“The endeavour to preserve the hawker culture here and keep the trade alive, while ensuring Singaporeans have access to cheap food, is recognised by many. Yet, the growing dissatisfaction over the social enterprise hawker management model could threaten to derail these efforts” (The Big Read: Grumbling and Rumbling at Social Enterprise Hawker Centres – What’s the Rub?, Louisa Tang).
Given the “allegations of poor management practices as well as high rentals and auxiliary costs at social enterprise-run hawker centres” (TODAY, Oct. 20), this excellent piece of reporting gets to the crux of the fracas: Poor and non-representative consultation, when policy ideas are gathered and submitted to the government; as well as fragmented or non-existent communication between hawkers and the operators of these social enterprise-run hawker centres, which means the hawkers – as issues have surfaced and events have unfolded in recent weeks – have to rely on public or social media outrage for changes to be made. The final points about how food items ought to be priced as well as how the needs of low-income Singaporeans and that of the hawkers, which are tied to the persistent perception that “cheap” food should be the norm, are important too, but are less likely to be addressed in the near future.
On poor and non-representative consultation, “TODAY” astutely pointed out that representation was a big problem for the 2011 Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel and the 2016 Hawker Centre 3.0 committee. A common defence is that members of these panels or committees do reach out – through focus group discussions or interviews, for instance – to hawkers to solicit their feedback, but representativeness is critical not only for symbolic reasons, but also for how agendas are determined in the first place. The three objectives of improving hawker centre productivity, of enhancing the hawker centre as a social space, and promoting graciousness, laid out by the 2016 committee, for instance, do not appear to relate to more direct or immediate concerns experienced by the hawkers. The extent to which these recommendations have been effective or well-received on the ground, moreover, is not always clear.
And on fragmented or non-existent communication, the fact that the hawkers have had to turn to more indirect channels, including the media, to get attention – such as through the Facebook and website posts made by prominent food critic K F Seetoh – seems to only confirm the problematic status quo. In addition, that only one of the five social enterprise operators responded to queries by “TODAY” is not encouraging. Relatedly, this may suggest that consultation should not be a periodic endeavour, but should instead be a diverse and continuous process, through which hawkers and their stakeholders can raise concerns whenever the need arises.
A version of this article was published in TODAY.