Time to end not-for-profit hawker centre experiment

The National Environment Agency's (NEA) policy innovation with privately managed "social enterprise" hawker centres is an experiment that should be abandoned (Teething problems with new hawker centre model; Oct 14).

The Government has experimented with providing free MRT train rides before weekday morning peak hours, partnering with foreign countries like China to set up industrial parks and working with financial institutions to use blockchain technology.

These efforts are commendable.

But all experiments must come to an end. The results must then be assessed with a clear focus on whether a policy innovation actually benefits Singaporeans.

If an experiment's outcome confirms that the policy innovation benefits Singaporeans, then the Government is justified in entrenching that policy change through legislation or other means.

On the other hand, if the experiment reveals that the proposed policy change will not benefit Singaporeans, or worse, has adverse effects, then the Government should abandon it.

The not-for-profit hawker centres are one such example.

It is clear that the policy has caused undue hardship for hawkers by shifting the weight of contractual obligations from the so-called social enterprises to the hawkers, and by binding them to extremely onerous and unfair contractual terms.

The 20 cent fee imposed on hawkers for tray returns is just one example of an onerous fee, among many others.

Far from attracting young Singaporeans to the hawker trade, many budding hawkers appear to have been put off by the high rents and fees.

Even more importantly, there seems to be no obvious benefits from having such private companies manage hawker centres rather than the NEA.

Arguably, some of these private companies do a worse job, judging from the complaints from hawkers themselves.

Perhaps some of these new hawker centres may appear to be more "hip" than older, government-managed hawker centres. But even this advantage is merely a matter of perception.

What Singaporeans want is affordable food in a clean and comfortable environment. What hawkers want is to earn a decent return from their efforts and investments.

The Government, as the original social entrepreneur, can provide that by building and managing low-cost hawker centres as a common space for all Singaporeans to gather.

Elvin Ong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2018, with the headline 'Time to end not-for-profit hawker centre experiment'. Print Edition | Subscribe