Socio-political commentators are among those who have criticised Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor for saying that the backlash against the Social Enterprise Hawker Centre (SEHC) model has been “in part fuelled by hearsay and anecdotes which have emotive appeal.”
Speaking to TODAY in an interview published over the weekend, Dr Khor defended that the SEHC model was never meant to be a “magic pill,” and said: “Some of these hearsay and anecdotes may be well-meaning but (are) misinformed. In fact, quite a number are really not verified.”
Backlash against the SEHC model arose when it was revealed through various sources, including renowned food guru KF Seetoh, that four out of the five social enterprises that run the 13 out of 114 hawker centres in Singapore slap exorbitant costs on hawkers while demanding that they keep their food prices low.
As complaints against social enterprises mounted, with evidence showing some of the high costs and penalties hawkers are forced to grapple with, Dr Khor said that the Government will do a “stock-take” of the SEHC model.
Speaking to reporters, Dr Khor now says that the stock-take is not a knee-jerk reaction since the authorities always planned to “refine and improve the model as we go along.”
Then yesterday, Dr Khor and Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli faced over 30 questions by both People’s Action Party (PAP) and Workers’ Party (WP) politicians on the SEHC issue in Parliament.
Dr Khor claimed that the term “social enterprise” is a “misnomer,” in her parliamentary response and indicated that the authorities prefer the term “socially conscious” since it refers to operators who run the centres with a “social mission”.
Despite widespread backlash, Minister Masagos Zulkifli added that the SEHC model is “generally sound” although there are some challenges with implementation. He asked for patience for the SEHC model to “adapt, adjust and optimise” what it seeks to achieve.
Former Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) associate dean Prof Donald Low has since criticised Dr Khor’s response as “a great case study of how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in public comms”.
Taking to Facebook yesterday, the academic indicated that the authorities should have responded to the backlash by acknowledging that things could have been done better, especially since the SEHC initiative is a pilot project.
He further advised, “never diminish or dismiss public feedback/criticism, especially if it comes from the very people you claim you’re helping. In this instance, some of the feedback that you now dismiss as mere anecdotes or hearsay came from some hawkers themselves.”
Prof Low further asked why the authorities did not acknowledge the “valid and accurate concerns that many raised” instead of focusing on the “misinformed”. He said: “even if you think some of the feedback was exaggerated or misinformed, you should respond specifically to that rather than cast aspersions on everyone else.”
Noting that Dr Khor’s response “really doesn’t sound like her,” Prof Low said, “I can only conclude that this came from someone else. If so, she’s been badly advised.”
Read his post in full here:
In case you cannot read the above:
“This is a great case study of how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in public comms.
“After NEA announced changes to the contractual terms that SEHCs can set for their tenant-hawkers, it had received generally positive reviews for its responsiveness and its willingness to make mid-course corrections in response to public feedback/criticism. After all, SEHCs are a pilot: what does it cost you to acknowledge that some things could have been done better? It also doesn’t really matter whether you were planning on making those changes anyway. As a rule, sharing the credit with the public (without you having to say so explicitly since no one is expecting credit anyway), and saying that you’d made those changes in response to the feedback you’ve received is always a good public comms line.
“The second rule is: never diminish or dismiss public feedback/criticism, especially if it comes from the very people you claim you’re helping. In this instance, some of the feedback that you now dismiss as mere anecdotes or hearsay came from some hawkers themselves. It’s like a boss who does a staff engagement survey and then dismisses the feedback he receives as unverified, anecdotal, or based on hearsay. To the staff (or hawkers in this instance), that’s the only experience they have—no matter how emotive or unrepresentative or unjustified you think it is. You’re pushing up a boulder if your argument is that their experiences shouldn’t count (for much) because they are just personal anecdotes. For them, it’s their entire reality.
“Third, even if you think some of the feedback was exaggerated or misinformed, you should respond specifically to that rather than cast aspersions on everyone else. On this issue, we heard from a wide spectrum of stakeholders—hawkers, economists, folks from the F&B industry, members of the public, etc.—-across both mainstream and social media. It’s inevitable that some of the responses aren’t factual, correct or verified. To expect otherwise is wishful thinking. And because the feedback/criticism received was so varied, it is not a good idea to tar them all with the same brush by describing some of the feedback as based or hearsay or anecdotes with emotive appeal. What about the valid and accurate concerns that many raised? Why don’t you acknowledge that instead of focusing on those who are “misinformed”?
“All this is really quite unfortunate and unnecessary. In my few encounters with the SMS, I’ve found her to be very approachable and open-minded. This really doesn’t sound like her, so I can only conclude that this came from someone else. If so, she’s been badly advised.”
Another socio-political commentator, writer Lim Jialiang, has also hit out at Dr Khor’s response as he asserted on social media: “Disappointment can’t even begin to cover my deep-seated emotions that I have towards her words. We are not stupid.
“We are also not blind to the grievances of our fellow hawkers. We are most certainly not spreading fake news, as you so like to term it. We have provided paper evidence, information that will stand up even under rigorous scrutiny in the court of law.”
Lim further touched on the realities of working 18-hour work days like many hawkers do, saying that he could not do what these hawkers do for more than 4 days in a row:
“There are real human costs to running a business 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. Have you done a 16-hour shift work in the F&B industry? If you’re not in this line of work, it’s very difficult to explain. There are points where you are so tired you can fall asleep standing. When you work for so long your mind goes numb.
“I’ve only managed to do it 4 days in a row, before going home and falling into a deep sleep when I woke up after 12 hours. I was lucky because my body can take it. But this is nothing that I will wish on anyone. I can’t think of how the hawkers I know can be able to do something like this, day after day. Bodies break with startling regularity in this line of work.”
Read his post here: