In a ST report today ('Hawker debate: Figuring out a way forward', 4 Nov), Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli told SPH reporters that the key objective for creating hawker centres is to "ensure that the food remains affordable and accessible for Singaporeans."
"There is no magic bullet for this issue... We must not forget the original objective of building these new hawker centres," he said.
He felt that the idea of letting "social enterprises" run hawker centres is sound.
"The (social enterprise) model is generally sound, we have successfully attained the two objectives above, and we should not undo these achievements."
However, he does acknowledge the recent concerns raised by hawkers over the way hawker centres are managed by social enterprises.
But the interests of hawkers have to be balanced against those of the community, he said.
Referring to Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre which operates for 24 hours, he pointed out, "Once the hawker centre stops operating 24 hours, this place will be a dead town... so we are going to let hawkers and operators jointly discuss what they are going to do."
It is indeed strange that Minister Masagos is making such a comment when the bulk of Singapore's hawker centres do not operate 24 hours. And certainly, Singapore heartlands are far from dead without these hawker centres running 24 hours a day.
Modern-day slavery system
In fact, two years ago (Oct 2016) before Kopitiam Group started managing Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre, a reader had written to TOC accusing Kopitiam Group of imposing a "modern-day slavery" system on hawkers. The Kopitiam Group started operating the hawker centre in Nov 2016.
At the time, the reader was interested to apply for a stall at Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre. So, he contacted OTMH Pte Ltd, the "social enterprise" unit under Kopitiam Group in charge of the hawker centre.
He was told that there won't be any tender for the individual stalls. The stall rentals were fixed at $4k, $3k, $2k and $1.5k depending on what the stalls were selling. And the best part was, OTMH has the right to "entirely and solely" allocate the stalls to whoever at their "discretion".
"We are told to operate the stall ourselves and advised strongly to operate longer hours to have a good chance of getting selected; minimum selection on the forms is 12 hrs and the longest is 24 hrs. I am not sure if this is not a modern day slavery under the hood of so called social-enterprise," the reader lamented.
"The terms state clearly that the selection process is totally under the discretion of the company, not under National Environment Agency."
In other words, by implementing some of the private food court concepts like offering 24-hour service in Our Tampines Hub Hawker Centre, Kopitiam Group would require hawkers to open their stall for longer hours. Naturally, they are more keen to select those hawkers willing to operate for 24 hours, 7 days a week so as to keep the hawker centre operating non-stop at every hour.
Hawkers, like any other working Singaporeans, also need rest and holidays. They also need family time after work to talk or play with their kids. It's no wonder the reader accused Kopitiam Group of instituting a "modern-day slavery" system on hawkers, which no doubt, would maximise Kopitiam Group's revenue.
The reader also felt that it was unfair for Kopitiam Group to decide on hawkers without tender as, after all, the hawker centre is built using public money and still owned by the government. The social enterprise operator is merely a managing agent for the hawker centre.
"Why is an enterprise given so much more space that they are free to manage themselves or give to their ‘select’ hawkers to operate without giving any detail of the selection process?" the reader asked.