In yet another move to address hawkers' concerns on the way not-for-profit hawker centres are run, Dr Amy Khor said she has asked all social enterprise operators to form feedback groups in the centres they manage.
"The operators will meet the hawkers' feedback groups on a regular basis to discuss concerns and issues so that these can be addressed quickly," Dr Khor, who is Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, posted on her Facebook page yesterday.
"The National Environment Agency (NEA) will also actively engage these feedback groups to better understand ground issues, and facilitate timely responses. I am glad to share that the operators have welcomed this idea."
This comes a week after she shared how the NEA is doing a "stock take" of the social enterprise model and reviewing contractual agreements - some of which have come under scrutiny.
"We will give an update once the review has been done," she added yesterday.
Earlier in the day, entrepreneur Elim Chew, who had chaired the Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel that in 2012 first recommended the idea of social enterprises operating hawker centres on a not-for-profit basis, spoke to the media.
The 52-year-old said the upcoming "stock take" should address the rental and extra costs that hawkers get saddled with, and how operators can help these hawkers do better.
Not-for-profit hawker centres came under the spotlight in late August when food critic and Makansutra founder K.F. Seetoh claimed they were being run like "a hard-core commercial foodcourt management system".
He claimed that rents at these centres were higher than the norm, as hawkers had to pay for a variety of services, including dish washing and tray returns.
Currently, seven out of 114 hawker centres are new centres managed by private social enterprises and cooperatives such as Fei Siong Social Enterprise, Timbre+Hawkers, NTUC Foodfare, Hawker Management by Koufu and OTMH by Kopitiam.
Ms Chew said yesterday: "Every cost must lead to a benefit to consumers and hawkers... and for everyone up the chain and down the chain as well."
She also discussed the thinking behind the suggestion of running new hawker centres on a not-for-profit model, admitting that the way it is currently run needs "tweaking".
She explained that the model was proposed because the panel envisioned hawker centres as a community space where residents from all walks of life can interact freely, and was thinking of ways to make them "a better place".
Following reports of hawkers reselling their leases or subletting their stalls, the panel also wanted hawker centres to be run in a way that could benefit all Singaporeans, hence the recommendation that the centres be managed by social enterprises.
Asked if the current situation reflects the panel's vision, Ms Chew said some of the new hawker centres, such as Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre & Market, Yishun Park Hawker Centre and Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre, have well-planned spaces.
For example, she noted, the second level of Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre has a "hipster" hawker concept, which would help attract young hawkers.
She said: "When I went to Pasir Ris, I said, wow, this is what we hoped to have."
She also addressed claims that some operators are "profiteering" from the new hawker centres.
She clarified: "The phrase 'not-for-profit' does not mean the operators make no profits.
"It means that they make 'sustainable profits', which should be ploughed back into the hawker centre - whether by making the place better or bringing in programmes."
"Ultimately, it comes down to profit and loss," she added. "So, how can we get this right?"
Asked about an online petition - which has gathered more than 300 signatories - calling on NEA to abolish the new model and run the hawker centres itself, she replied: "Then we go back to the old model, where someone can sublet their stall to other people, and (we might) have a foreigner cooking nasi padang that isn't like nasi padang. What then?"
Asked whether there should be a deadline for the issues to be solved, Ms Chew said: "You can't fix (a deadline). A hawker centre is quite a complicated thing... It is like raising a child."
But she added that "we must do it as fast as we can" so that the issues hawkers face can be addressed.