The long existence of Sungei Road's "Thieves Market", spanning an astonishing eight decades, says something about the administrators tasked with keeping the streets free of obstruction, congestion, pollution, public nuisances, undesirable acts and petty crime. Red tape often forms in many cities around the adverse effect of kerbside sales on off-street businesses, regulation of the use of public spaces, registration of traders, fees leviable, or control of suspected contraband and booty. Peddlers at Sungei Road, however, were mostly tolerated and lightly regulated.
An ambiguous attitude towards such street vendors is evident in other places too. At one end of the spectrum, they are promoted for serving as an attraction by adding street colour and offering useful services. In Durban, South Africa, city planners make provisions for their activities, guided by an informal economy policy that has won acclaim. In Thailand, a few sites for peddlers have morphed into private markets that are well run and charge rent.
Those who think the Sungei Road flea market should be saved cite its historical roots, its mention in guides like Lonely Planet, and the means it provides for the mostly ageing peddlers to eke out a living. They have to move as an MRT station is slated to open there in 2017. Rationally, unlicensed hawking activity, more so a thieves market of sorts, has to take its chances in any city.
The alternative sites proposed by Sungei Road's traders have not been found suitable as these are zoned for parks and homes. They should persevere and offer other suggestions for the Urban Redevelopment Authority and National Environment Agency to consider. The market does offer some local charm that has been captured by the National Heritage Board. Its long-term survival will ultimately depend on how useful it remains to locals and visitors who rummage for "bargains" and oddities there.
This article was first published on August 10, 2014.
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