I can’t help but do a double-take at Dr Amy Khor’s assertion that social enterprise is the wrong term to describe the operators of 13 hawker centres here. The right label is “socially conscious’’ enterprise, she said. I wonder if that means they are like banks and developers who have corporate social responsibility emblazoned on their mission statements.
Okay, I am sorry if I am cynical. But I do wish that the “misinformation’’ was corrected from the start instead of being turned into an accusation later on. In fact, I wonder what the difference between the two is for her to make such a distinction suddenly.
After all, that was how the Hawker Centre Consultation Panel described them in its 2012 report:
New hawker centres could be managed by social enterprises with funding and and other support from the government for the operation, management and upgrading of the centres and the necessary subsidies to achieve its objectives. This management model is one where the daily operations are run by the social enterprise but still takes directions and instructions from a board of directors who are appointed by the government. Under such a model, the government could explore co-managing the centre with the social enterprise for an initial period to lend its expertise in hawker centre management to the latter.
Then it helpfully elaborated on the term in a footnote:
A social enterprise is a regular business that maximises profits to deliver social impact such as hiring ex- offenders. It is considered “for profit” when it is invested by private investors who take equity stakes. It is considered “non-profit” when the full profit is either ploughed back to the parent non-profit organization or fully retained in the company to create maximum social benefits without giving out any returns to investor shareholders.
The hawker centre social enterprise is a registered non-profit company that tenants out hawker stalls to create viable livelihoods for small time individual hawkers, the low income and the less privileged locals to provide affordable food to the community.
The model isn’t quite the same though because the G isn’t quite intervening in the management once the tender has been awarded. It now seems to be having a change of heart.
The SEHCs are supposed to put back half of what they make into the community. Did they do so? They have to hand in audited accounts to the National Environment Agency every year. The model has been in place for three years. According to Dr Khor, none of the five enterprises made an operating surplus.
What can we deduce from that? So they made no money at all, and therefore cannot give anything back? How long will they take to break even? Or is this because they spent too much money marketing the centres to create “vibrancy’’? Is the model broken? Are we asking too much of these SEHCs?
Instead we are told that the model is “generally sound’’ with assertions about “good outcomes’’ (like a higher rate of tray return!). Plenty of “happy’’ anecdotes from hawkers peppered the speeches of the two ministers who replied to questions from MPs in Parliament on Monday. And this comes right after Dr Khor slammed well meaning people for passing on generalisations, incomplete information and “unhappy’’ anecdotes.
I am going to sound like a broken record here: Fake news happens when there is no news. It took a pretty long time for us to get answers to questions that were first raised by food critic K F Seetoh in August. The SEHCs themselves were pretty closed mouth choosing only to correct misinformation. (And more, which you can read here.)
Monday was when we heard a full accounting of the operating costs of hawker stalls and what they have to pay the SEHC.
Here’s a quick run-down from Dr Khor:
Stall rental: The median rental of stalls in SEHCs is about $2,000 per month, not $4,000 per month as some media reports have claimed. The highest is 3,700. Yes, the median rental is higher than the median rental of $1,700 a month elsewhere but the SEHC stalls are larger: 10 to 21sqm compared to 5 to 13sqm.
Operating costs: Service & Conservancy Charges (S&CC) at SEHCs are between $110 and $350 a month, within the range of $130 to $450 a month at the rest. (This was said by Dr Khor although I would think S&C charges aren’t decided by the SEHCs but town councils.)
Cleaning costs: Table-cleaning fees at SEHCs are between $300 and $550 a month, within the range of $200 to $830 a month at the rest. Those at SEHCs have centralized dishwashing facilities which, at one SEHC, cost about $700 a month. Other hawkers with no such facilities have to hire dishwashers paying each up to $1,500 a month.
So that’s the cost part. What are the safeguards?
The SEHC can’t change the charges to hawkers or implement new – even optional – costs without letting the NEA know. So that $600 optional professional consultation fee levied by Fei Siong to Ci Yuan Community Club Hawker Centre in a “miscommunication’’ to hawkers had presumably been cleared by the NEA. (The wonder is that the grassroots leaders who throng the community club don’t seem to have heard anything.)
What about other contractual terms such as 24-hour operations, penalties for closures and onerous termination clauses? Obviously, the NEA is clueless or it wouldn’t have demanded that such terms be changed from January. Also, obviously, it has no idea of hawker complaints. Or it turned a deaf ear to them. Or directed the hawkers to the SEHC.
I mean, to think the SEHCs had to be directed to hold feedback sessions with hawkers…It boggles the mind.
Unless of course, the SEHCs are really just private companies with other pre-occupations, which should be left to decide how to run the business. You know, like mall management. In fact, some mall managements do quite a lot to drive footfall into their buildings with fringe activities, free shuttle service and flea markets. You know, like SEHCs are supposed to do.
I will grant the SEHCs this: Why should they operate with a bigger heart unless they have help to do so? Did SEHCs (not the hawkers) get any help in the form of programmes or grants or subsidies from the G or taxpayers to get the job done? Only now do we hear of 50 per cent subsidy for centralized dishwashing services. And that’s only for the first year.
All I can say is that the NEA has left the SEHCs too much to their own devices. Dr Khor prefers, however, to put it this way: “NEA will rebalance its soft touch regulatory approach towards SEHC operators and exercise greater oversight to safeguard hawkers’ well-being.’’ The word “rebalance’’ has been used several times by her. Likewise, the word “re-calibration’’.
She might as well have said: “We didn’t pay much attention to the SEHC before. Maybe we should have. We’ll start doing so from now.’’
There is now a “stock take” of SEHCs. What’s puzzling is why the G is insisting the model is fine when the review isn’t even over. After all, Dr Khor has declared that the G is open to other business models for hawker centre operations. Already, people are talking about having co-operatives run the show. If radical changes should be taken, so be it. Why constrain the review by insisting that everything is really, really okay?
You know, it’s okay to be wrong sometimes.