We agree with Mr Elvin Ong and Mr Goh Boon Kai that hawker centres are to provide affordable food and a means to make a decent livelihood for hawkers (Time to end not-for-profit hawker centre experiment; Too many additional charges in new hawker centre model; both Oct 16).
Our hawkers have a median age of 60 years, and new entrants are needed to ensure sustainability of the trade.
As the hawker trade faces renewal challenges, extensive consultations were carried out with a wide range of stakeholders.
The Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel recommended that new hawker centres operate on a not-for-profit basis by social enterprises or cooperatives.
Such operators would leverage their expertise in F&B and lease management, and introduce new ideas to achieve the social mission of hawker centres.
For the model to work, the operators have some flexibility to employ different business strategies, with the Government setting certain key parameters, such as control on food prices and costs charged to stallholders.
Hence, three years ago, the National Environment Agency started piloting the model by appointing socially-conscious enterprises to manage the first two new hawker centres.
There are seven such hawker centres now, out of 114. The operators are to ensure affordable food, high standards of cleanliness, vibrancy, and introduce productivity measures to help hawkers cope with manpower constraints.
As Mr Ong stated in his letter, "What Singaporeans want is affordable food in a clean and comfortable environment". These objectives have been largely met in the new hawker centres.
The operators have also introduced measures that benefit stallholders and patrons, such as shuttle services, family-friendly weekend activities, offers for senior citizens, and "hawker-preneurship" programmes for new hawkers.
Recent discussions have centred on the cost and contractual terms of stallholders. But a key challenge also is long hours and hard work.
The operators overcome this through centralised productivity measures, and e-payment services.
This management model is not perfect, and NEA will take action against errant operators. Its implementation is at its early stage, and needs time to evolve.
NEA will continue to take in feedback and work with the operators to sustain the hawker trade and culture.
Ivy Ong (Ms)
Director, Hawker Centres Division
National Environment Agency