NEA explains reason for 'archaic' hawker rule

A day after Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan ordered a hawker-licensing rule to be scrapped, the National Environment Agency (NEA) came out to explain how it applies the rule.

The NEA said on Tuesday that the reference to "restaurant-type dishes" in the rule is specifically directed at "zhi char" dishes.

The preparation of such dishes often involves heavy cooking, so these stalls are required to have adequate cooker hoods and flues to deal with smoke and fumes.

Also, they must have the space to prepare and refrigerate the various ingredients they need.

"Hence the licence condition required stallholders selling 'zhi char' dishes to seek NEA's approval, so that these operational requirements are addressed upfront," said its spokesman, in response to media queries.

Zhi char refers to cooked-to-order, home-style Chinese dishes.

Hawker stalls that sell cooked food or Western-type food do not appear to be governed by the rule, which Dr Balakrishnan had said on Monday was "archaic".

He also said in a Facebook post that he would order the NEA to scrap it immediately.

The NEA replied to that on Tuesday, saying that as most upgraded hawker centres have exhaust systems and higher-capacity electrical power, it will be updating the licence requirements.

It did not give figures, however, on how many stalls are affected by the rule, which had been criticised by hawker Daniel Goh.

Mr Goh, who runs craft beer stall The Good Beer Company in Chinatown, said in a Facebook post that the rule was unclear, "onerous" and "restricting innovation". His post caught the attention of Dr Balakrishnan.

Following the NEA's explanation, Mr Goh told The Straits Times on Tuesday: "The explanation is totally plausible. Of course, it does not explain why no one had looked at it for the past couple of decades."

First-generation hawkers interviewed said they were aware of the rule.

Said Mr Teng Kiong Seng, 70, who sells peanut pancakes at Tanglin Halt Market: "You had to sell only one type of thing at one location, and had to apply separately to sell other things. It was easier for the authorities to oversee and control."

This rule at hawker centres in the early years was for public health reasons, he added. "If something were to happen, like a bout of food poisoning, we had to be held accountable."

Mr Lee Sah Bah, 64, who has been selling chwee kueh at Ghim Moh Market for more than 30 years, agreed. "Zhi char is smokier," he said.

The rule may refer to zhi char stalls, but its vague wording did not affect chef Kenneth Lin, 33, when he set up his French eatery La Cuisson in a Queen Street coffee shop, then at a Holland Drive hawker centre.

Mr Lin, who now runs La Cuisson as a Prinsep Street restaurant, said: "When I applied for the licence for the stall, I told them 'Western food'."

He added: "Heavy cooking like char kway teow probably generated more smoke than us."

But retiree Steven Lee, 58, is concerned that the scrapping of the rule would lead to higher prices.

"Typically, hawker stalls are meant for the sale of simple and cheap food."

But he fears that with the scrapping of the rule, "some entrepreneur-types who are being creative" would introduce restaurant-type food which, he added, would be relatively more expensive.

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