Thursday, 16 February 2017

Sungei Road flea market to shut for good on 10 July 2017

End of the road for last free hawking zone
Sungei Road flea market to make way for future homes
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 15 Feb 2017

The Sungei Road flea market will cease to exist come July.

The authorities issued a multi-agency statement yesterday which gave July 10 as the last day of operations for the approximately eight-decade-old flea market.

Singapore's last free hawking zone will be prepared "to facilitate future residential development use".

Yesterday's government statement was issued jointly by the National Environment Agency (NEA), Ministry of National Development, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Workforce Singapore, National Heritage Board (NHB) and the Singapore Police Force.

Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin said she is disappointed that the around 200 vendors have not been provided with an alternative site.

"We will be losing the sense of an organically formed flea market. A whole community will be dispersed and can no longer congregate as second-hand sellers," said Dr Chua .

Many netizens have also expressed dismay at the news.

In 2011, the market was halved to make way for the construction of the new Jalan Besar MRT station. The site had been zoned for residential with commercial use in the 2003 Master Plan.

The authorities acknowledged the site's long history and that it holds special memories for many Singaporeans.

However, the government statement added that "over time, the nature of the site has changed, as reflected in both the profile of vendors and buyers, and type of goods sold".

The authorities have had to conduct checks on the sale of prohibited goods regularly, previous media reports said.

The Government said that street trades "should only be allowed to continue in designated venues like trade fairs and flea markets, rather than on a permanent basis".

The statement said 11 rag-and-bone men who were previously issued permits to operate at Sungei Road will be offered the option of operating lock-up stalls at Golden Mile Food Centre and Chinatown Market.

Rental will be waived for the first year and a 50 per cent rental rebate off the subsidised rent will be given for the second year. An inter-agency briefing will be held for them on Friday.

The 11 men are from a pool of 31 rag-and-bone men who operated on the streets and were excluded from the Government's street hawker resettlement programme to purpose-built markets and hawker centres back in the 1970s and 1980s "because of their chosen trade".

According to NHB's research, the flea market dates back to the 1930s. It was later known as the Thieves Market, offering bargains for second-hand and vintage goods.

Meanwhile, vendors who are registered with the police under the Secondhand Goods Dealers Act will need to provide a new business address if they wish to continue to ply their second-hand goods trade elsewhere.

Mr Koh Ah Koon, 76, the president of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods representing about 70 vendors, said: "At least 80 per cent of us are elderly folk in our 60s, 70s and 80s who depend on our stalls for income. We hope we will be able to keep this traditional trade and way of displaying our wares alive."

In the statement, the authorities said social service offices will facilitate financial assistance and Workforce Singapore will provide employment services under existing schemes to eligible vendors. They also noted that the NHB has conducted research and documentation efforts on the market and its vendors to preserve memories of the site.

The authorities said notices were put up at the market yesterday to inform the vendors of the closure.

Preserve icons that build history and define culture

I grew up in a shophouse in Weld Road and, as a child, used to run among the lanes that formed the Thieves Market, which was much bigger then.

We have lost so many landmarks over the years that I feel displaced as a citizen.

Now, the Sungei Road flea market is the next icon to bite the dust ("Sungei Road flea market to make way for future homes"; Feb 15).

The market has been around for about 80 years and has been a constant magnet for peddlers and those who come to browse and buy.

I understand that, in this land-scarce country, we cannot afford to be too sentimental with regard to how we use our limited resources.

However, we have to bear in mind that a society is defined by its culture, culture is strongly influenced by its history, and history is built, in part, by icons.

I appeal to the National Environment Agency and the agencies involved to rethink the decision to close the Sungei Road flea market.

What is the point of closing it down, forcing the hawkers out, then documenting and preserving memories of the site?

Wong Wen Tsung (Dr)
ST Forum, 17 Feb 2017

Balancing competing land-use demands requires trade-offs

It will always be a challenge to strike a balance between retaining iconic landmarks and using the land for residential purposes ("Preserve icons that build history and define culture" by Dr Wong Wen Tsung; Feb 17).

Finding the right balance is never easy. There is a constant need to provide residential housing estates, childcare centres, schools, hospitals, parks, transport amenities, eateries, markets and eldercare facilities.

This cannot be done without trade-offs, due to our finite land resources.

Where possible, the Government tries to preserve landmarks that are of national importance and of historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural or symbolic significance.

