The Government is open to any model of operating new hawker centres, as long as it is able to achieve the social objectives set out for these centres, Dr Amy Khor told the House.
These are: providing affordable food options, moderating food prices, ensuring that hawkers make a decent living, and building communities.
The Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources was responding to a follow-up question from Mr Liang Eng Hwa (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) who asked if the National Environment Agency (NEA) was open to other operating models.
But, Dr Khor said: "We need to note also that whatever model we may adopt, there will always be challenges even as there may be benefits. Whatever model we adopt, we will need to give it time to settle down."
The model of socially conscious enterprise hawker centres (SEHCs) is a good example, she added.
"It's really in its infancy. It's still evolving. And we always had the intention that we will continue to monitor, evaluate and refine and improve the model," she said.
She noted that the current model has resulted in "many positive outcomes" for both patrons as well as hawkers. "We don't want to undo those achievements, and we will see how we can better calibrate and make adjustments to the model."
MPs ASK: IS THERE ANOTHER WAY TO RUN HAWKER CENTRES?
LEE BEE WAH (Nee Soon GRC): What my residents have been asking is, why can't we take away all these layers? Why can't NEA themselves run the hawker centre?
LIANG ENG HWA (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC): Is the social enterprise model the only way to go for new hawker centres? Is NEA open to other models as well?
NMP WALTER THESEIRA: If hawkers are self-employed, how can they be compelled by social enterprises or by the Government to work certain hours or to meet other conditions of work?
"But as I've said, I think we're open to any model because the idea really is to benefit patrons, to benefit Singaporeans, to benefit hawkers," she added.
Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) had noted that many residents are asking what the definition of a "social enterprise" is, noticing that these are set up by big companies. "What is their motivation?" she asked. "Does this translate to lower cooked-food price?"
"What I understand is that hawkers are managed by the social enterprise hawker centre company and then NEA staff oversee the social enterprise company. What my residents have been asking is: Why can't we take away all these layers?" Ms Lee added.
Dr Khor said the phrase "social enterprise hawker centre" that the media has been using may be a bit of a misnomer. "We actually started by saying socially conscious operators," she said, adding that this refers to operators who know that if they tender for hawker centres and run them, there must be a social mission.
"We favour operators who actually offer lower rentals and... they cannot raise these rentals and operating cost through the term of the tenancy agreement," she said.
"There is also a requirement to plough back any operating surplus for social objectives," she added.
As for having a new model for hawker centres, she said it helped address such challenges as hawkers' ageing profile, manpower needs and patrons' evolving tastes.
Nominated MP Walter Theseira asked why hawkers, if they are self-employed, could be compelled by social enterprises or the Government to work certain hours. "The problem seems to be we are expecting the hawkers to bear some of the burdens of being an employee, but without the benefits of a guaranteed and stable income," he said.
Dr Khor said hawkers are small business entrepreneurs, and enter into agreements with operators.
"We're not compelling them. They actually enter into it voluntarily and knowingly," she added.
"Hawker centres are built to serve the community, and one of the needs... especially in newer housing estates, is to have access to food options for three key meals."
If they did not agree to such operating hours, she added, then the situation would be like that in some existing centres where stalls are closed or open only half a day. "It doesn't serve the needs of the community."