Photo: The Telegraph / ALAMY

Hawkers are not “unintelligent” and do not require “quality control” intervention by “social enterprise” operators

The recent heated debates on social enterprises and how the concept is eroding the quality and authenticity of hawker centres – the latter deemed to be an iconic part of Singapore’s culture – has revealed the attitudes of operators of such social enterprises and possibly even the Government towards hawkers.

In a letter submission to TODAY, a reader pointed out that “the abilities of the hawkers and stallholders seem to have been obfuscated, treated as if they are completely devoid of any intelligence.”

Lee Siew Peng argued that far from the current perception being painted by such discussions, “stallholders and hawkers might have been illiterate, but they were able to organise themselves when needs arose in their community,” citing her father’s experience as a “jhee yoke loh” (literally, Cantonese for “pork man”, or pork seller) at the Alexandra Road market.

She illustrated her point further when she revealed that her father, as a hawker, “was able to convert mentally the traditional measurements they were using, such as “kati” and “tahil”, into metric units” decades ago “when Singapore adopted the metric system of measurement in the 1970s.”

Dr Lee wrote: “They knew exactly how long to trade to maximise profits. They ensured good value, service and quality because they knew customers voted every day — not once in five years like our General Election — with their feet and wallets. “Quality control” by some office-bound executive was unnecessary.”

“They were fully capable of organising themselves to resolve pressing issues such as dish collection and dishwashing.

Dr Lee also said that the burden to meet Government objectives regarding hawker centres should not rest upon hawkers “who have spent a lifetime teaching their children not to take after their profession (because it was seen as not socially mobile),” but on the Government itself “to fund the training of a new generation of “hawkerpreneurs” by stepping up its efforts.

“Two things they [the hawkers] could not do were to maintain the fabric of the buildings (and its environs) and attract younger hawkers. The former is the responsibility of the landlord.”

She proposed that the Government ought to “adjust the rental charges” in order to attract a new generation of hawkers, and to ramp up its “marketing” and “education” efforts regarding hawker centres, adding that “it’s not rocket science.”

Dr Lee also lambasted the apparent unfairness of the social enterprise model against hawkers, citing an article on TODAY in which it was stated that “under the social enterprise model used by the National Environment Agency (NEA), operating surpluses are to be shared among its stakeholders “such as the stallholders, the manager and the NEA”.

She argued: “Why should NEA profit further from the blood, sweat and tears of the hawkers that they have left in the hands of private businessmen?”