SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh has been slammed by prominent public figures for caricaturing food-guru K F Seetoh as a hypocrite. Seetoh had in recent months shone spotlight on privately-run Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs) and suggested that it was being unfair to hardworking hawkers. His support of the hawkers’ petition protesting the payment of tray charges, has especially drawn attention to the plight of those that ply the hawker trade under contract to SEHCs.
Hawkers under contract to SEHCs have to pay up to $900 a month for tray charges, this is on top of the monthly $2,140 they pay for rent and overhead costs. Customers do not pay anything to take a tray, but receive 20 cents when they return one.
The prominent Facebook page SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh said in a post that they agree that hawkers “should not pay for customers to return their trays”, but questioned if Seetoh was riding the “high-horse to protest hawker rentals when he himself is charging exorbitant rates”.
The Facebook Page claimed that Seetoh charged $10,000 per month to those that wanted to rent stalls from his franchise Makansutra Gluttons Bay. The Page further claimed that unlike NTUC Foodfair which employs elderly Singaporeans, Seetoh’s 12 outlets employ cooks, cashiers and cleaners who are foreigners. It asked Seetoh to ensure that his “own backyard got very high fence” before criticising SEHCs.
After Facebook users slammed the Page for unfair comparison of hawker centres with upscale kopitiams (coffee-shops) aimed at the tourist-market (of which Makansutra Gluttons Bay is), SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh said the issue is not if the food outlet is government-run or private. It suggested that private operators like Seetoh were equally culpable of pushing up prices of hawker food.
Former dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Donald Low took to his Facebook to slam SMRT Feedback by The Vigilanteh, and said it was a “stupid comparison”.
Mr Low said:
“Seetoh’s Makansutra Gluttons Bay is an upscale food court in an expensive downtown area aimed at tourists and well-heeled customers. He’s never pretended it was anything else. Just as we do not expect the Wah Kee big prawn noodle outlet at the Esplanade to charge the same prices as the Wah Kee at Pek Kio hawker centre, none of us should be comparing Gluttons Bay’s prices to hawker centre prices and accusing the former of overcharging.
Second, Seetoh has often said that consumers should be prepared to pay more for hawker food if we want to see younger hawkers keeping our local food traditions alive. What’s he’s doing is entirely consistent with his long standing beliefs. There’s no hypocrisy here.
In contrast, the so-called social enterprise hawkers claim to provide affordable food and to serve a social mission. But as Seetoh has pointed out, some of their tenancy agreements are ridden with unreasonable terms and hidden costs, like making hawkers pay for customers returning their trays. It takes a special kind of stupidity to equate this kind of unethical business practice with high prices. There’s nothing unethical about high prices as such; consumers can always vote with their feet. Business practices that prey on those with less bargaining power are a different kettle of fish—all the more so if the perpetrators claim to be serving a social mission.
Finally, hiring elderly Singaporeans as cleaners is not necessarily laudable. If they are paid the market rate, why should we applaud the employers? You mean discrimination against older Singaporeans, and paying them below market, is such an accepted norm for you that the mere act of hiring them should be applauded? Or maybe you’re racist and you object to mainlanders (or “PRCs” as you disparagingly call them) being hired?
Go read up on some basic economics before you try to do a hit job.”
Rev Miak Siew Executive Pastor of Free Community Church in criticising the Facebook Page’s post said Seetoh was the one who introduced him to Dignity Kitchen, where disabled and disadvantaged people receive training to run hawker stalls. Dignity Kitchen is Singapore’s first hawker training school for disabled and disadvantaged people.
Rev Miak said Seetoh “championed their work” and that “Makansutra isn’t your typical hawker centre. It is aimed at a different crowd – tourists and those willing to pay higher prices.”
He added: “This character assassination is typical of PAP. We have all seen it before.”
Seetoh responded to Rev Miak’s post and thanked him for testifying to Seetoh’s character. Seetoh said: “it really means they are riled and have to take action now to protect the public owned and funded hawker centres. That was the objective all along.”