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Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel Chairman: ‘Not-for-profit’ doesn’t mean don’t make profit

Ms Elim Chew who chaired the 18-member Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel in 2012 was interviewed by the media yesterday (24 Oct). It was the panel who recommended the "not-for-profit" aka "social enterprise" hawker centre model.

She defended the panel's decision by saying the "not-for-profit" model was mooted with good intentions. But she acknowledged that it will now have to be tweaked in view of the complaints made by hawkers over how they were treated by the social enterprise operators.

She explained that the model was proposed because the panel envisioned hawker centres as a community space where residents from all walks of life can interact freely, and was thinking of ways to make them "a better place". "It (was recommended with) a good intention,” said Ms Chew. “I don’t think it’s a wrong model but it needs to be tweaked to a model that benefits all.”

Ms Chew said some of the complaints raised by hawkers have come as a surprise to her. She added that there may have been some misunderstanding about the social enterprise model. “They are not-for-profit but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make profit,” she said, as social enterprises also need to make money to survive.

“At the end of the day, it’s where the money goes to. In our recommendation, it’s a plough-back model... which means the money needs to go back to helping hawkers upgrade their skills or better programmes for the centres.”

She said that it may be helpful to get operators to declare how much profits will be put back into helping the hawkers. However, it has been recently found that some social enterprise operators have outsourced ancillary services to own relative's company, which charges high fees. This has riled many netizens. With more money going into these companies, there would be less for operator to "plough-back" to the hawker centre, benefiting the hawkers.

When asked if the social enterprise model is too idealistic given that these operators are businesses after all, Ms Chew replied, “They are making money from the rest (of their operations)... so we’d think that maybe they would want to have a section that gives back. But even as much as they want to give back, they are coming with the angle that they cannot lose money – it’s a very business mindset in terms of I cannot lose money."

“(Only when) we can help them (operators) to solve that then they will have the ease to say ‘Ok, all these other things will be waived or absorbed’,” she said.

But current complaints that have raised eyebrows about how social enterprises manage hawker centres will have to be solved – and be done soon, she opined.

She suggested giving the hawkers a "package deal". She said, “Everything can be a package - you rent this stall for S$3,000 and the hawker wouldn’t have to worry about tray returns for example ... Take away the load of all these thoughts of additional costs so that all hawkers have to think is how to cook the dish at its best or how they can improve them.”

Moving forward, Ms Chew still thinks the social enterprise model is a viable one given that it was recommended as an alternative to NEA-run hawker centres with the aim of solving some problems, such as subletting of stalls and having a more active landlord that can provide hawkers with help in areas like marketing.

When asked about an online petition calling on NEA to abolish the new model and run the hawker centres itself, she replied, "Then we go back to the old model, where someone can sublet their stall to other people, and (we might) have a foreigner cooking nasi padang that isn't like nasi padang. What then?"

Hence, from Ms Chew's revelation, it seems that panel recommended the "social enterprise" model primarily to get the operator to "police" the hawkers ensuring that there would be no subletting of stalls.

Amy Khor: Social enterprise operators to form feedback groups with hawkers

Meanwhile, in another Facebook post yesterday (24 Oct), Senior Minister of State Amy Khor said social enterprise operators have been asked to form feedback groups.

"The operators will meet the hawkers' feedback groups on a regular basis to discuss concerns and issues so that these can be addressed quickly," she said.

"The National Environment Agency (NEA) will also actively engage these feedback groups to better understand ground issues, and facilitate timely responses. I am glad to share that the operators have welcomed this idea."

Some of these issues have already been raised by food guru KF Seetoh and opposition members years ago but it's only now that NEA takes notice after hawkers started sending petitions to NEA complaining against the operators.

Opposition members were assured by then Minister Vivian that SEHCs will be tightly monitored

WP Yee Jenn Jong wrote on his Facebook page recalling that he did voice his concerns when the social enterprise model for hawker centres was discussed in Parliament.

He said, "When this issue was first raised in parliament before the start of the project, my chief concern then was that we will give social enterprises too much of a freehand to do as they wish."

"History has show in other industries here that social enterprises behave no differently from profit-driven companies. They exist to make surpluses ('profit' in a different name) and when they grow big, they will tend to squeeze the hawkers, who will then put increases in cost to consumers," he added.

"Companies can do as they wish if this is a commercial space, but hawker centres are built with public monies on highly desirable locations and are meant to be providing public goods - i.e. to provide affordable food to the masses."

However, Mr Yee was assured by then-Minister Vivian that the social enterprise operators would be tightly monitor.

Mr Yee continued, "Assurances were given but unfortunately not followed up on. It is sad that SEHC has degenerated into such a state and ironical too even as we are embarking on getting our hawker culture admitted into UNESCO World Heritage."

"I am not against letting social enterprises run hawker centres but having blind faith that they will look after the welfare of hawkers is wrong."

Mr Yee also criticised NEA, "NEA cannot just say that hawkers have read and signed the contracts. What choices do hawkers have if such a large market share of hawker spaces are in SEHC, and most hawkers do not understand contract law and business. Now we have added more cost overheads to hawkers."

Mr Yee thinks that it is still not too late to change but there has to be an admission that we have trusted social enterprises too much just because there is a 'social' in their name.