Cow Beh Cow Bu

Bringing Back the Hawker Centre Culture: The Government Must Stop Prioritising Profit Over People

ELSON: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Clearly the government didn’t get the hint when it came to hawker centres. Either that, or it had it’s eye on the money and totally disregarded the welfare of hawkers by increasingly privatising the operation of hawker centres.

Those fortunate to have experienced the good ol’ days of hawker centres will recall that:
-hawkers hired their own assistants to send the food to your table and collect and wash the used dishes
-hawkers either got their assistants to clean the tables, or pooled a sum of money to hire full-time cleaners
-hawker centres were built together with markets, so fresh food was easily available instead of the frozen crap we get nowadays

(Ed’s note: who still remembers those signs stating that customers have the liberty to sit wherever they want?)

There wasn’t all this self-service nonsense, or forcing hawkers to pay exorbitant prices for centralised dishwashing services.

And, there wasn’t this whole who-has-to-pay-for-tray-returns bullshit because the hawkers’ assistants were the sole tray-holders.

Hawker centres then weren’t the cleanest, but when you went to one you could really feel the “hawker centre culture” – a sense of vibrance and life that pierced through the rowdiness of the crowd and brusqueness of busy aunties and uncles trying to whip up as many bowls of noodles as quickly as possible to feed the hungry masses.

And in every housing estate, there was a town square where the hawker centre was essentially the souce of life as evening approached – today we see a couple of tiny coffeeshops in new housing estates like Sembawang or Punggol.

Those today who want to experience the good hawker centre service and culture of the old days will need to hop across the Causeway to JB.

A hawker in those days, if his food was good, could make it big – ask the char kway teow or chicken rice uncles who splashed the cash on a brand new Merc or Volvo (yeah lah, in those days Volvo was quite dua kee already).

Today, with the increasing privatisation of hawker centre management, costs have gone up to the point where hawkers have no choice but to raise prices and cut back on service to simply break-even.

An elderly lady stallholder I spoke to some time back told me that her rent went up 250% after the move to the new hawker centre that replaced the old one where she had set up stall.

She now needs to sell 44 bowls of S$3 noodles a day, or 1334 bowls a month to pay her monthly rent (assuming no off-days), and anything above that is profit.

What’s a hawker to do when that happens?

The government’s greed is perhaps the reason why our hawker culture has become the way it is today – prioritising profit over people and convenience over culture.

Now, it continues to privatise the operation of “Social Enterprise” hawker centres, which are supposed to be operated on a not-for-profit basis by private corporations.

Amy Khor says that the government “will not hesitate to take operators to task if they are found to be errant”.

Madam, any fool will tell you (perhaps not including those who are part of a government committee) that private corporations are driven by profits, and public-listed ones like Koufu have shareholders to answer to when it’s time to distribute dividends.

They’re going to abide by that “not-for-profit” rule when their sole reason for existence is the pursuit of profit?

It’s not enough for the government to pass the buck and blame corporations for doing what they do best, which is to enrich themselves.

Instead, it’s time for the government to wrest back control of hawker centres, bring back the conditions which granted more autonomy to hawkers (because with independence comes pride) and enable good hawkers to prosper instead of their landlords.

Otherwise, allow private corporations the time to tweak as much as they want and in the meantime be prepared for Singapore’s hawker centre culture to die out before they chance upon any mutually-beneficial solution.



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