Tuesday 25 October 2011

10 new hawker centres to be built after 26 years

By Ng Lian Cheong, Hoe Yeen Nie, Channel NewsAsia, 8 October 2011

The government will resume the building of hawker centres to meet the needs of the community in new population centres.

It'll build its first hawker centre after 26 years in Bukit Panjang. About 10 more will be built over the next decade.

Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan announced this on Saturday, during a visit to Bukit Timah hawker centre.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said: "It's a part of local life, it's a place that people want to get to, it's a place where jobs, good jobs, are created for Singaporeans. And there's that sense of belonging. I think that's the most precious and unique aspect about the hawker cenres in a Singapore style."

Dr Balakrishnan said there have been calls for more hawker centres over the years.

He said the government will focus on building the hawker centres in new towns, such as Pasir Ris, Punggol and Jurong.

"My preference is that these centres be run on a not-for-profit basis, so I won't be selling centres to commercial operators," Dr Balakrishnan told reporters.

"But hawkers still have to make a living."

He said he hoped that by increasing the supply of hawker centres, customers will be assured of "good, affordable food".

Dr Balakrishnan added that his ministry will work with the HDB to set aside space for these hawker centres every time a new development comes up.

Work at the first new hawker centre will begin in the middle of next year at Bukit Panjang and be completed within three years. The centre, with cooked food and wet market sections, will be located at the junction of Bukit Panjang Road and Pending Road.

In a statement, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said that in the coming years, more hawker centres will be built to add to the current variety of eating options such as coffee shops and food courts.

Building efforts will be focused on new estates such as Punggol and Jurong, although this will be contingent on land availability.

NEA said the government will explore various management models and is open to partnering other players who are committed to keeping food affordable. Since the last hawker centre built in 1985, NEA said, the government has focused on upgrading and rejuvenating existing hawker centres.

Over S$420 million has been invested to improve the dining and marketing environment of the centres under the Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme (HUP).

It said that as an integral part of life in Singapore, hawker centres offer a wide selection of food to Singaporeans at affordable prices. It also added that they complement supermarkets, coffee shops and food courts by ensuring greater diversity and choice for residents' eating and marketing needs.

They also continue to play a valuable social role in providing a shared space for the community, serving as places for social interaction for Singaporeans from all walks of life.

NEA said that public feedback reaffirms the continued importance and demand for hawker centres.

For example, the 2009 URA Lifestyle Survey released in 2010 suggests that F&B outlets, such as hawker centres, are an important aspect affecting residents' quality of life.

NEA said hawker centres are also central to the identity of a neighbourhood and are a unique feature of what makes Singapore special to its people.

Have 'beauty contest' for hawker centres
Let potential operators pitch ideas for cheap and high-quality food
By Huang Lijie, The Straits Times. 24 Oct 2011

NEWS that the Government will build 10 new hawker centres over the next 10 years, mostly in new Housing Board (HDB) estates, has been welcomed by many. The policy change comes after a break of 26 years.

True, there are other mass market eating places such as coffee shops and foodcourts. But these are usually run by private-sector operators and charge higher prices for food. The humble hawker centre, with its many cheap food stalls, remains a way of life for many Singaporeans, especially heartlanders.

The policy change recognises the importance of affordable meals as a social necessity, especially with rising food prices placing a strain on tight budgets.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said, when announcing the move, that his preference was for the new centres to be run on a not-for-profit basis, instead of by commercial operators.

In a separate statement to The Straits Times, the National Environment Agency (NEA), the authority managing 107 hawker centres, said it is exploring various management models for the new centres to ensure they can maintain affordable food prices. It is 'open to involving other players who are committed to this objective to manage these centres'.
These comments throw up an interesting issue: How should the centres be managed so that they offer good food at price points suitable for the masses and lower-income?

One lesson is clear: Don't just rely on tenders and market forces.

Recall the fiasco last year, after the Housing Board put up a tender for a market and food centre to be wholly operated by a private operator in Sengkang. This was a pilot project following calls from HDB flat dwellers for wet markets and hawker centres to be built.

Renaissance Properties, a subsidiary of foodcourt chain Kopitiam, beat 24 others with the highest bid to build and run the centre at $500,100 a month. That bid, however, translated into rents as high as$6,000 per stall, which is more than double the average rent for a stall in an NEA-run centre. As a result, stallholders charged about 30 per cent more for their cooked food than stalls elsewhere. Residents complained, or stayed away. Business was poor and some stalls were forced to close.

The new hawker centres should not be left to face the dictates of pure market forces and risk this fate.

Some people would prefer the NEA to continue operating and managing these centres, as in the days of yore. After all, it has the expertise and track record.

After the last hawker centre was built in 1985, the Government has also worked consistently to improve hawker centres. It raised the bar for food hygiene and cleanliness with a grading system. Since 2001, more than 90 hawker centres have been refurbished under a $420 million upgrading programme.

Throughout, hawker stall rents have been kept moderately low, as an incentive for hawkers to price their food affordably. About 42 per cent of stallholders in NEA-run centres pay subsidised rent of between $160 and $320 per month. These are either hawkers who were relocated from street stalls, or their immediate family members.

The other stalls are tendered out for between $300 and $4,900 per month. This rental is based on a valuer's assessment, taking into account stall size, location and the prevailing economic climate.

