Singaporeans of my generation associate the NTUC with supermarket chain FairPrice, which, as the name suggests, was started to ensure that ordinary citizens do not have to pay over the odds for staples such as rice.
Should NTUC Enterprise acquire food centre operator Kopitiam, I hope it can exercise its not-insignificant economic muscle to scale up social enterprise via the latter.
For those of us who are unaware or have forgotten, getting a licence to sell cooked food was, for many, a dignified way out of poverty.
Many hawkers and canteen stallholders were often disadvantaged people who worked really hard to provide people with cheap food and, this way, feed their own families.
Families who might have, in another economy, become dependent on welfare benefits, have nurtured doctors, lawyers and other professionals through such hard and sweaty work.
This platform for alleviating poverty disappeared when the Housing Board started awarding coffee-shop leases to the highest bidder. I wonder if the same fate has befallen stallholders in school and university canteens.
The NTUC Enterprise can reverse this trend by setting aside a significant portion of future Kopitiam contracts for Singaporeans who are undergoing financial hardship to operate food stalls or provide related services in their food outlets at affordable rents. They could even be given interest-free loans to start up food stalls.
I have read of single parents who have to make the choice between working several jobs and caring for their children. Running a food (or dry goods) stall is a very good alternative. In many developing countries microloans to widows to start small businesses have helped them cut this Gordian knot.
Such help to these families will not happen if financial profit remains the sole objective. I urge the NTUC Enterprise to consider social enterprise as a way to combat poverty and unemployment.
Lee Siew Peng (Dr)