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Ex-WP NCMP who asked Govt to monitor SEHC rentals and fees closely years ago claims assurances to do so were “not followed up on”

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Former Workers’ Party (WP) Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Yee Jenn Jong claimed yesterday that the Government’s promises to him years ago, that it will closely monitor the practices of the social enterprises running hawker centres, were “not followed up on”.

Taking to Facebook, the WP politician highlighted that he brought up his concerns that social enterprises who be given “too much of a freehand to do as they wish” when the Social Enterprise Hawker Centre (SEHC) model was brought up in Parliament, around 2012.

Yee – who had been a non-constituency parliamentarian then, serving in the post from 2011 to 2015 – said that he was concerned when the SEHC model was first mooted since “history has shown in other industries here that social enterprises behave no differently from profit-driven companies. They exist to make surpluses (‘profit’ in a different name) and when they grow big, they will tend to squeeze the hawkers, who will then put increases in cost to consumers.”

Noting that such practices may be more detrimental in the hawker industry as compared to the commercial space, the opposition politician explained on Facebook: “Companies can do as they wish if this is a commercial space, but hawker centres are built with public monies on highly desirable locations and are meant to be providing public goods – i.e. to provide affordable food to the masses.”

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Revealing that the Government assured him that the practices of the social enterprises – especially the practices concerning rental and other fees – will be tightly monitored, Yee asserted that these promises were not fulfilled and lamented the way SEHCs have degenerated today.

In recent weeks, hawkers have complained that they are forced to contend with hefty costs under the management of social enterprises. Multiple reports showed that hawkers in SEHCs were made to pray for trays customers returned, for a bizarre coin-changing service, penalties for closures, and even insurance for the public area outside their stalls.

The WP member wrote: “It is sad that SEHC has degenerated into such a state and ironical too even as we are embarking on getting our hawker culture admitted into UNESCO World Heritage.”

Yee pointed out that while he is not against the SEHC model per se, “having blind faith that they will look after the welfare of hawkers is wrong”. Pointing out that strict monitoring is crucial since these hawker centres are publicly funded, Yee explained:

“When social enterprises become operators of a very large market share of hawker spaces, they will inevitably become rent seeking. NEA cannot just say that hawkers have read and signed the contracts.
“What choices do hawkers have if such a large market share of hawker spaces are in SEHC, and most hawkers do not understand contract law and business.
“Now we have added more cost overheads to hawkers, controlled their freedom (in cases forcing longer work hours) and with questionable benefits over the previous model of allocating stall places.”

Noting that it is not too late to change, Yee suggested that Singapore may have been taken in by the perception that such social enterprises may be benevolent to hawkers “just because there is a ‘social’ in their name.”

Read his post in full here:

https://www.facebook.com/yeejj.wp/posts/1988887284512369

In case you cannot read the above:

“A good history of SEHC and the problems. When this issue was first raised in parliament before the start of the project, my chief concern then was that we will give social enterprises too much of a freehand to do as they wish. History has shown in other industries here that social enterprises behave no differently from profit-driven companies. They exist to make surpluses (‘profit’ in a different name) and when they grow big, they will tend to squeeze the hawkers, who will then put increases in cost to consumers. Companies can do as they wish if this is a commercial space, but hawker centres are built with public monies on highly desirable locations and are meant to be providing public goods – i.e. to provide affordable food to the masses.

“Hence, I had asked the then-Minister for assurances that there will be tight monitoring of the practices of these social enterprises, especially when it comes to the way they charge rentals and other fees. Assurances were given but nfortunately not followed up on. It is sad that SEHC has degenerated into such a state and ironical too even as we are embarking on getting our hawker culture admitted into UNESCO World Heritage.

“I am not against letting social enterprises run hawker centres but having blind faith that they will look after the welfare of hawkers is wrong. These are publicly funded centres and there has to be much better control. When social enterprises become operators of a very large market share of hawker spaces, they will inevitably become rent seeking. NEA cannot just say that hawkers have read and signed the contracts. What choices do hawkers have if such a large market share of hawker spaces are in SEHC, and most hawkers do not understand contract law and business. Now we have added more cost overheads to hawkers, controlled their freedom (in cases forcing longer work hours) and with questionable benefits over the previous model of allocating stall places. Not too late to change but there has to be an admission that we have trusted social enterprises too much just because there is a ‘social’ in their name.”

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