at every turn.

This open letter was first published on Lim Jialiang's Facebook page and reproduced with permission