Hawkers unsure of not-for-profit model

The Block 20 Ghim Moh Road market and food centre is one of four existing hawker centres – the others in Aljunied, West Coast Drive and New Upper Changi Road – that may come under not-for-profit management. The NEA this month called for proposals
The Block 20 Ghim Moh Road market and food centre is one of four existing hawker centres – the others in Aljunied, West Coast Drive and New Upper Changi Road – that may come under not-for-profit management. The NEA this month called for proposals from groups to manage the four centres. -- ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Some doubt social enterprise will have resources to run food centres well

A new government proposal to outsource the management of four existing hawker centres has left stallholders uncertain about their future.

Some of them told The Straits Times that they are unsure if they can afford new, higher rents, and they are also sceptical that a social enterprise will have the resources to run the centres.

They may bid for vacant stalls elsewhere if the new rents are too high, said some hawkers, while others are turned off by the proposal's requirement that they would have to seek the manager's approval to raise food prices.

Aljunied economical rice seller Song King Whatt, 57, said he made only slightly more than $10,000 in profits for the whole of last year. "I hope the new rent will not be more than $1,200 a month."

The four centres are in: Block 117 Aljunied Avenue 2; Block 20 Ghim Moh Road; Block 503 West Coast Drive; and Block 207 New Upper Changi Road, which will be replaced by a new centre in Block 208B nearby.

Leases on these centres are the first among 15 centres under the Stall Ownership Scheme to run out. The scheme was set up to let stallholders rent their stalls for 20 years for an upfront sum. Among them were first-generation hawkers who had been relocated off the streets in the 1970s.

The four centres have 70 to 229 stalls each, with some centres' stalls a mix between cooked food, market slab and lock-up stalls. They make up a fraction of the 107 markets and hawker centres here managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA).

This month, it called for proposals from groups to manage any number or all of the four centres on a not-for-profit basis, with handover dates projected from September to June next year.

It said this was in line with the 2012 recommendations of a government-appointed panel on new hawker centres, but added that the call was not a procurement process. The proposal deadline is the end of this month.

The not-for-profit model means each centre's operating surplus is shared among its stakeholders, such as the hawkers, manager and NEA, and used to create "social benefits", and cannot go to the manager's shareholders.

The managers would look for hawkers to take over vacant stalls and oversee food prices and food mix in the centres. They would also have to ensure affordable and hygienic food, jobs for Singaporeans and permanent residents, and community space for interaction.

The four centres' stall lease expiry will affect the hawkers in different ways. About 20 per cent are subsidised cooked food stallholders, which include the first-generation hawkers, according to NEA figures. They will be able to stay in the centres, but will have to start paying monthly subsidised rents of $160 to $320.

Another 10 per cent are lock-up and market stallholders who will have to pay subsidised monthly rents of $56 to $184.

The remaining 70 per cent - 37 per cent cooked food and 33 per cent market and lock-up stallholders - will have to pay market rents in order to stay. The median rents are $1,300 to $1,956 for cooked food stalls and $260 to $600 for market and lock-up stalls, said NEA.

Some of the hawkers currently rent their stalls to others. These renters will not be guaranteed stalls after the leases expire.

Porridge and dim sum seller Luo Zhuo Song, 64, said he bought his Aljunied stall's lease last August for $20,000 and is guaranteed a spot. "I want to continue to work here, but I don't know what my rent will be yet and what will happen if a manager takes over," he said.

Aside from rental concerns, the recent failure of Kampung at Simpang Bedok has turned many hawkers against NEA's proposal, said the Federation of Merchants' Associations (FMAS) president Yeo Hiang Meng.

Billed as Singapore's first hawker centre run by a social enterprise, Simpang Bedok officially opened last February but closed just eight months later amid financial difficulties.

But Mr Yeo said the FMAS supports the NEA's proposal, provided experienced managers are appointed. A private sector manager could negotiate better cleaning service contracts, lower prices for ingredients through bulk-buying, and would be able to introduce innovations such as wireless Internet services more efficiently than the Government, which would have to call tenders, he said.

zengkun@sph.com.sg

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