Hawker centre cleaning issue a "completely unnecessary distraction": Dr Balakrishnan

The ongoing dispute over hawker centre cleaning is a "completely unnecessary distraction" caused by a Workers' Party-run town council and its managing agent, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said on Sunday.

"All town councils have always done routine spring-cleaning of hawker centres. There is no excuse for the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council to delay the current cleaning programme," he said in a strongly-worded media statement.

"The safety of the public must remain our paramount concern."

The National Environment Agency's (NEA) civil servants, he added, are "duty bound to protect public hygiene and to ensure that hawkers are treated fairly".

"It is arrogant and wrong of (AHPETC chairman) Ms Sylvia Lim to make a political attack on NEA officers for simply doing their duty and for protecting the hawkers. I ask AHPETC to cooperate with NEA, consult closely with the hawkers and fulfill its obligations."

On Friday, Ms Lim had said the NEA was "politically motivated" to tarnish her town council's image.

The dispute centres around hawkers at two Bedok markets claiming that the AHPETC told them they would have to pay extra for scaffolding to be erected for scheduled clean-ups, though they never had to previously.

In his statement, Dr Balakrishnan also called the hawkers "honest, hardworking people just trying to make a living".

There was no reason to charge them more for cleaning the ceiling, he said, and no reason to disrupt their business.

He added: "The hawkers have been consistent and truthful throughout this entire episode. Either (AHPETC vice-chairman) Mr Pritam Singh or the hawkers are telling the truth. It is obvious that the hawkers are speaking the truth."