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Donald Low takes on Lim Biow Chuan, questions “why should hawkers have to bear the burden of keeping the hawker centres vibrant?”




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Former Associate Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), wrote a much shared post on Facebook in response to Member of Parliament (MP) for Mountbatten Single-Member Constituency (SMC) ’s remarks on the issues pertaining to Old Airport Road Food Centre.

Yesterday, when netizen Gary Ho questioned the state of affairs and the handover-process of the Old Airport Road Food Centre to its new management NTUC Foodfare, he asked the following questions:

“How can you make sign a legal document with no translation provided???”

“Why are they made to insure the hawker centre??”

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“I know costs have risen but is this profiteering? If the previous contractor could do it at $300+, why the almost doubling of charges?”

In response, Mr Lim wrote a Facebook post of his own stating that Ho’s allegations were untrue and the hawkers were not made to work late into the night.


To respond to Ho, Mr Lim visited the food centre himself and said, “As far as I know from my interaction with the hawkers, there was no such requirement. Thus, I spoke to a few of the hawkers and visited the food centre at 10.30pm”.

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Yesterday, Donald Low wrote a Facebook post raising questions of his own pertaining to the entirety of the hawker issue, and responding to points brought up by Mr Lim.

He started his post by addressing the issue of the number of hours that hawker stalls had to be open. “First, why should the hawkers at SEHCs have minimum opening hours set for them? The issue is not whether eight or twelve hours is reasonable or not. It’s why there should even be minimum opening hours”, he said.

Continuing, he added, “What sort of Stalinist economy are these SEHCs running? And if the hawker chooses to operate his stall for just a few hours a day, presumably it’s because he’s calculated that his marginal cost (of keeping his stall open for an additional hour) exceeds the marginal income he would earn. Why would Foodfare or any SEHC operator presume that they know the hawker’s business better by insisting that the hawker extend his opening hours?”

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Another issue he raised: “Second, in many of NEA’s public statements, there’s a reference to how we should keep our hawker centres vibrant. The MP also alluded to this in his original post. But why should hawkers have to bear the burden of keeping the hawker centres vibrant?”

Mr Low expressed that he took issue with how hawkers were set minimum hours to stay open so as to ensure the vibrancy of the hawker centre, instead of being paid to stay open late.

He continued, “The vibrancy argument is also unethical because it instrumentalizes hawkers. It treats them as a means to an ends–whether the ends is that of vibrancy, or UNESCO world heritage status, or whatever national goal they are mobilised to serve–instead of treating them as ends in themselves”.

Mr Low then said that the goals of the National Environment Agency (NEA) were to have affordable hawker food, have a profitble industry and minimise government subsidies necessary. However, he added that only two of the three could happen at any one time.

He explained, “The reason SEHCs are a terrible idea is that it was based on the quite misguided idea that there was a business model out there that would allow for all three goals to be achieved simultaneously. As we are now finding out, what is sacrificed in SEHCs is the profitability of the hawkers. This is why the hawkers there have to work longer hours, but there is clearly a limit to that”.

Mr Low’s post was very well received, with many agreeing with his thorough explanation of the situation at hand.



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