Old Airport Road Hawker Centre

Crazy Rich Asians might visit Newton for their share of local fare but true blue foodies know that nothing beats the food at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre.

So it’s no surprise that many Singaporeans were dismayed to hear allegations that hawkers at the market were being mistreated by their new operator, NTUC Foodfare.

A certain Mr Gary Ho made these allegations on Tuesday (Oct 23).

NTUC Foodfare took over the management of Old Airport Road Hawker Centre from the National Environment Agency (NEA) in 2017. And according to Mr Ho, the new management has implemented all sorts of changes.

He writes,

one of the hawkers I know very well was lamenting to me how recent changes are going to kill the hawker centre.

What are these changes? Here they are in a nutshell. MS News has reached out to NTUC Foodfare and has added their comments below.

Mandatory insurance

According to Mr Ho, hawkers now have to buy mandatory insurance of $100 a year. This covers public areas outside their stall. “Why are they made to insure the hawker centre?” asks Mr Ho.

NTUC Foodfare says: “At the signing of the tenancy agreement, we explain all the terms covered in the stallholder checklist, which includes the public liability insurance for the hawker’s own protection against third-party claims, not limited to fire, food poisoning and etc as required by NEA. The hawker is free to engage their own insurer. This is per the same practice at other NEA managed hawker centres.”

This is a copy of the stallholder checklist.

NTUC Foodfare adds that a Mandarin version of the checklist was also available for Mandarin-speaking hawkers.

Increased cleaning costs

Mr Ho alleges that cleaning charges at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre now cost more than $500, up from the previous $300. These apply to shops that sell mainly takeaway items as well. “(The) previous contractor voluntarily gave them a slight discount since they used less resources,” says Mr Ho. Mr Ho adds that hawkers approached NTUC Foodfare to offer this same discount, but were met with silence.

NTUC Foodfare says: The operator claims that the previous cleaning contractor had gone “missing”, forcing Foodfare to bring in an interim cleaning contractor. A tender was eventually called and 3 tiers of cleaning costs were introduced, based on price:

  • Pastry/ Dim Sum Stalls $374.50
  • Drinks/ Dessert Stalls $513.60
  • Cooked Food Stalls $588.50

So Mr Ho’s allegations that there were was a uniform cost seems to be false.

In a media statement, the group revealed that NTUC Foodfare called for the tender and shortlisted 3 bidders based on their manpower capabilities, track record and pricing. Ultimately, hawkers through the Hawker Association made the final decision.

Stay open for long hours

Mr Ho also charges that hawkers must now stay open for longer hours. “(Hawkers) say why open when there is no one coming?” he says.

NTUC Foodfare says: Tenants at Old Airport Road Hawker Centre before NTUC Foodfare’s takeover do not face a minimum number of operating hours or a limit on the number of rest day/s per week. But this doesn’t apply to new tenants, who need to operate a minimum of 8 hours a day. These tenants have 1 rest day per week.

An NTUC Foodfare rep adds,

If they need to apply for leave for valid personal reasons or take medical leave, they will just need to notify the managing agent. Currently, there are only 2 hawkers operating under this scheme at OAHC. We have not received any feedback from both hawkers on any difficulty meeting the minimum required hours.

What the MP says

Old Airport Road Hawker Centre sits in Mountbatten SMC. Mr Lim Biow Chuan won the constituency handily in 2015, securing more than 70% of the valid vote.

According to Mr Ho, Mr Lim has been of little help to hawkers. Mr Ho writes,

The hawkers also told me they are super grateful to Seetoh for bringing everything up because when they mentioned it to their MP, silence…. Their MP was even there at the meeting when all the ridiculous changes were brought up and said nothing.

The Seetoh in question here is none other than Makansutra’s K F Seetoh, whose comments on social enterprises and our hawker culture have sparked vigorous debate online.

The latest food court debate

K F Seetoh’s own comments were in response to news of a practice at Jurong West Hawker Centre. Operator Koufu had been charging hawkers 20 cents for each tray returned as part of a tray-return system.

In a U-turn, Koufu then announced that customers would pay a refundable deposit of 20 cents for trays they use.

The Jurong West fiasco has raised questions about Singapore’s hawker culture, given the government’s bid to get our unique food heritage on UNESCO’s list. Many wonder if operators and their practices are stifling the culture rather than grooming it for greatness.

While it has yet to be seen if hawker centre operators will destroy our beloved street food culture, Mr Ho isn’t taking any chances. He writes,

We’d better go and eat there before they all leave.

Featured image from National Environment Agency.