Pasar malam theme park to save night markets?

The Trade Fair Merchants' Association, made up of 150 pasar malam operators and stall owners, will raise $5 million on its own to fund the project. It also hopes to tap the tourist crowd.
The Trade Fair Merchants' Association, made up of 150 pasar malam operators and stall owners, will raise $5 million on its own to fund the project. It also hopes to tap the tourist crowd.PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Trade group wants to pitch this idea to the authorities as venues dwindle and costs go up

A plan to preserve the "pasar malam" culture in Singapore has raised the possibility of a new night market theme park, complete with roller coasters and a hotel.

Besides stalls selling traditional snacks such as kacang putih and tingtang candy, it could also include a beer garden. This idea by the Trade Fair Merchants' Association is an attempt to tackle the dwindling venues and rising rentals facing such markets.

"Open fields next to MRT stations are now used to build housing blocks and bus interchanges," said its president, Mr Alan Toh.

"For instance, from next year, the field next to Choa Chua Kang MRT station will be an interchange, too."

Over the past five years, this has seen a drop from 20 to 30 pasar malams a month to just 10 or 12.

  • $10k

    Current monthly rental cost of a food stall at a pasar malam in a popular location.

    $4k

    Monthly rental cost of a food stall at a pasar malam in a similar location five years ago.

Space issues have also driven up rentals, he said. "A 3m by 3m food stall can cost upwards of $10,000 a month. This is more expensive than at some coffeeshops. Five years ago, it would've been $4,000 at most."

That is why, at the association's 10th anniversary dinner last Thursday, he announced the idea of a permanent night market to be pitched to the authorities.

The association, made up of 150 pasar malam operators and stall owners, will raise $5 million on its own to fund the project.

"While our preferred location is Marina Bay, somewhere like Jurong East would do, too. We just want to have our own space that is accessible," said Mr Toh.

The plan is to offer stalls at rents which are "around 30 per cent lower" than usual. Some could be reserved for budding entrepreneurs fresh out of school. The association also hopes to tap the tourist crowd, by creating an attraction for them at night.

The idea was first conceived about eight years ago, when committee members made trips to various places such as Taiwan and Hong Kong to observe their night markets.

The association's concept, however, is different from those night markets, or the one in Bugis Street, with more features such as karaoke and live performances.

"If there's space, we can even build a hotel, complete with tour bus parking spaces," said Mr Toh.

He said there could be special light-ups and programmes during holidays such as Hari Raya, Deepavali and Christmas.

While stressing that the plan is still in its infancy, he hopes the authorities can help make it a reality. "The pasar malam is a crucial part of the Singapore identity. We need to preserve the spirit of the pasar malam."

Night market vendors hope the proposed attraction will draw a bigger crowd. A 55-year-old food and drinks vendor, Madam Chew S.Y., said rental costs had tripled over the past eight years.

"Ingredient costs have also risen," she said, but she has little room to increase prices since a night market is supposed to offer cheaper prices. There were also times when she was unable to cover her rental costs.

Tourism industry players, however, questioned if a permanent night market would be sustainable, as it could lose its novelty.

Dynasty Travel's director of marketing communications Alicia Seah wondered if such a night market would survive, highlighting how Taipei's famed Shihlin Night Market is not just driven by tourism, but also by a domestic market from other parts of Taiwan - which is 50 times bigger than Singapore.

She said: "Yes we have tourists, but they are periodic, too. Maybe the night market can be opened seasonally, like during Christmas."

Others said it also depended on how convenient it was to get to and what it sold.

Mr Ng Jau Kuen, 25, a sales executive who has been to night markets in Taiwan and Hong Kong, said: "There needs to be a wide variety of food and products."

Last year, visitor arrivals grew a modest 0.9 per cent to 15.2 million, while tourism receipts fell below expectations, dipping by 6.8 per cent to an estimated $22 billion.

Dr Michael Chiam, a Ngee Ann Polytechnic senior lecturer in tourism, suggested bringing in traditional hawkers such as those who make muah chee, bak chor mee or fishball noodles from scratch.

"The market will have to offer something different," he said.

"People won't travel all the way there for the same things that can be found in heartland malls."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Pasar malam theme park to save night markets?'. Print Edition | Subscribe