Photo (from National Environment Agency): Food stalls of Block 6 Tanjong Pagar Plaza after renovation through the Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme.
Hawker centres play an important role in Singaporean society. From the 1960s to the 1980s, they were built by the government to provide public infrastructure for the sale of food, and have become popular community spaces for residents to interact.
In recent years, as the public becomes increasingly wary of rising food costs, the government determined that hawker centres were the key sources of affordable food for communities. As a result, it began a $420 million Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme (HUP) in 2001 to renovate existing hawker centres. The last centre was built in 1985, meaning the youngest centre was 16 years old at the time.
According to the latest numbers by National Environment Agency (NEA), one of three government bodies that manage and regulate hawker centres in Singapore, 106 have been upgraded under the HUP.
The government then announced in October of 2011 that it would build 10 new hawker centres over the next 10 years, and shortly after an 18-member consultation panel was formed to inject new ideas for the next generation of centres.
The panel, which is chaired by prominent entrepreneur and social enterprise supporter Elim Chew, includes representatives from social enterprises. Other than ensuring affordable food prices, the panel recommends that new hawker centres operate on a not-for-profit basis by social enterprises and cooperatives, hoping that communities would become the main beneficiaries and that the centres would employ disadvantaged individuals.
Consequently in October the following year, food and beverage social enterprise Best of Asia, which was reportedly set up by a group of 12 friends led by 52-year-old retiree Deirdre Murugasu, formerly deputy chief executive at global water treatment company Hyflux, began managing the 32-stall Kampung@Simpang Bedok hawker centre.
The first privately-operated centre gave tenants the opportunity to pay a subsidized rent or receive a salary and pay no rent until they could own their stalls. Although listed rental was approximately S$3,200, most paid monthly rent between S$1,500 to S$2,400, according to Today.
Exactly a year later, though, Kampung@Simpang Bedok shut down. A number of reasons were cited as to why the project, greeted with excitement at its official opening in February last year, had failed.
One tenant explained that business was slow because the centre was located on the second floor, accessed only by stairs. Others speculate that the place was almost always dirty, food was a hit or miss, and money was short. Although Best of Asia invested $1 million to run the centre, it didn’t have a big enough wallet to spend $12,000 to $15,000 each month for maintaining exhausts and cleaning grease tracks.
On a weekend visit to the hawker two months after opening, Time Out Singapore said the venue was “depressingly empty” and had a “lacklustre atmosphere”.
Putting the past behind, NEA is calling on social enterprises, for the first time, to submit proposals in regards to managing four of its hawker centres – a move that is aligned with the panel recommendation.
Request for Information (RFI) documents were released on the Singapore government’s e-procurement portal GeBiz on Friday, reports Today, which lists hawker centres located at Block 207 New Upper Changi Road, Block 117 Aljunied Avenue 2, Block 20 Ghim Moh Road, and Block 503 West Coast Drive as part of this initiative.
The leases of these four centres expire on May 31 and the new leases will have tenancy of three years, up to a maximum of nine years in three-year terms.
Following the Kampung@Simpang Bedok closure, Chew tells Today that the managing social enterprises should actively market the hawkers to boost business and help hawkers lower operating costs.
Best of Asia director Lionel Lye also says that he would consider submitting a proposal, taking a second stab at success. Meanwhile, NTUC Foodfare, a social enterprise in the food services industry, plans to take a deeper look into the RFI.
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