SINGAPORE - Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor outlined on Monday (Nov 19) 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 workgroup, 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 in 2019 for inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Meanwhile, the controversy at SEHCs prompted questions from 13 MPs on Monday, including Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC).
Replying, Dr Khor admitted it was difficult to get the SEHC model right from the start, but assured MPs the relevant ministries were 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.
The seven new ones are managed by five social-enterprise entities: Hawker Management by Koufu, Fei Siong Social Enterprise, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre+Hawkers and OTMH by Kopitiam.
These companies are required to reinvest half of their operating surplus for the social benefits of the hawkers centres. 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 almost 30 years to help stabilise cooked food prices against the emerging dominance of coffee shops and food courts.
Under the SEHC model, dishwashing is centralised and the tray-return system is automated. 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 work hours.
Several steps have been taken in the past weeks to address these problems.
Said Dr Khor: "We set some key parameters, let the market work, and when we get feedback, or issues are raised, we will move to address them swiftly and decisively, as we have done in the past month or so.
"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.
Dr Khor pointed out that contrary to popular opinion, the median rent of SEHC stalls is about $2,000 a month, and the rent is not linked to those of surrounding coffeeshops and foodcourts.
"They are nowhere near the rents at these 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 these centres are comparable, she noted.
Service and conservancy charges at SEHCs range from $110 to $350 a month, while those at hawker centres range from $130 to $450 a month.
Similarly, charges for table cleaning at SEHCs range from $350 to $550 monthly, while those at existing centres range from $200 to $830.
The NEA has said it will co-pay expenses for centralised dishwashing at SEHCs for two years: 50 per cent in 2019 and 30 per cent in 2020.
"We recognise that hawkers at the new centres may need some support in transition as they need time to build up their customer base," Dr Khor said. The subsidies in the initial years "will support them as they build up their clientele."
As for the second area of focus, with NEA re-balancing its soft-touch approach towards the operators and exercising greater oversight of hawkers' well-being, several new rules have been announced.
These include letting hawkers operate five days a week from Jan 1, 2019, and terminate 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.
Operators may impose damages and other charges on hawkers, but they will be no more than $50 a day for minor breaches and $100 a day for major ones.
SEHC operators will also bear all the legal fees related to the tenancy.
"NEA will continue to engage both hawkers and operators to address concerns in other areas," Dr Khor added, asking them to communicate their contracts in simple language to ensure potential hawkers understand the terms.
Citing Our Tampines Hub SEHC, she said the community had initially asked for a 24-hour hawker centre. But demand failed to materialise, so both the operator and hawkers will adjust the arrangement.
"With the changes made to operating hours, hawkers who do not wish to continue the 24-hour operations they had signed up for, can do so now," she added.
Dr Khor also said the NEA, as part of its ongoing review of the SEHC model, will look at the selection criteria for operators, what to leave to market forces and whether any other safeguards should be prescribed.
She also said that in a NEA review, operators have been found to be flexible.
They did not charge rent for the outstanding months when a contract is terminated prematurely, and agreed to waive legal fees for new tenancy contracts and renewals.
The final focus is for SEHC operators to set up structured feedback channels for hawkers. All have done so and have 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.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.