Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor yesterday outlined three areas her ministry would focus on in the coming months, to improve the socially conscious enterprise hawker centre (SEHC) model implemented at seven new hawker centres.
These are: give better support to the stallholders to manage costs, have greater oversight by regulator the National Environment Agency (NEA) to safeguard hawkers' well-being, and have structured channels set up by the SEHC operators for hawkers to give feedback.
Dr Khor also said in Parliament that a ground-up work group, comprising hawkers and other experts, will be set up soon to look at how to support newcomers to the trade and sustain Singapore's hawker culture.
It is a treasured culture that Singapore plans to nominate next year for inscription on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Meanwhile, the controversy at SEHCs prompted questions from 13 MPs yesterday, including Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC).
Replying, Dr Khor admitted it is difficult to get the SEHC model right from the start, but assured MPs the relevant ministries are working on fixing the issues.
She called for understanding as she explained the issues that had erupted in recent months.
"As with any trial, it is difficult to get the SEHC model right from the start, especially since we have not built new hawker centres for almost 30 years, " she said.
There are seven new hawker centres managed by five social-enterprise entities: Hawker Management by Koufu, Fei Siong Social Enterprise, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre+Hawkers and OTMH by Kopitiam.
The Housing Board and NEA oversee most of Singapore's other hawker centres.
The Government began building hawker centres in 2011 after a hiatus of nearly 30 years to help stabilise cooked food prices against the emerging dominance of coffee shops and foodcourts.
Under the SEHC model, dishwashing is centralised and an automated tray-return system has been introduced. These features are to overcome manpower shortages and help ensure a cleaner environment. But problems arose, with some hawkers alleging high rents, exorbitant dishwashing costs, and long working hours.
Several steps have been taken in the past weeks to address these problems.
Said Dr Khor: "We are not done with the stock-take of the model, and will continue to refine it to better serve Singaporeans."
To help ease costs for hawkers, measures are in place "to ensure rents are fair and not speculative", she said.
She noted that contrary to popular opinion, the median rent of SEHC stalls is about $2,000 a month. "They are nowhere near the rents at private F&B outlets, which can range from $4,000 to $13,000 a month before other operating costs," she said. "As for existing hawker centres, no stallholder is paying astronomical rentals."
Also, SEHC operators are not allowed to raise rents or operating costs during the tenancy period.
In fact, excluding rent, operating costs at both such centres are comparable, she noted.
Service and conservancy charges at SEHCs range from $110 to $350 a month, while those at existing hawker centres range from $130 to $450 a month.
Similarly, charges for table cleaning at SEHCs range from $300 to $550 monthly, while those at existing centres are from $200 to $830.
As for the second area of focus, several new rules have been announced as the NEA rebalances its soft-touch approach towards operators to exercise greater oversight of hawkers' well-being.
These include letting hawkers operate five days a week from Jan 1 next year and terminating their tenancies with no more than two months' notice to the operators.
Security deposits held by the operator will be no more than two months' rent and they will bear all the legal fees related to the tenancy.
The final focus is for SEHC operators to set up structured feedback channels for hawkers. All have done so and held at least one meeting with their stallholders.
"I am hopeful that such structured and regular meetings will help encourage communication, resolve day-to-day issues, and reduce misunderstandings," she said.