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“Hawkers do not exist to make the hawker centre or the city vibrant”: Donald Low, in response to MP Lim Biow Chuan’s remarks regarding the hawker centre debacle

A Facebook post by a former academic that has gone viral lambasted Mountbatten Member of Parliament (MP) Lim Biow Chuan's justification regarding the operating hours of stalls in social enterprise hawker centres (SEHCs), with the MP stating that it is "incorrect" to suggest that "hawkers had to work super long hours."

Donald Low, in his Facebook post on Wednesday (24 Oct), argued that the real question should not be about the amount of hours a stall is required to operate per se, but rather whether "there should even be [any] minimum opening hours" in the first place," as operators of social enterprise hawker centres are guaranteed "a fixed rental from every stall."

MP Lim's statement was a response to Gary Ho's revelation regarding the exploitative terms stipulated in the contract that stallowners are made to sign – and in certain cases – even without a translator to adequately explain the intricacies and the full implications of the contract.

Mr Low elaborated: "If a hawker can make enough to cover his rental and other expenses and earn a profit by opening just a few hours a day, why the hell should the landlord insist on him opening at least eight hours a day? What sort of Stalinist economy are these SEHCs running?

"And if the hawker chooses to operate his stall for just a few hours a day, presumably it's because he has calculated that his marginal cost (of keeping his stall open for an additional hour) exceeds the marginal income he would earn. Why would Foodfare or any SEHC operator presume that they know the hawker's business better by insisting that the hawker extend his opening hours?"

Hawkers should not be made to shoulder "the burden of keeping hawker centres vibrant"; SEHC operators should compensate hawkers accordingly if they want hawkers to do more than "earn a decent living"

He also pointed out the unfairness of placing "the burden of keeping hawker centres vibrant" onto the hawkers whose primary purpose of engaging in the trade is "to make a decent living," adding that hawkers "should be compensated appropriately" if the government and the public want them to go beyond that threshold.

"To say that hawkers should keep their stalls open longer so as to maintain the vibrancy of the hawker centre or the neighborhood manages to be both uneconomic and unethical at the same time.

"It is uneconomic because in most instances, it is demand that creates its own supply. In other words, if there's demand for hawker food late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, the market can be counted on to supply it without hawkers being coerced. Vibrancy (defined as hawker centres staying open through the night) is achieved by there being sufficient demand to make it worthwhile for hawkers to stay open till late. It is very rarely the case that supply creates its own demand. If it did, there would be very few failed business ideas.

"The vibrancy argument is also unethical because it instrumentalizes hawkers. It treats them as a means to an ends -- whether the ends is that of vibrancy, or UNESCO world heritage status, or whatever national goal they are mobilised to serve -- instead of treating them as ends in themselves," stressed Mr Low.

Pointing out the oft-repeated "keeping our hawker centres vibrant" rhetoric espoused by NEA, and even alluded to by MP Lim in his recent Facebook post, Mr Low argues that "if the SEHC chooses to achieve it by requiring the tenants to stay open even when there are few customers, then the costs of maintaining vibrancy have to be borne privately (i.e. by the hawkers)."

"In short, the benefits of vibrancy are socialised but the costs are privatised. If the SEHC operator wants to generate vibrancy, and he genuinely thinks that having the stalls stay open longer would help achieve that, then he should be paying the hawkers to stay open longer, not by setting minimum opening hours," he suggested.

Mr Low also believes that hawkers in Singapore "are saddled with too many competing and conflicting policy goals," in comparison to when hawker centres were first created," which only bore "one policy objective: public hygiene."

"Even affordable food was not a primary consideration. It so happened that to persuade street hawkers to relocate to hawker centres, they had to be provided subsidised rentals. And it was subsidised rentals which made it possible for them to provide affordable food. (In short, affordability was an unintended benefit.)

"But over time, it seems to have become the primary goal of hawker centres, and hawkers are now made to bear the burden of keeping food prices low for everyone. This is both inefficient and inequitable (why should high income people have the same $4 chicken rice as low income people). The far more economically sensible way of helping the poor is to give them food stamps or direct cash assistance rather than require hawkers to keep their prices low," Mr Low argued.

In what he calls a "trilemma," Mr Low highlighted that it is difficult to achieve what the NEA sets out to achieve simultaneously, which are:

  • The Affordability of hawker food;
  • the Profitability of hawkers (so as to attract younger hawkers and keep this industry "vibrant"); and
  • the Minimisation of government subsidy to hawkers (e.g. by getting rid of rental subsidies without replacing them with direct assistance for the low income).

He concluded that "SEHCs are a terrible idea," as the concept "was based on the quite misguided idea that there was business model out there that would allow for all three goals to be achieved simultaneously."

The way SEHCs are structured, he observed, has taken a toll on "the profitability of the hawkers," which has resulted in them having to "work longer hours."

"But there is clearly a limit to that," cautioned Mr Low, and suggesting that the NEA and SEHCs operators should be more realistic in striving to fulfill policy aims at the expense of hawkers, who are already in a vulnerable situation.