While the Sungei Road flea market may give Singaporeans a sense of history and culture, it is not of national importance.

Conservation is more than just preserving a landmark. There must be a retention of the inherent spirit and original ambience of the historic place.

The "Thieves Market", with its makeshift stalls and transient hawkers, is no different from other flea markets managed by town councils.

The various land-use demands should be considered comprehensively, and a holistic approach adopted.

The question is whether Singapore should set aside more land for housing or use it to keep more iconic landmarks. Then, there are environmental needs to consider as well. Such is the dilemma of urban planning and balancing competing urban interests. The key is to prioritise.

Keeping Singapore a liveable and sustainable city may entail unpopular measures. But one cannot argue with the strategic needs of land-scarce Singapore.

Francis Cheng
ST Forum, 23 Feb 2017

Spirit of Sungei Road market
The decades-old market will open for the last time on July 10. With it goes a slice of Singapore history and an organic community that holds lessons on entrepreneurship, grit and negotiation skills
By Melody Zaccheus, The Sunday Times, 12 Mar 2017

The sun will soon set on the Sungei Road flea market. A multi-agency government statement last month gave July 10 as the last day of operations for Singapore's last free hawking zone.

The site will be making way for future residential developments.

The authorities gave several other reasons for its closure. They stated that, over time, the nature of the site had changed, and that they have had to conduct regular checks on the sale of prohibited goods.

Previous reports note that there have been "opportunistic traders" attracted to the market because of its rent-free arrangement and city location.

Residents have also complained about "disamenities".

In a letter to The Straits Times on Feb 25, resident Ang Zyn Yee said the market "has ruined the aesthetics of the estate by making the area look messy, dodgy and filthy". She added that "grimy old men" have become the gatekeepers to her home.

As a Singaporean, and as the heritage correspondent of The Straits Times, I decided to see for myself if these concerns were valid, while seeking out the value of the market behind the reported layer of vice and grime.

I set up a stall as a vendor on Saturday, Feb 25, after collecting clothes, bags and kitchenware from my colleagues over the course of a week. I spread these items out on a small canvas sheet on the roadside.

The president of the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, Mr Koh Ah Koon, 76, shared with me part of his 1m by 1m space.

I sat on a collapsible stool alongside two other vendors on my left: Mr Lim Soon Tian, 75, a former pig farmer and kelong worker; and Ms Tamil Malar, a 51-year-old who struck an imposing figure with her height and stature. She sells watch parts and rings.

Mr Koh, who sells old hi-fi sets, was hard at work canvassing support from shoppers to sign a petition to retain the market.

Vendors, who were initially wary of me, began to get chatty. They doled out advice: "Start with a higher price, girl. Don't sell so low. People like the kick of clinching a bargain successfully."

Madam Malar added sagely in a pep talk fit for Rocky Balboa: "Stand your ground. Don't give in. Don't be weak."

What struck me was the vendors' generosity. Instead of calling attention to their own goods, they hollered into the crowd, encouraging shoppers to buy from me as the money would go to charity.

They also banded together. By 3pm or so, it started to rain. Mr Lim nimbly produced a canvas sheet to cover my goods. Madam Malar offered both Mr Lim and me shelter under her umbrella.

Business came to a halt and no sales were made for more than an hour. The water pooled underneath the canvas sheets and some goods got wet. Mr Lim soon packed up to leave for he, too, had got wet in the rain. He had made only $10, but he said this was "enough to buy kopi (coffee)".

The shopper is king in Sungei Road. There are heaps of remote controls and mobile chargers to replace ones you might have lost or damaged. There are backpacks, kitsch paintings, and even modern clocks going for $3 for your newly renovated Build-to-Order flat.

But there is also a dark side to the flea market.

Madam Malar caught a shoplifter red-handed - a portly looking elderly man who had pocketed a watch from her stash.

Some vendors have claimed that the heat emanating from the tarmac and metal hoardings encircling the small field has caused elderly sellers to fall ill.

It gets a little unsightly after a few hours as many vendors tie their goods and canvas sheets to railings along the road, or leave them at other nooks and crannies in the neighbourhood.


But do these "disamenities" warrant the closure of an eight-decade-old mainstay in Singapore?

The market has, from the get-go, served as the go-to place for the underprivileged, filling a gap mainstream department stores and malls have been unable to plug.

