Newton Food Centre: Food touts less aggressive, but still around

While Newton Food Centre is as famous for its aggressive touts as its food, Ghim Moh Market and Food Centre has been besieged with pests of a different kind. The Straits Times finds out how the two centres are dealing with their problems.

SINGAPORE - The touts at Newton Food Centre are still around, despite repeated attempts by the authorities to clamp down on them.

What is different, though, is that they appear to be less aggressive than before.

When The Straits Times visited the centre during dinner time last Friday, at least seven touts, essentially hawker assistants to the seafood stalls there, were spotted standing around the outdoor seating area of the popular tourist haunt.

Armed with menus, they cajoled people into patronising the seafood stalls they were touting. They would usher willing diners to their seats and place a menu on the table to "reserve" them as their customers. As for those who waved them away or found their own seats, the touts would leave them alone and move on to their next targets.

This was in stark contrast to how touting was conducted previously - the touts would pull people to their stalls, or stare at those who declined to order from them. Touting at the 43-year-old food centre came under the spotlight last month, when regular diner Philip Foong wrote to The Straits Times Forum page about the problem.

"To ensure an adequate supply of seats for their customers, these touts would occupy the outdoor tables and prevent customers who refuse their 'help' from taking them," Mr Foong wrote. He also urged the National Environment Agency (NEA) to conduct more stringent checks at the food centre.

In reply to Mr Foong's letter, the NEA said that stern warnings had been given to four stalls for engaging in touting activities in the past three months.

Despite the less pushy behaviour of the touts these days, some diners still felt uncomfortable about it. Said administrative clerk Shirley Chong, 43: "They take us to the table, wipe the table and chairs, and we have no choice but to sit down. When they put the menu on the table, I feel pressured to order from them."

The touts said they have to be active in getting business because of the competition - of the 83 food stalls, about 30 sell seafood.

"It's not like we're robbing people, we're just doing business. If they don't want to order from us, we just take the menu away," said one of them, who wanted to be known only as Mr Liang. He said he gets a 10 per cent commission for each order.

Not everyone is unhappy about the touts' presence, though. Mr Ryan Cooper, 24, an Australian on a work trip here, said it can be difficult to find seats in the packed food centre. The construction supervisor was there earlier last week when NEA officers patrolled the food centre.

"It was the first time I came here and no one approached me. My friends and I wandered around looking for seats and felt quite lost," he said.

The NEA said it has stepped up efforts to curb touting at the food centre. The public can also help by not placing their orders for food and drinks through the touts, it added.

This article was first published on October 9, 2014.
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