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Hawker reacts to Amy Khor’ criticism that hawker complaints are merely unverified anecdotes

Public debate over the effectiveness of the social enterprise model that’s being piloted in seven hawker centres around the island is continuing to heat up.

Some of the main concerns that have been raised by the hawkers themselves include high rental, high ancillary costs, the requirement of having an ‘affordable meal’ option that’s less that $3, and unreasonable contractual terms just to name a few.

A recent episode of New Naratif’s Political Agenda podcast included three hawker stall owners who shared their experiences with being in the hawker business and their take on the whole social enterprise model that the National Environment Agency (NEA) is testing out. The feedback was less than glowing.

Following these complaints, the NEA announced that it would conduct a stock-take of the new model to identify and address any issues. However, the NEA insists that the stock-take is regular procedure and isn't a direct result of the complaints.

In response to the hawkers, Senior Minister of State of Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said to TODAY that the conversation though well-meaning has been "in part fuelled by hearsay and anecdotes which have emotive appeal". She continued to say, "some of these hearsay and anecdotes may be well-meaning but (are) misinformed. In fact, quite a number are really not verified.” The Senior Minister basically dismissed the personal experiences of these vocal hawkers as untrue and merely an attempt to stir the pot.

On Monday in Parliament, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli emphasised what was said by Dr Khor, that the NEA’s social enterprise hawker model is ‘generally sound’ and has achieved good outcome in terms of keeping food affordable compared to other hawker centres. He also noted that the majority of the hawkers at these centres are doing well and that 97% of hawkers at Ci Yuan Hawker Centre and 96% of hawkers and Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre chose to renew their contracts as of July.

Now, one hawker stall owner has come out to voice in disappointment in the response given by Senior Minister Amy Khor on his Facebook page, specifically for her comment on ‘hearsay’ and ‘anecdote’.

Mr Lim Jialiang, who was one of the guests on New Naratif’s podcast episode on hawkers, wrote"

“Disappointment can't even begin to cover my deep-seated emotions that I have towards her words. We are not stupid. We are also not blind to the grievances of our fellow hawkers. We are most certainly not spreading fake news, as you so like to term it.”

He went on to say that the evidence he and his fellow hawkers have produces will "stand up even under rigorous scrutiny in the court of law" – unlike what was implied by Dr Khor. Clearly, Mr Lim is speaking from experience. He mentioned that he had worked long hours before and how some hawkers who work 16-18 hour days, 7 days a week running their stall and falling asleep for 12 hours straight from exhaustion. Anyone who has worked in the F&B industry would know just how taxing that lifestyle can be.

Mr Lim then cites a recent report which alleged an elderly hawker running a stall at the Changi Airport Terminal 4 food court passed away due to overwork. The elderly man had apparently applied to NTUC to shorten his operating hours when his workers go on leave but it was rejected. Not only that, NTUC had apparently also warned the man that he would have to pay a hefty fine of S$500 for each day that he closes his stall, according to the man’s relative who spoke to The Independent. To avoid the fine, the man worked over 18 hours a day – ultimately, that’s what his family believes led to his death.

On his Facebook post, Mr Lim used the term ‘karoshi’ – a Japanese terms for when a person dies from overwork.

This is a serious matter for hawkers in Singapore. It’s not only about making a living, but it’s also life or death at this point, especially with the average age of hawkers being around 50-60 years old.

The social enterprise model, while trying to be beneficial to customers, is throwing hawkers under the bus according to hawkers themselves. The NEA, which oversees hawker centres, is tasked with helping both customers and hawkers but it seems that they’re prioritising one over the other by dismissing the crucial perspective of the hawkers themselves.

When hawkers tell you the issues they’re facing with this new model, it seems only logical that you would listen to them and try to find the best solution. Instead, the NEA has decided to dismiss the personal experiences of hawkers as mere ‘anecdotes’ – having never run a hawker stall themselves, I wonder how they seem to know more about the stresses of the job than the hawkers.