Starting along the Rochor River in the 1930s, wares used to be displayed on tables, in little attap huts or on the roadside.

During the Japanese Occupation, people would get household items, which were often in short supply, from there. It was later known as Thieves Market as peddlers sold stolen goods.

Despite this, a Straits Times article from 1953 notes that it was popular with "working-class buyers". It came to be known as "Robinson Petang", which means Robinsons in the afternoon or evening, in reference to the department store.

A 1978 report in the same paper noted that bargain hunters flocked there as goods were priced between 30 per cent and 35 per cent lower than at supermarkets and department stores.

Today, it fulfils the same purpose. Foreign workers - mostly construction workers - shop at the market for necessities such as clothes and rice cookers.

Cultural geographer Lily Kong said places with the character of the market located between Jalan Besar and Rochor Canal Road "still have a place in modern Singapore".

It makes available affordably priced items and has an economic role in providing opportunities for vendors.

As social entrepreneur Elim Chew had asked previously: "Why do we let the bad stories define the place?"

An independent study and assessment of the social impact of the market should have been commissioned before the decision was made to shut it down.

Consultations with the wider public should have also taken place as the market revolves around the lives of pioneer vendors, and is tied to the population's collective memory and country's history.

Such exercises should not be solely reserved for topics such as the Founders' Memorial, which is to be erected to commemorate the nation's founding fathers.

Civic group founder Kwek Li Yong argues that the market's impending closure is another example of the Government's bulldozer approach to vernacular heritage.

The Government needs to recognise that all Singaporeans have an equal stake in deciding what to keep and what to remove, and that it does not have a monopoly of history and heritage, said Mr Kwek.

Closing down the hawking zone also means snuffing out a way of life. It sends the message that there is no space for the karung guni or rag-and-bone men and women of Singapore.

The authorities said the Social Service Offices will facilitate financial assistance, and Workforce Singapore will provide employment services under existing schemes to eligible vendors.

But why even choose to disrupt the incomes of these self-sufficient earners, most of whom have set up stalls at Sungei Road by choice?


The Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, which represents about 70 of 200 stalls at the market, had previously proposed four alternative sites but the authorities rejected its suggestions. They said these places had been zoned for parks and residential use under Master Plan 2014.

Mr Koh's plea is now for a temporary site.

"We can move as soon as there is a need for development," he said.

The upcoming closure will only drive vendors to back alleys, with some saying they will run if enforcement officers come, just like in the old days.

In the 1980s, Environment Ministry workers tore down the market's makeshift sheds and roadside stalls due to "pollution and health hazards".

But the hawkers returned "like mushrooms after a downpour", according to a Straits Times article in 1983.

Instead of dispersing the vendors - making it harder for the authorities to monitor them - it makes more sense for an alternative site to be provided and for practical arrangements to be made to manage the disamenities.

The association has proposed solutions, such as hiring workers to maintain hygiene and cleanliness. A proper storage facility for the goods can also be worked out.

Professor Kong believes a free hawking zone, subject to minimal regulations, is worth considering as a way to encourage entrepreneurial activity with a low-barrier entry to a trade.

However, in their statement, the authorities said such street trades will now be permitted only in designated venues such as trade fairs and flea markets, rather than on a permanent basis, "to minimise disamenities to the public".

This is a pity as these fairs and events tend to be gentrified - largely monopolised by a different breed of entrepreneurs who sell upmarket products.

Next month, Bangkok's Artbox flea market will come to Singapore. The experience will be a curated one largely aimed at millennials, where vendors will sell burgers, fries, brand-new jewellery and clothes at fixed prices at Bayfront, next to The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.

There is no room for Sungei Road's vendors at the alternative - hipster fairs that neglect older and lower-income shoppers.

The authorities' alternative is a vastly different concept from the Sungei Road Hawking Zone, and the fear is that the Sungei group will face marginalisation.

Many other major cities have made room for similar vendors though - from Jonker Walk in Malacca to Lorong Kulit in Penang to multiple streets in London where second-hand markets abound.

Heritage enthusiast and blogger Jerome Lim is of the view that some chaos is necessary to inject colour into a city and give people a break from the sterility of an overly manicured country like Singapore.

Ngee Ann Polytechnic's senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam suggests promoting the market to tourists, arguing that it gives visitors a glimpse of early Singapore. Tourists used to visit by the busloads but fewer do so today, as it has been omitted from tourist collaterals, he said.