This Government-run model manages to keep rents low and, it is hoped, exerts a downward pressure on final food prices. But the reality is that NEA does not micro-manage tenants' businesses and has little influence over tenant mix, food and service quality, and food prices.

NEA might thus want to consider a hybrid management model for its new hawker centres: one that combines the efficiencies of having one master tenant run an entire centre, yet manages to keep prices affordable.

It could do so by working with an independent operator who is committed to keeping rents and food prices affordable and food quality high, rather than one driven only by the bottom line.

The advantages are clear. Having one master tenant allows for economies of scale. NEA or government agencies like the Health Promotion Board can more easily work with the operator to improve food quality and service standards in all the stalls in a centre. A master tenant not driven solely by profit will have an incentive to keep rents and hence food prices down.

Does such an entity exist? Actually, yes. A cooperative functions like a commercial entity. But instead of chasing profits, it could be given the added social mission of keeping cooked food prices low to help workers stretch their dollar.

NTUC Foodfare Cooperative, which already manages seven foodcourts and five coffee shops, is one example. One way it keeps food prices affordable is by submitting moderate bids for sites, to avoid having to pass on high costs to tenants and consumers.

Its food stalls are tendered out, but are not necessarily awarded to the highest bidders. Track record and willingness to partner the cooperative to hold food prices when needed also matter. The cooperative also reserves the right to approve changes in food prices.
Its management model could easily be replicated in a hawker centre.

But rather than allocate the new centres directly to any operator, NEA should select the operator based on a 'beauty contest'.

Unlike a traditional tender which rewards the highest bidder, a beauty contest allows potential operators to woo NEA with their creative ideas and proposals, not the highest bid. NEA can then evaluate how an interested operator will offer a varied, healthy and affordable range of cooked food, and award the right to operate the centre accordingly.

There is no shortage of enterprises and individuals with experience and creative ideas in the food business. Rather than run the centres itself or allocate them directly to a preferred operator, a 'beauty contest' tender allows NEA to reap benefits from the marketplace of ideas, without turning hawker centres into high-priced food joints.

More hawker centres in the works?
By Ester Ng, TODAY, 26 Sep 2011

Between 1971 and 1985, hawker centres were built to resettle street hawkers into purpose-built buildings with proper sanitation and amenities.

The hawker centres have become a landscape icon as well as a social institution where Singaporeans, regardless of socio-economic status, can mingle. Today, more than a quarter of a century since the last hawker centre was built, some Singaporeans - especially those living in young estates built after 1985 - are clamouring for more of these centres.

And Today understands the authorities are looking into the possibility of building more hawker centres, 26 years after the last one was built. This is understood to be the hawker centre at Block 505, Jurong West Street 52.

There are currently 112 hawker centres across the island - with 107 managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and five by JTC.

Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Inderjit Singh pointed to an increased population and the creation of new estates as good reasons to build more hawker centres. "The rentals are low, and they offer good quality food at affordable prices," said Mr Singh.

Residents at young estates who spoke to Today agreed. Sengkang resident Amy Tan, 29, lamented about the long queues and the quality of the food at the existing eateries near her home. Punggol resident Daniel Hakim, 20, added that, unlike food courts or coffeeshops, hawker centres offer a wide range of food. "A lot of young couples live in Punggol and they often buy out, you don't want to buy the same thing every day," the national serviceman said.

Responding to Today's queries, an NEA spokesperson noted that apart from hawker centres, there are other food establishments such as coffee shops and food courts to meet the needs of residents.

The Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme (HUP) was launched in 2001 to ensure that they remain relevant. They have bigger stalls, wider passageways, better ventilation, upgraded toilets and more seats for the customers.

"On the whole, the upgrading aims to provide a more conducive dining and marketing environment for stallholders and residents," the NEA spokesperson added. Currently, the NEA manages about 6,000 cooked food stalls. Of which, about half are paying subsidised rents.

The allure of hawker centres

Professor Lily Kong, author of Singapore Hawker Centres and Geography don at the National University of Singapore, told Today there is a view that new housing estates may not be able to support hawker centres, given the attraction and availability of air-conditioned food courts.

But she noted that, more than just offering affordable food, hawker centres are "part of the warp and woof of daily life".She added that some hawker centres are "deliberately located" next to open spaces in housing estates, "so that there is a seamless integration with community activities".

Food courts seem more "formal" and not the place to loiter, while hawker centres are highly informal settings, she added.

Food blogger Leslie Tay is another fan of hawker centres. The general practitioner pointed out that hawker centres also provide "cheap and practical means for anyone to make a living". "Private coffeeshops and shop space are often too expensive as it is pegged to market rates," Dr Tay said.

Some observers noted that with the Government having completed its task of resettling the street hawkers, the job of building more hawker centres could lie with the private sector.Food consultant K F Seetoh felt that there are "enough" hawker centres, given that some have difficulties attracting stallholders.

Building new hawker centres may not mean that the standard of food will remain authentic, he noted. "Where are the new generation of hawkers? Our industry infrastructure is not churning out new hawkers," Mr Seetoh said.

Still, he reiterated that hawker centres are "not just about the food but a place to hang out (for) families, the rich and the poor". "Food courts are functional. You eat and you get out. No one talks about the quality of food at food courts," he added.


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