KF Seetoh Pleads For Singapore To Preserve Hawker Culture

Local food guru KF Seetoh, founder of OG food review site Makansutra, has always been vocal about the plight of our hawkers and their dying trades.

He’s spoken out before about rising hawker rental costs, paying for automated tray return systems & more recently, NTUC’s proposed buyout of Kopitiam’s 80 outlets.

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This time, he penned close to a thousand words in an open letter to Senior Minister of State Dr Amy Khor, calling for greater efforts to “preserve hawker culture”.

Here are the salient points he made in his essay.

High operation fees are bleeding hawkers dry

He began by thanking Dr Khor for looking into the “unfair practices of the Social Enterprise Hawker Centre (SEHC)”.

She had earlier asked SEHC to be more “transparent” in their additional service fees, and to ensure they were optional.

Mr Seetoh felt that this wasn’t sufficient, citing “high overall operation fees” for hawkers as the main problem.

Makansutra’s founder then revealed actual screenshots of a few shocking contract terms offered by SEHC to hawkers.

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Evidently, there’s a clear difference in rental and fees for private and public-owned food courts in Singapore.

In his own words,

The difference is quite stark. Private food courts can charge and levy any amount they deem fit as it’s a private enterprise.

Hawkers must pay rent till the next tenant signs up

The first example given was a noodle stall managed by “a famous local food court chain”.

They paid $4,000 per month for basic rent, and allegedly forked out service fees that more than doubled it.

Subsequently, they couldn’t sustain the business as “footfall began to freefall after opening”.

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This hawker was allegedly asked to pay for the remaining years’ worth of rental and fees in their contract, or until “another tenant is found”.

That amounts to a “painful minimum of $2k a month”.

Now, the noodle stall hawker has decided relocate to a residential area with higher footfall in a private coffeshop.

He’ll be paying about the same rent and operation fees, for an existing crowd. However, his family will still have to cough up the monthly “penalty fees” to SEHC.

Hawkers pay 20¢/tray returned

Mr Seetoh also brought up the unpopular tray return system with both hawkers & customers alike.

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Well, it has come to light that hawkers are also tasked to pay $0.20 each time a tray is returned to their stall.

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This comes up to $400-800/month for “tray returns alone”, a fee which is “over and above cleaning and maintenance” charges.

Raising fees anytime

Finally, he alleged that “professionally and independently written lawyer contracts” are sent out to the hawkers, to update them on new management terms.

However, the hawkers are also being charged for the drafting of these contracts.

According to Mr Seetoh, this is a “rather ridiculous” practice, as regular landlords don’t charge tenants for “standard contract offer letters in market practices”.

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Worringly, he brought up a clause that allegedly allowed the landlord to “raise service and monthly fees anytime with given notice”.

Food for thought

Something must be done to preserve low operation costs so hawkers can comfortably offer cheaper meals for those who need it.

The Makansutra founder called for National Environment Agency (NEA) to take control of publicly owned hawker centres and SEHCs.

He urged NEA to run 6000 licensed hawkers situated in 114 public hawker centres “effectively and with minimal fuss”, like they always had.

Through banding together as a nation to help these hawkers have their situation heard, we’ll thus be able to preserve food heritage.

More importantly, encourage next-gen hawkers to step up, ensuring continuity for our hawker culture in the generations to come.

Featured image from Makansutra and John T on Unsplash.