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“Not-for-profit doesn’t mean don’t make profit” – Chairperson of panel that recommended social enterprises should run hawker centres

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The chairperson of the 18-member Hawker Centre Public Consultation Panel that recommended the Social Enterprise Hawker Centre (SEHC) model to the Government six years ago, in 2012, has defended her committee’s recommendation, in the wake of reports that hawkers are suffering under SEHC managements.

The panel chairperson, Elim Chew who is the founder of high-street fashion chain 77th Street, told reporters in an interview published yesterday that her panel recommended the SEHC model with good intentions, envisioning that hawker centres can become a community space under the management of social enterprises.

Hawkers, however, face a different reality since social enterprises took over certain hawker centres from the National Environment Agency (NEA) – a statutory board under the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources that used to oversee Government-run food centres.

Referring to complaints by hawkers that they are forced to contend with hefty costs under SEHC management as compared to when they were under the NEA, Chew admitted that model needs to be “tweaked” to benefit all parties: “It (was recommended with) a good intention. I don’t think it’s a wrong model but it needs to be tweaked to a model that benefits all.”

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Interestingly, Chew said that some of the complaints raised by hawkers are a surprise to her. She further said that there may be some confusion about what a social enterprise model really constitutes and asserted: “They are not-for-profit but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make profit.”

Chew added: “At the end of the day, it’s where the money goes to. In our recommendation, it’s a plough-back model…which means the money needs to go back to helping hawkers upgrade their skills or better programmes for the centres.”

When asked whether the SEHC model is too idealistic, Chew acknowledged that the social enterprises come from a “very business mindset” that they cannot lose money. Chew indicated that these social enterprises can only work towards helping the hawkers when they are assured that they will not lose money:

“They are making money from the rest (of their operations)…so we’d think that maybe they would want to have a section that gives back. But even as much as they want to give back, they are coming with the angle that they cannot lose money – it’s a very business mindset in terms of I cannot lose money.

“(Only when) we can help them to solve that then they will have the ease to say ‘Ok, all these other things will be waived or absorbed’.”

Chew offered several solutions as to how the conflict between SEHC managements and hawkers can be eased. For one, she suggested that it could be helpful for social enterprises to be transparent about how much profits they will plough back into aiding hawkers. The entrepreneur also proposed that social enterprises could offer hawkers a package deal:

“Everything can be a package – you rent this stall for S$3,000 and the hawker wouldn’t have to worry about tray returns for example…Take away the load of all these thoughts of additional costs so that all hawkers have to think is how to cook the dish at its best or how they can improve them.”

Despite acknowledging that the complaints that have arisen will have to be addressed soon, Chew still seems to think that the SEHC model is a viable one.

According to one socio-political website, Chew responded sharply when she was asked about an online petition calling on the NEA to take over all hawker centres once again. She allegedly said: “Then we go back to the old model, where someone can sublet their stall to other people, and (we might) have a foreigner cooking nasi padang that isn’t like nasi padang. What then?”

Interestingly, this statement is presently missing from the article.

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