WP clears up ceiling cleaning dispute, wins over hawkers

Mr Chan Kheng Heng, chairman of Block 511 Merchant Association, who had represented the stallholders in meetings with AHPETC to resolve the issue, said the meetings often ended in a stalemate, and even their MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap could not he
Mr Chan Kheng Heng, chairman of Block 511 Merchant Association, who had represented the stallholders in meetings with AHPETC to resolve the issue, said the meetings often ended in a stalemate, and even their MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap could not help them.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Tensions between hawkers at two food centres in Aljunied GRC and the town council soared two years ago over overpayment for the cleaning of ceilings.

The hawkers of the two centres at blocks 511 and 538 in Bedok North Street 3 in Aljunied's Kaki Buki ward accused the Workers' Party (WP)-run town council of being "unreasonable" and making "no effort" to resolve the conflict. But two years on, the same group of some 12 stallholders is all praise for Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council or AHPETC, which they now say has "done a great job in cleaning the two food centres".

The disagreement over whether stallholders should have to foot part of the bill for power washing the ceilings and ceiling fixtures began in May 2013.

That was when a regular twice-a-year cleaning of the market and food centre at Block 538 had been scheduled, requiring stallholders to vacate the premises for five days. Stallholders had been upset when they had returned to find the ceiling and exhaust ducts not cleaned.

As cleaning for Block 511 had been scheduled for much later, the hawkers there had then decided to seek an assurance from AHPETC that cleaning of the ceiling would be carried out as scheduled and without extra cost.

Instead, they were told by AHPETC to pay extra for such work as its contracted cleaners did not cover areas that were more than 2.5m from the ground.

AHPETC later explained that the high areas of Block 538 were not cleaned because its "cleaners could only clean the reachable areas and not the ceiling and exhaust ducts".

Stallholders said they were told by AHPETC that they had to pay for the scaffolding to be erected for the washing, when they never had to in the past.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) then stepped in and served a formal notice to AHPETC to remind the town council of its legal obligations to conduct thorough cleaning of food centres, including high areas, without imposing extra charges on the hawkers.

The row was raised in Parliament by the People's Action Party (PAP) MPs as evidence of the WP's incompetence and led to a fiery exchange.

The PAP was accused of politicising the incident and the NEA was accused of taking sides in the matter.

Ms Sylvia Lim, chairman of AHPETC, accused the NEA of being "politically motivated to tarnish the image" of her council and insisted that the AHPETC staff never approached stallholders to pay extra charges for cleaning.

Political observers anticipated that the incident would hurt WP's case that there was no downside to being in a GRC run by an opposition town council. At the national level, the incident also raised critical issues of the integrity of the political parties involved and civil service credibility.

So, how did AHPETC and the WP turn the hawkers of Bedok from foes to friends?

Mr Chan Kheng Heng, 57, chairman of Block 511 Merchant Association who had represented the stallholders in meetings with AHPETC to resolve the issue, recalls: "We fought very hard to try to tell the town council that we never had to pay extra costs in the past. We felt it was unfair to make us bear the cost of putting up the scaffolding for their cleaners."

Mr Chan, who has been operating a stall at Block 511 for five years, says initially, the meetings with AHPETC - which were also attended by NEA officers - often ended in a stalemate. Even their MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, who they had raised their concerns with, could not help them.

After the issue was raised in Parliament, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan visited both food centres. WP chief Low Thia Khiang followed suit.

Mr Chan says: "For two consecutive nights, Mr Low visited Block 511 food centre and, on the third night, he told me 'we will clean the food centre, you don't have to pay'.

"The date was fixed subsequently and the cleaning was done. After the cleaning, Mr Low came down again to inspect."

In the past, stallholders had to pay between $100 and $140 for canvas covers to drape over their stalls during the clean-up. But after the saga, not only did AHPETC cleaners clean the ceilings, they also provided the canvas to cover the stalls, says noodle stallholder Tan Poh Chye, 58, who has been at Block 511 for more than 20 years.

So, in this dispute at least, veteran WP leader, Mr Low, appears to have saved the day for his party.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'WP clears up ceiling cleaning dispute, wins over hawkers'. Print Edition | Subscribe