New generation of HDB merchants wooed with proposals including short-term rent-free space

Shophouses under an HDB block. The offer of free business space in Ang Mo Kio is part of a nation-wide plan to drive more business into neighbourhood shops.
Shophouses under an HDB block. The offer of free business space in Ang Mo Kio is part of a nation-wide plan to drive more business into neighbourhood shops.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In a few months, budding entrepreneurs can set up shop in the heartlands - for free.

For a start, they can use the community plaza space in Ang Mo Kio for up to a week without paying rent.

The pilot project by the Ang Mo Kio Constituency Merchants Association is part of a nation-wide plan to get younger shoppers to venture into the heartlands, and rejuvenate ailing neighbourhood shops battered by competition from online stores and suburban malls.

The hope is also to nurture the next generation of heartland businessmen - and in turn have them inject fresh ideas into the community.

Details are still being worked out.

Said the association's president Lim Kien Huat: "We need the next generation to come in here, set up businesses and shop here, so that current merchants can learn from them."

If successful, the proposal is likely to be replicated in other parts of Singapore.

For some time now, businesses in Housing Board (HDB) estates have been hard hit by competition from online stores and suburban malls.

In the last couple of years, business owners - such as those selling clothes, daily necessities or even facial services - have taken a hit of about 20 to 30 per cent, estimates Federation of Merchants' Association (FMAS) president Yeo Hiang Meng.

It comes in the wake of a new survey of 1,000 residents in Bedok and Ang Mo Kio, conducted by FMAS between January and July, focusing on how HDB businesses can stay relevant.

To that end, FMAS - which represents merchants in neighbourhood centres - is looking at three areas of improvement, it announced at a dinner on Wednesday (Sept 27).

First, it will encourage small businesses to adopt technology such as cashless payments to boost sales.

Second, it will work with grassroots organisations and town councils to bring in different activities, performances and programmes to draw the crowd.

Third, it will also share secretariat support services with the merchant associations under its wing, to relieve them of manpower challenges and reduce costs.

Mr Yeo noted: "A lot of our small and medium-sized enterprises are not on social media and do things the same way they did 20 years ago. The products they sell aren't unique. We must change that."

He noted that while it would take time for older merchants to familiarise themselves with technology, there are simple solutions to improve the situation in the meantime.

For example, there can be more prominent signage to point new visitors towards neighbourhood shops, and not just malls which tend to occupy sites near MRT stations.

Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung, who is also chairman of the Chinese Community Liaison Group, told merchants at the dinner that while the government will continue to create more jobs, this also requires the collaboration of investors and employers.

He said in Mandarin: "When the government makes policy, it cannot do so behind closed doors. Feedback is important."

He added that neighbourhood shops continue to play an important part in maintaining social harmony, especially amidst heightened racial tensions around the world.