“Please preserve our public hawker centres” – Makansutra founder urges SMS Amy Khor in open letter

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Makansutra Founder KF Seetoh has sent an open letter to Senior Minister of State Dr Amy Khor, urging her and the Government to preserve Singapore’s public hawker centres. 

KF Seetoh is the founder of the long-running Makansutra food network which has produced heritage street food guides, international culinary tv shows and operated food markets over its 21-year history. Seetoh has also been lauded by international publications like the New York Times and CNN and was recognised as Singapore’s Food Ambassador by former President SR Nathan.

In August, Seetoh revealed shocking costs that hawkers have to pay at the new Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs) that the Government is initiating, on the Makansutra website. 

Then, earlier this month, Seetoh slammed labour-movement linked NTUC Enterprise over the proposed takeover of the Kopitiam chain of food centres. Indicating the the deal is a move by NTUC to monopolise and profiteer from the hawker industry, Seetoh urged the authorities to keep Kopitiam out of NTUC’s control.

In his open letter, that he published on the Makansutra website, Seetoh revealed more unfair practices by the private companies running the SEHCs and shared photos showing that hawkers are being made to pay hefty fees and penalties at the SEHCs.

In one example, Seetoh shares the shocking story of a hawker who is made to pay a hefty $2000 a month after he decides to vacate his stall at a social enterprise hawker centre to move to a food centre with better footfall until a new tenant moves in.

Seetoh argues that such practices that overly taxes hawkers will eventually take a toll on the consumer and kill hawker culture as Singaporeans know and love it.

Read Seetoh’s open letter to Dr Khor in full here:

Open Letter to Snr Minister of State Dr Amy Khor

Dear SMS Dr Amy Khor,

Please Preserve our Public Hawker Centres

Thank you so much for studying the situation on the unfair practices of the Social Enterprise Hawker Centre (SEHC) organisations. You now asked them to be transparent in their additional service fees and to keep it optional. But allow me to share that it is not about the transparency of the fees but the high overall operation fees in general, at such public owned and built hawker centres.

You also said the rental and fees of a SEHC are comparable to other private food courts and halls in Singapore but I should suggest that it instead be compared to the other 100 plus established NEA run public hawkers centres and coffeeshops (some of which are already run by NTUC Foodfare now). The difference is quite stark. Private food courts can charge and levy any amount they deem fit as it’s a private enterprise.

I thought I saw the worst in an East sited SEHC contract terms until a hawker from another SEHC shared their woes with me. This one takes the cake.

Pay Rent Till Next Tenant Signs Up

They operate a SEHC noodle stall managed by a famous local food court chain. After a year, they decided to give up their $4k a month (the usual basic rents and with service fees that more than double it) stall as they could not sustain the business because footfall began to freefall after opening.

To my horror, they are made to pay up the remaining years and months of rent and fees left in their contract, or till another tenant is found (to management’s satisfaction, see image). That’s a painful minimum of $2k a month until further notice.

This new hawker is relocating to a high footfall residential area private coffeeshop for about the same rent and operation fees that guarantees an existing crowd and diners every day with less operation control. They now have to pay up the monthly “penalty” fees in the SEHC and also for rents their new stall.

They are a start-up hawker fending for their family seeking help by running a public hawker centre stall with a so-called social enterprise model. But that’s not all.

“$2k a mth penalty clause after early closure, till they find a new replacement” – KF Seetoh [Photo: Makansutra]
20cts Per Tray Returned

I also note this SEHC has introduced a tray return for cashback system for customers (20cts each one they do so). The irony is- the hawkers are made to pay 20cts each time for each tray returned to their stall. I note from the hawker that the figure amounts to anything from $400 to $800 a month just on tray returns alone (which is over and above the cleaning and maintenance fees).

“20 cts per tray returned each time” – KF Seetoh [Photo: Makansutra]
Raise Fees Anytime and Binding.

Even more.. they send professionally and independently written lawyer contracts on any update in management terms and charge the hawkers for the contracts drafted. This is rather ridiculous. Landlords do not charge tenants for standard contract offer letters in market practices. Worse, they say there’s even a clause that allow landlord to raise service and monthly fees anytime with given notice and that it is binding.

“Increase fees anytime, “and it shall be binding”” – KF Seetoh [Photo: Makansutra]
Please Take Back Control of Public Hawker Centres, NEA.

I suggest the National Environment Agency (NEA) consider taking back control of the public owned hawker centres and SEHCs as these private companies are not totally clear and mindful as how they should be managed to public satisfaction, despite their best efforts. There are almost 30,000 hawker street food licenses in Singapore and only 6000 are sited in 114 public owned hawker centres.

I urge NEA to run these 6000 like they always had, effectively and with minimal fuss, using even a market rate bidding system with minimal control on service and operation.

The NEA are trained to have Singapore Civil Service obligations when they run it. The private operators don’t. These 114 public owned Hawker Centres are created for, and powered by the people, which makes it such a great culture for the other 24,000 private stalls to emulate. Even our PM sees this as Unesco Intangible Award worthy.

These revenue hungry private operators can rightly do their commercial rental and operation model, on a mutually agreed buyer-seller agreements in the privately owned coffeeshops, food halls and markets, canteens, food courts etc.. but please keep them away from our public hawker centres.

We have to preserve low operation cost so hawkers can comfortably offer cheaper meals for poorer customers in our midst who depend on it, preserve this food heritage and encourage a new breed of hawker to rise to the fore and address continuity and sustainability.

It’s a Not-For-Profit Operation

If NEA should continue to allow these SEHC to be run by the private sectors, then allow a public independent team/committee to check up that they deliver on their promises to help promote and make the hawker food culture viable, affordable and sustainable for even the future generations. It is run on a Not-For-Profit model after all.

I have suggested that this hawker write to you personally to share their struggles (and the likes of them) with you, so you can factor their concerns moving ahead as you craft even better policies for the public owned hawker centre operations in future.

Thank you for taking time to understand my concerns for this great food heritage of our nation. I will be happy to provide more feedback if you so require.

KF Seetoh
Founder, Makansutra

“Hawker pays legal fees for landlord’s tenancy agreements” – KF Seetoh [Photo: Makansutra]