Commentary: Capturing the community spirit of the Ramadan bazaar
Amid rising rental costs, the revenue-driven aspect of festive bazaars should be balanced with social and cultural aspects to celebrate the diversity of Singapore’s society, say the Institute of Policy Studies’ Faizal Yahya and Shamsuri Juhari.
SINGAPORE: The rich scent of Ramly burgers, kebabs and otah. Colourful fabrics of traditional clothing, stalls with interesting decorative posters, and Henna artists creating art on their customers’ hands. Vendors and shoppers chattering cheerfully.
At last count, a week before the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar wrapped up on Saturday (Apr 22), more than 3 million people had visited to soak in the atmosphere and the festivities.
Across Singapore, there were dozens more Ramadan bazaars and pasar malams (night markets).
While we rejoice in the return of the physical Ramadan bazaars, these events have also been ensnared in the high costs of doing business in Singapore.
Granted, neighbourhood bazaars are fundraisers that add to the constituency’s financial coffers, however, they are also opportunities to give back to the community beyond monetary terms.
For example, the bazaars organised during the Islamic calendar month of Ramadan are an opportunity for Muslims to feel proud of their culture and identity as they celebrate with other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
It was reported that rental charges range from S$2,000 (US$1,500) for retail to more than S$19,000 for F&B outlets, while those selling kebabs were charged a base rental of S$25,000. This compares with S$7,000 for a food stall in 2016, said one F&B operator.
With soaring rentals and rising ancillary costs, consumers complained of high food prices at the bazaar.
The high rentals can be traced to the tender bids. The People’s Association invited tenders for the Bazaar Raya Geylang Serai in November 2022 on GeBIZ, the electronic procurement system used by the government.
A total of seven tenders were offered and a consortium of three companies, S-Lite Event Support, TLK Trade Fair and Events, and Enniche Global Trading, won the bid at S$2.26 million, which was the second-highest bid.
The bidding system was transparent, and the highest bid did not win the tender, which indicated that the authorities were mindful that the highest bid may not necessarily be the best bid.
Given that the tender included other considerations besides monetary terms, could this be extended to the wider tender process? This approach could dampen the rising costs and soften the harshness of introducing commercial market principles for such festive and cultural events.
We could consider alternative models used in neighbouring countries. In Sibu, East Malaysia, a Ramadan bazaar stall costs RM600 (US$135) to rent and when stallholders there lamented these prohibitive costs, assistance was at hand to reduce rental by as much as 80 per cent, to about RM125 for a stall. Reportedly, the Sibu organisers allocated about RM60,000 to assist potential stallholders.
THE KAMPUNG SPIRIT
In light of this, tenders for Ramadan bazaars in Singapore could be awarded based on a three-tier basis of criteria. The first tier could consider the bigger community agenda linked to the Ramadan bazaar, with the profit motive balanced with community building.
If there are stipulations in the tender for bidders to keep their rental affordable and to take into consideration factors such as community building and promoting diversity in society, then this may mitigate the high bids.
Keeping rental affordable also means that stallholders including food stalls should keep their prices affordable. For example, food stall Mr Wadeh sells the cheapest prawn vadai at the bazaar for S$1 apiece, keeping their prices low and absorbing the soaring costs as a form of giving back to society. This highlights values beyond commercial principles.
Arguably, Mr Wadeh is an extreme example in monetary terms but the cascading effects of such sentiments among potential stallholders would in essence capture the kampung spirit in the community that has been much talked about.
It was also reported that stalls were collaborating to share the costs of the high rental costs. For example, Big Big Fries is co-sharing a booth with Whiskdom. Through such co-sharing of rental costs, the food stalls could gain more exposure and pass on their savings to consumers by keeping their prices low.
The second tier could be for food stalls that were disadvantaged by the pandemic and could benefit from more exposure. For example, several home-based businesses in the Malay Muslim community took a massive financial hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Ramadan bazaar is an opportunity for the state to show that they are not forgotten by enabling them to rent stalls at affordable or subsidised rentals. These initiatives encourage entrepreneurship and could lead to the formation of micro small- and medium-sized enterprises.
The third tier involves cultural, ethnic, and religious sensitivities. Given the history and context of the Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar, conditions could also be imposed on bidders to include cultural and ethnic traditions when the call for tender is made. For example, some stalls can be allocated with higher subsidies if the owners can prove that it contributes to the revival of valued Malay culture such as the sale of songkoks, sampings and traditional Malay accessories.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR OTHER FESTIVE PERIODS
As rental costs skyrocket, the economic, revenue-driven aspect of festive bazaars should be balanced with social and cultural aspects to enhance and celebrate the diversity of Singapore’s society.
The regulators who design the tender specifications and criteria have the authority to set wider social and community objectives.
Festive celebrations such as bazaars are opportunities to also create greater inter-community and inter-ethnic awareness in our increasingly diverse and heterogeneous society.
Of course, these suggestions should also be extended to other types of festive bazaars such as those over Chinese New Year, Christmas and Deepavali periods.
Faizal Yahya is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. Shamsuri Juhari is Research Fellow at the same Institute.