Keep my chye tow kueh in Ghim Moh

There are hawker centres you go to for a quick meal and then vamoose, and there are those where you linger to people-watch and to sample mouth-watering fare.

Ghim Moh Market and Food Centre at Block 20 Ghim Moh Road is one of the latter.

It was my stomping ground where I lunched during my days at a junior college a short walk away. On weekends, my family braved the crowds for meals.

On a recent visit, I was struck by the easy camaraderie of folks there.

At Thye Hong fishball noodle stall, a regular customer with a standing order got a "scolding" from the stallholder because she wanted something different that day.

"You are so disorganised," he told her in Mandarin, in mock anger and smiling the whole time.

"Long time no see," said a man nursing a cup of coffee, to a friend.

Three women sat in companionable silence while picking the tails off a big pile of bean sprouts. At the next table, a group of women with fancy handbags were in deep conversation.

At Ghim Moh Chwee Kueh, I could not resist snapping a photo of a tall pile of steamed rice cakes in metal cups, laid out on large round boards stacked on top of one another.

The friendly uncle at the stall smiled and said: "You don't often see this, do you?"

A long-time Ghim Moh resident was not surprised when I recounted my experience there.

"Oh, the stallholders keep an eye on each other's kids too," he said.

Camaraderie at risk

But all that will soon disappear. This is because the 20-year leases for the stalls will be expiring in May next year, and there is no certainty all the hawkers can continue to run their stalls at the same centre.

Between 1994 and 1997, the Government sold off stalls in markets and food centres under the Stall Ownership Scheme to let hawkers own their stalls to give them incentives to improve their service.

Close to 2,000 stalls in 15 centres were sold at between $26,600 and $141,000 each, depending on the location of the stalls and their size.

The 15 centres formed only a small fraction of the total 107 government-owned markets and hawker centres.

But most were established centres with many popular stalls, including the Ghim Moh food centre. Others included Bedok Food Centre in New Upper Changi Road; Chomp Chomp in Serangoon Garden; Golden Mile Food Centre in Beach Road and Pasir Panjang Food Centre.

Some owners bought the stalls only to sell them off, pocketing tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Some bought extra stalls and rented them out.

The scheme stopped in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis hit and economic conditions became uncertain.

As the stalls were sold on 20-year leases, they will start expiring between next year and 2017. The centres will also be refurbished.

Rent, buy or retire?

But what happens to the hawkers and their stalls after that?

So far, all that the National Environment Agency (NEA) has said is that the leases will revert to the Government.

But will NEA then put up the other stalls for rent or purchase?

If for rent, will they be offered to the highest bidder? Or will there be other criteria?

Will NEA let out each stall by itself, or bundle the stalls together and tender them out as a centre?

There is no official word from NEA or its parent ministry, the Environment Ministry, on these issues.

NEA has assured current stall owners that they will be allowed to take up a stall at the refurbished centre after their ownership leases expire. But they can only rent, not buy a stall. And no one can tell them how much the rent will be.

The result: lots of uncertainty for hawkers, who can't plan for their business properly.

Meanwhile, some hawkers are taking things into their own hands. At Ghim Moh market, The Sunday Times reported on Aug 18, stalls are changing hands at prices of $50,000 to $100,000. Buyers are willing to pay for the certainty of being able to operate at the same location when the centre is refurbished.

Mr Philip Wong, 58, who runs Soyfresh, a soya bean milk stall and is the spokesman for the Ghim Moh Shop & Merchant Association, expects more stalls to change hands. Just two months ago, he paid $60,000 to buy over the stall he had been renting, to secure a place in the new centre.

But for hawkers who rent and are unable to buy a stall to secure their business, the future is uncertain.

At least three popular stalls - Heavens, which sells putu mayam; Lian He Chye Tow Kway, which sells black and white fried carrot cake; and 88 Chicken Rice - are undecided about whether they can or want to continue their business at Ghim Moh.

Ghim Moh residents and regular patrons at the centre too are anxious about what is going to happen to this important neighbourhood institution.

More certainty

Is there any way to address these concerns?

Well, earlier this year, the National Environment Agency in charge of hawker centres said it was considering a proposal by the Federation of Merchants' Associations to run seven hawker centres, including the one in Ghim Moh, as social enterprises when the leases run out.

Under the arrangement, the federation would register cooperatives to run the hawker centres and charge lower rents compared to commercially run food centres.

There would be bulk buying of ingredients to cut cost, and profits would go back to hawkers, who would keep prices stable.

NEA has not said publicly if it will take up the proposal.

Another option is to give the owners a chance to buy their stalls with fresh 20-year leases, at prices that take into account the refurbishment cost. Stall owners will then have the option to continue their businesses or transfer ownership to their children.

Neither solution is perfect. But they give some certainty to stallholders, especially those who now rent their stalls and want to continue doing business in the same place. It is one way of ensuring that the hawker trade continues.

The dilemma faced by Ghim Moh hawkers and residents is shared by those at the other 14 centres with leases expiring in the next four years.

At these centres, residents have built rapport with hawkers and market stallholders. Many have exceptional food stalls that add vibrancy to the Republic's growing reputation as a street-food paradise.

It is in Singapore's interest to preserve these relationships, and prevent these stalls from scattering to different centres.

In the past, questions have been asked about what would anchor Singaporeans to Singapore.

Perhaps the answer is a simple one. In a city where change happens in a heartbeat, it is reassuring to be able to head to the neighbourhood market and hawker centre in shorts and flip-flops and join a neighbour for a cup of coffee.

It is reassuring to shop in a wet market where stallholders know what you want before you ask for it.

And it is bliss to order the chwee kueh you have eaten for 30 years with every assurance that it will be just as you remember it.

A little certainty in an uncertain world cannot be a bad thing.

Food and relationships anchor people to their community. NEA should work with the hawker associations and stallholders to preserve these neighbourhood hubs.

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