Thursday, 16 January 2014

NEA explains reason for 'archaic' hawker rule

It was to ensure zhi char stalls had proper equipment to deal with smoke
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 15 Jan 2014

A DAY after Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan ordered a hawker-licensing rule to be scrapped, the National Environment Agency (NEA) came out to explain how it applies the rule.

The NEA said yesterday that the reference to "restaurant-type dishes" in the rule is specifically directed at "zhi char" dishes.

The preparation of such dishes often involves heavy cooking, so these stalls are required to have adequate cooker hoods and flues to deal with smoke and fumes.

Also, they must have the space to prepare and refrigerate the various ingredients they need.

"Hence the licence condition required stallholders selling 'zhi char' dishes to seek NEA's approval, so that these operational requirements are addressed upfront," said its spokesman, in response to media queries.

Zhi char refers to cooked-to-order, home-style Chinese dishes.

Hawker stalls that sell cooked food or Western-type food do not appear to be governed by the rule, which Dr Balakrishnan had said on Monday was "archaic".

He also said in a Facebook post that he would order the NEA to scrap it immediately.

The NEA replied to that yesterday, saying that as most upgraded hawker centres have exhaust systems and higher-capacity electrical power, it will be updating the licence requirements.

It did not give figures, however, on how many stalls are affected by the rule, which had been criticised by hawker Daniel Goh.

Mr Goh, who runs craft beer stall The Good Beer Company in Chinatown, said in a Facebook post that the rule was unclear, "onerous" and "restricting innovation". His post caught the attention of Dr Balakrishnan.

Following the NEA's explanation, Mr Goh told The Straits Times yesterday: "The explanation is totally plausible. Of course, it does not explain why no one had looked at it for the past couple of decades."

First-generation hawkers interviewed said they were aware of the rule.

Said Mr Teng Kiong Seng, 70, who sells peanut pancakes at Tanglin Halt Market: "You had to sell only one type of thing at one location, and had to apply separately to sell other things. It was easier for the authorities to oversee and control."

This rule at hawker centres in the early years was for public health reasons, he added. "If something were to happen, like a bout of food poisoning, we had to be held accountable."

Mr Lee Sah Bah, 64, who has been selling chwee kueh at Ghim Moh Market for more than 30 years, agreed. "Zhi char is smokier," he said.

The rule may refer to zhi char stalls, but its vague wording did not affect chef Kenneth Lin, 33, when he set up his French eatery La Cuisson in a Queen Street coffee shop, then at a Holland Drive hawker centre.

Mr Lin, who now runs La Cuisson as a Prinsep Street restaurant, said: "When I applied for the licence for the stall, I told them 'Western food'."

He added: "Heavy cooking like char kway teow probably generated more smoke than us."

But retiree Steven Lee, 58, is concerned that the scrapping of the rule would lead to higher prices.

"Typically, hawker stalls are meant for the sale of simple and cheap food."

But he fears that with the scrapping of the rule, "some entrepreneur-types who are being creative" would introduce restaurant-type food which, he added, would be relatively more expensive.

Rule on hawkers and restaurant type dishes gets the chop
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 14 Jan 2014

AN "ARCHAIC" rule that hawkers holding National Environment Agency licences must apply in writing if they want to sell "restaurant type" dishes has been scrapped.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan made the announcement last night in a Facebook post.

He had apparently seen hawker-stall holder Daniel Goh's Facebook post last Friday about the licensing requirement.

Mr Goh, 39, who runs craft-beer stall The Good Beer Company at Chinatown Complex, said a neighbour had just renewed his licence and spotted the odd condition that "in the case of a cooked food stall, no restaurant type of dishes shall be sold unless the licensee has been authorised to do so in writing by the Director-General of Public Health".

Mr Goh asked: "How do you define 'restaurant'?

"Here the government is trying to encourage more innovative food ideas, but there you have restrictions... There are great developments in the Singapore hawker scene, and it would be a great pity to throw a spanner in the works."

Mr Goh, who said he had not previously noticed the requirement printed on the back of the licence, applauded axing the rule.

Mr Gwern Khoo, 33, who runs A Noodle Story, a ramen stall in Amoy Street, said he was aware of the requirement but did not apply. "When I submitted, I said I was selling noodles."

He also welcomed the lifting of the requirement. "It's not so restricted. Now youngsters don't want to do traditional things, and they can put more creativity into the food."

The National Environment Agency did not respond to queries yesterday about the reason for such a rule, or what "restaurant" food was.

Food blogger Leslie Tay, 45, of, told The Straits Times in an e-mail: "I didn't know that there was such a condition!

"I think (scrapping it) is the right thing to do. Our society and culture is evolving, so the definition of what is restaurant food and what isn't has also changed. In the past, pasta was only available in restaurants, but nowadays you would expect it in the hawker centre.

"Things like xiao long bao, ramen, spaghetti and dim sum were previously found only in restaurants. Now we can find them at the hawker centres. By removing the rule, the minister is merely acknowledging the fact that society has progressed."

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