Resident Andy Ang, 32, a financial consultant, is for the market's retention. He said: "Vendors' stored goods do get in the way if I'm driving, but like most long-time residents, we have found ways around this. The market can get crowded but it's not chaotic."

The ugly side of the space must be weighed against its merits, for it will be a greater loss to Singapore if we let the market go the way of many other lost landmarks and beloved community spaces, such as the old National Library building.

There are many things to love about the market.

It is where bartering and negotiation skills come to play. The lively interaction between an elderly seller and a shopper is unique and cannot be re-created at modern markets or on online reselling applications.

I once encountered undergraduates who were sent to the market to pick up negotiation skills for class.

If you make the effort to spend some time with the vendors, they will welcome you into their circle, banter with you and share their stories. I felt right at home with my fellow Singaporeans.

Some have strong personalities shaped by the hardships they have faced. There are many others who are sweet and coy, or cheeky and quirky.

I learnt that the market gives vendors an outlet to feel alive, to stand tall, run the grounds and take charge of their own fates.

It gives the poor and elderly sellers a sense of pride and satisfaction, as well as a chance to make a few dollars on their own to buy themselves a cup of coffee after a day braving the elements, without the need for social welfare.

I was touched by the determination of Mr Koh, who has been paying for petition banners out of his own pocket, with the aim of getting a million signatures to save the site. I witnessed the community banding together to sign this petition, giving one another pep talks in a variety of local tongues to keep this hope alive.

The histories of Singaporean households, salvaged door-to-door, also lie across their canvas sheets. From sepia-toned childhood photos to the enamel pot a mother might have made soup in.

It is a pity that the market will be closed for its vibrant atmosphere adds to the Singapore experience, giving the country some of its soul, character and history.

While it appears inevitable that the physical site will be reclaimed, one hopes an arrangement might one day be worked out for the trade - and the tradesmen - to thrive again, in some area and form or the other.

* Parliament: Five Sungei Road rag-and-bone men likely to move to hawker centres in city area
Sungei Road vendors keen on new stalls
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2017

Five of the 11 original permit-holders at the Sungei Road flea market have indicated interest in operating stalls at Golden Mile Food Centre and Chinatown Market.

All 11 vendors were given the option of renting stalls at selected hawker centres in the city area at subsidised rates after the market's last day of operations on July 10, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli.

He told Parliament yesterday that, as a show of goodwill, vendors will have their rents waived for the first year and receive a 50 per cent rebate off their subsidised rent for the second year.

Nominated MP Kok Heng Leun asked how Sungei Road vendors have been helped, with the hawking zone due to be closed "to facilitate future residential development use".

Mr Masagos said at least one of the original vendors has been granted financial aid. Other vendors who are not original permit holders will be given information on financial and employment aid, as well as ways for them to continue their trade, he said.

The 11 vendors are from a pool of 31 rag-and-bone men who, "because of their chosen trade", were excluded from a government programme to resettle street hawkers in purpose-built markets and hawker centres in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Masagos said the authorities have accommodated hawking at Sungei Road until the area was required for redevelopment, despite it causing inconveniences like obstructing public roads.

Mr Kok also asked if the authorities would engage the Association for the Recycling of Second Hand Goods, which represents about 70 vendors, on possible alternative outdoor sites. He noted that, as the last free hawking zone in Singapore, the market is integral to the country's cultural landscape.

In response, Mr Masagos said the country's needs must be taken into account. The authorities also have "to be fair to the many, many other hawkers who have moved on" to hawker centres and markets.

He added: "The time has come and we have engaged enough. To meet them again is to almost promise that we will change our stance and that redevelopment will not start... There are alternatives. But should we put up another site like this which is deemed to be like Sungei Road but not at Sungei Road? I don't think this is something we want to dwell (on) further."

The association's president Koh Ah Koon, 76, has been rallying the public to sign a petition to conserve the flea market, or for an alternative site. He told The Straits Times he has collected 4,000 signatures so far, and will continue to canvas support for it.

Sungei Road Hawking Zone To Close After Last Day Of Operation On 10 July 2017
Parliament Q&A: Oral Reply by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, to Parliamentary Question on Sungei Road Hawking Zone on 3 April 2017
Sungei Road Flea Market

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