Time to end “social enterprise” experiment?

Food does not exist just for sustenance of the body but it sustains the soul too. When one is feeling sianz, everybody can name their comfort food to make them feel better. Usually it is something familiar and humble like a bowl of pork porridge, or a bowl of kambing soup on a rainy day, or even a good ‘ol plate of chicken rice. Hell, we even have our own peculiar and personal way of eating chicken rice.

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What all the comfort food have in common is that they usually exist in a hawker centre, that quintessentially Singaporean temple to food for the soul. And we like to tell our foreign friends that they haven’t been to Singapore until they have eaten at a hawker centre. Yes, I guess Newton hawker centre counts too even though it’s still a tourist trap.

So it’s no surprise that the debate on Social Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs) has been rather heated. Makansutra founder KF Seetoh ignited the debate when he started to highlight the contracts that hawkers at SEHCs were made to sign. This included an open letter to Senior Minister of State Dr Amy Khor titled “Please Preserve our Public Hawker Centres”. Seetoh said some of the unfair contract clauses included:

  • Hefty penalties for giving up the hawker stall – the tenant has to pay S$2,000 a month for early termination until the contract period expires.
  • Hawkers foot the cost of S$0.20 for each tray customer returns.
  • Landlord can raise fees at any time and give short notice
  • Hawkers have to pay S$267.50 for the preparation of the tenancy agreement.

To be clear, the vast majority of hawker centres are run by NEA aka the government. To date, there are 13 hawker centres and markets run by “social enterprises”, including Fei Siong, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre, Koufu, and Kopitiam.

When you think of social enterprises, you think of not-for-profit organisations. But the so-called “social enterprises” are anything but. Besides running SEHCs, they also run other profitable businesses. In fact, Koufu which runs Jurong West Hawker Centre, recently listed on the SGX in July 2018. Making money is in the DNA of these companies. How do you expect them to suddenly become “socially conscious”?

Ex-NMP Calvin Cheng said in his Facebook post below that, “if the government wants to keep hawker food prices down and still allow hawkers to make money, the only way is to run it as a state enterprise, at cost, and let bureaucrats run it.” This makes complete sense to me. No point forcing square pegs into round holes.

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To be fair to the policy-makers, they had good intentions. To keep the hawker culture alive as hawkers get older, they needed to look for innovative ways to do so, such as having private operators introduce automation to solve the manpower crunch and utilizing their bulk-purchasing power for ingredients to keep prices down.

But increasingly it looks like the SEHC experiment is one that is not working. It seems to me that social enterprises work best when undertaken on a smaller scale. When the social enterprise gets bigger, the profit motive starts to creep in. Don’t even think of doing it the other way round, i.e. trying to turn listed companies into social enterprises.

To me, it is no shame if NEA comes out to say, “Hey it was an experiment but it did not turn out as we hoped.” If hawker culture is really as important to us as we say it is, important enough to submit a bid for UNESCO recognition, then maybe the authorities should take a step back and acknowledge that changes need to be made to safeguard our hawker culture for future generations.