Social enterprise hawker centres in Singapore: an ambivalent model of social (un)consciousness
Commentary | Nicole Foo, Opinion Associate Editor
Conceptualised as a novel framework for enhancing affordability of hawker meals and sustaining the hawker trade, Singapore's social enterprise hawker centres (SEHCs) have received much flak for their general inability to meet these social goals.
High "packaged charges" imposed by SEHC operators plagued the contractual terms of hawkers, preventing economic viability of their businesses and beneficial trickle-down effects for their target consumer group - the poor.
These operators, such as Timbre+Hawkers and Fei Siong Social Enterprise, are private corporations that aim to make profits while also advancing social causes. Their profit motives are the root causes of the SEHC issue and have resulted in several key problems.
First, the preservation of hawker culture is stifled when hawkers discontinue operations in this avenue of food provision.
In the light of growing hawker entrepreneurship by young adults in Singapore, a foundering - albeit nascent - model of hawker businesses may also discourage aspiring hawkers to tread on this path.
Second, inflation of conventional hawker food prices may spell trouble for the needy if the SEHC model is terminated.
Despite the presence of other food provision-related social support for disadvantaged families or/and individuals, food insecurity still poses an often-overlooked risk for these groups.
In some cases, Singapore's elderly poor are unable to make their own meals and are thus more reliant on external sources of cooked meals.
Third, considering the recent bid for hawker centres to be placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, how may the situation reflect the management of various hawker centres in Singapore, and in extension, affect its reputation on the international stage?
Since the backlash, the National Environmental Agency (NEA) has responded to hawker and public pressures surrounding the ordeal.
The NEA aims to perform regulatory tweaks by exercising greater oversight of SEHC operations and meting out liquidated charges to operators in the case of a contract breach.
Other measures, such as extending the Hawkers' Productivity Grant to SEHC stall owners to co-fund purchases of automated kitchen equipment, have been placed as well.
However, loopholes in monitoring may persist - though the NEA has prescribed safeguarding measures for hawkers under the SEHC model, possessing large control of on-the-ground hawker operations will be an onerous task.
In fact, one particular recount by a hawker accentuates the ease of operators charging unscrupulous fees: "We were told about the fee in July when our contract was up. It came out of nowhere, and they told us it is for the NEA and quality control".
With improvements to the scheme underway, perhaps the NEA could also strengthen or construct new communication channels with hawkers to reduce their vulnerability to dishonest operational practices.
SEHCs have potential to flourish but the model will require additional modifications before it can be labelled a success.
About the author: Nicole is a Year 2 student majoring in Geography and Political Science at NUS and is on staff with The Convergence as Associate Editor (Opinion). She is currently studying abroad in the UK. Her love for traveling has contributed to her desire to better understand global affairs and politics. Apart from catching up on the latest TV series online, she also enjoys a cup of good coffee during her free time.