Model of social enterprise hawker centres needs to be tweaked to benefit all involved: Elim Chew

Model of social enterprise hawker centres needs to be tweaked to benefit all involved: Elim Chew

Ci Yuan Hawker Centre
Ci Yuan Community Centre Hawker Centre in Hougang is one of the first in Singapore to be run by a social enterprise. (Photo: Fann Sim)

SINGAPORE: The model of having social enterprises manage hawker centres on a not-for-profit basis was mooted with good intentions, but it will now have to be tweaked so that it benefits all parties involved, said local entrepreneur Elim Chew.

In particular, the issue of higher rents and additional fees faced by hawkers at some of these social enterprise-run hawker centres will have to be looked into, she told reporters on Wednesday (Oct 24).

"It (was recommended with) a good intention,” said Ms Chew. “I don’t think it’s a wrong model but it needs to be tweaked to a model that benefits all.” 

Ms Chew, best known as the founder of iconic streetwear brand 77th Street, chaired the 18-member Hawker Centres Public Consultation Panel which in 2012 recommended the not-for-profit hawker centre model.

The panel was formed in November 2011 after the Government announced in the same year that it would start building more hawker centres amid concerns over rising living costs.

Since the National Environment Agency (NEA) began appointing socially-conscious operators in 2015, there are now seven of such centres managed by five social enterprise entities – Hawker Management by Koufu, Fei Siong Social Enterprise, NTUC Foodfare, Timbre+Hawkers and OTMH by Kopitiam. 

However, this operating model has come under the spotlight following complaints about higher rents and additional fees for services such as tray returns and cleaning. 

READ: Some social enterprise hawkers unconvinced by business model of packaged charges

READ: Extra fees of S$650 levied on some Ci Yuan hawkers a ‘miscommunication’: Fei Siong management

Last week, Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said that NEA will do a "stocktake" of the model and bring errant operators to task.

Social enterprise operators have also been asked to form feedback groups in the hawker centres they manage, Dr Khor said in a Facebook post on Wednesday evening. The operators will meet the groups on a regular basis. 

"NEA will also actively engage these feedback groups to better understand ground issues, and facilitate timely responses," she added.


Ms Chew said that while some of the complaints raised by hawkers have come as a surprise to her, they are also “part and parcel of who bears the loss” of running these hawker centres.

She added that there may have been some misunderstanding about the social enterprise model.

“They are not-for-profit but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make profit,” she said, while stressing that profits will help to ensure the sustainability of these social enterprises.

“At the end of the day, it’s where the money goes to. In our recommendation, it’s a plough-back model … which means the money needs to go back to helping hawkers upgrade their skills or better programmes for the centres.”

Ms Chew added that the question of who bears the losses of running these hawker centres will be one that authorities and operators have to look into. In addition, it may help to get operators to declare how much profits will be put back into helping the hawkers. 

Entrepreneur Elim Chew on social enterprise hawker centres
Ms Elim Chew, who started the iconic streetwear brand 77th Street and is now a champion of social enterprise, speaking to the media on Oct 24, 2018. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

Under the panel’s proposed not-for-profit model, the hawker centres would be run by social enterprises – defined as a regular business that maximises profits to deliver social impact – with funding and other support from the Government. 

The priorities include ensuring that the community “derive maximum benefit from the centre”, provide employment opportunities for individuals from the lower income groups and the less privileged, as well as help people who aspire to be part of the food industry.

When asked by Channel NewsAsia if this model is too idealistic given that these operators are businesses after all, Ms Chew replied: “They are making money from the rest (of their operations) … so we’d think that maybe they would want to have a section that gives back. But even as much as they want to give back, they are coming with the angle that they cannot lose money – it’s a very business mindset in terms of I cannot lose money.

“(Only when) we can help them to solve that then they will have the ease to say ‘Ok, all these other things will be waived or absorbed’.”

It is an issue that needs to be clarified so that these do not get translated into additional costs for the hawkers, she added.

On how that clarification can be done, Ms Chew suggested doing it through the tender contract between NEA and the operators, though she stressed that all parties involved will have to come together to discuss how to make things work.

READ: Jurong West Hawker Centre customers to pay deposit when using trays: Hawker Management

READ: Hawkers can flag concerns with NEA place managers: Amy Khor

Moving forward, Ms Chew thinks the model of having social enterprises manage hawker centres is still a viable one given that it was recommended as an alternative to NEA-run hawker centres with the aim of solving some problems, such as subletting of stalls and having a more active landlord that can provide hawkers with help in areas like marketing. 

But current complaints that have raised eyebrows about how social enterprises manage hawker centres will have to be solved – and be done soon. 

“The life of hawkers is tough – it is what we care for in the first place, so we must do it as fast as we can.” 

Noting that the model remains one that will need to evolve with the ongoing feedback, Ms Chew added: “We can make plans for the next few hawker centres so that we don’t make some of these past mistakes.”

For one, the entrepreneur, who has been championing the idea of social enterprises here in Singapore, suggested implementing an all-inclusive rental package at a flat fee.

“Everything can be a package - you rent this stall for S$3,000 and the hawker wouldn’t have to worry about tray returns for example ... Take away the load of all these thoughts of additional costs so that all hawkers have to think is how to cook the dish at its best or how they can improve them.”

Source: CNA/sk(gs)