2 hawker centres to have price caps despite opposition

Two hawker centres will have price caps on some basic dishes, despite opposition from some hawkers who say the move will hurt stallholders' livelihoods.

NTUC Foodfare will manage a hawker centre in Bukit Panjang and Fei Siong Food Management started running one through a social enterprise subsidiary in Hougang on Aug 6. Both said they wanted price caps on dishes like chicken rice and fishball noodles to keep cooked food affordable for people.

While some hawkers have criticised the move, saying that it would lead to razor-thin profits, if any, for them and dissuade new entrants to the trade, the social enterprises said it would help them keep costs low, for example, by helping them to bulk-buy ingredients at lower cost.

When The Sunday Times visited coffee shops near the upcoming Bukit Panjang hawker centre last week, several stallholders, who have been selling dishes for years at prices that are the same or even lower than the proposed price caps, said they made a decent living.

For Bukit Panjang hawker centre, which is slated to open by the end of this year, NTUC Foodfare has set price ceilings for at least two basic dishes at each cooked food stall.

In setting the caps, it referred to Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) surveys of more than 500 hawker stalls islandwide, as well as its own survey of eateries near the centre. The Case survey in July last year had found that a plate of chicken rice costs $2 to $4. NTUC Foodfare found in June that the dish sold for $2.50 to $3 near the centre, so it proposed a $2.50 price cap for it.

The $2.70 price cap for fishball noodles was derived from the $2 to $5 price range for the dish across the island, and the $2.80 to $3.50 range closer to the centre.

When The Sunday Times visited two coffee shops next to the new centre at lunchtime, one stall was selling six types of duck, chicken and pork rice at $2.50 each to a long queue of customers.

The stallholder, who declined to be named, said he earns $2,000 to $3,000 in monthly profit. This is despite paying the salaries of three assistants and about $5,000 in rent and utility. Another stallholder, who wanted to be known only as Madam Toh, sells noodles like ban mian at $2.50 - the same as the proposed price cap for the dish at the hawker centre. She claimed monthly profits of $5,000 to $6,000.

At the Hougang hawker centre in Ci Yuan Community Club, stalls sell at least two food items at $2.80 or less. Of the 40 cooked-food stalls, 10 will operate round the clock.

Fei Siong managing director Tan Kim Siong estimated that bulk-purchasing could save the hawkers 5 to 10 per cent on cost of basic ingredients. Some hawkers have taken up such offers, but others are reluctant to do so, due to reasons such as longstanding ties with their suppliers.

Still, some hawkers and food industry experts believe the price caps should benefit only the needy. Mr K.F. Seetoh, founder of food firm Makansutra, said on Facebook: "Low-cost items, while right as rain, should be just for the... poorer. We should come up with a pass or food coupon system for them."

The National Environment Agency, which appointed NTUC Foodfare and Fei Siong to run the centres, said it welcomes any initiative they come up with to keep food prices affordable. A spokesman said: "NEA believes there should be flexibility and variety in the way managing agents can offer affordable meals, while giving their stallholders the opportunity to make a decent living."

zengkun@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on August 16, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.