Does Singapore love hawkers more than us?

Does Singapore love hawkers more than us?

I was absolutely thrilled when I learnt that Singapore was planning to open a version of the Chatuchak Weekend Market early next year.

Well, who wouldn't be happy to hear that a rich neighbour has a deep appreciation of our street culture? In fact, even the conservative Singapore media picked up on the story this month, and carried quite a few reports about the weekend market, which will also be called Chatuchak Market and will run from Feb 4 to May 3 at a department store.

According to reports, some 30 to 50 Thai vendors will be flown to the island state from Bangkok every week on a rotating basis.

Similarly, another Bangkok flea market "Artbox", which was first introduced to Singapore shoppers in 2017, proved to be a huge success again last month.

While our neighbour knows how to cash in on our street culture, the Thai authorities really have no idea. City officials tend to see our street culture as a "for-tourists-only" gig and have decided to take a tough stance on street vendors.

Senator and economist Sungsidth Piriyarangsan, who is leading a committee tasked with reducing poverty and inequality, called on Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang this month to drop his plan to uproot street vendors and instead allocate parts of the city's pavements to them.

Mr Sungsidth pointed out that the ban on more than 900 locations over the past five years has adversely affected more than 200,000 street vendors and some five or six million city dwellers who want food at affordable prices. According to him, a new model involving both pedestrians and street vendors, as well as stricter cleanliness and hygiene regulations could be the answer.

In his opinion, a blanket ban will end up drawing a clear line between the so-called informal economy and the formal one. And the subsequent disappearance of the informal economy, Mr Sungsidth said, will directly affect the economy, as small businesses and low-income earners still rely on the informal sector for affordable goods and services.

However, a few days after the senator posted his proposal on Facebook, City Hall spokesman Pongsakorn Kwanmuang, who also happens to be governor Aswin's son, was quick to counter the idea. City Hall, he said, was not planning to return the pavements reclaimed over the past five years back to the vendors.

The spokesman claimed the "set-zero" pavement reclamation policy is still necessary, as several sites were under mafia control. He also said that areas will be earmarked for street vendors based on a three-point criteria, namely pavements must be wide enough for stalls, pedestrians and wheelchair users to share; that the vendors are not related to mafia; and the area is kept clean and attractive.

Capt Pongsakorn also said that the aim was to bring back street food in three areas, namely Khao San, Chinatown and Silom, as part of a tourism promotion plan, which will be economically beneficial.

Though I agree with the City Hall spokesman in that mafia presence be removed and that vendors should learn to share their space with pedestrians, I still think he is missing the real point, in that street food is part of people's lives here.

Though Singapore's version of the Chatuchak Weekend Market may not be directly linked to the subject of Bangkok's street culture, both are part of an informal economy that millions of people, especially those from the low-income sector, rely upon.

It's an open secret that Singaporeans crave for a lively street culture after having their lives strictly managed for decades. Singapore began registering all hawkers in the 1910s, and eventually managed to move them off the streets into a properly governed space in the 1980s.

However, the island state's was not to put things in order. On the contrary, it has been trying hard to protect the industry because the Singapore government knows that more than half the population relies on street food.

The Hawker Centre Committee 3.0 was tasked by the government in 2016 to look into ways of reviving the industry, as they realised that existing stall owners will soon retire and their children may not be willing take over the business. They have also made hawker centres more attractive to the young generation by providing free wifi in certain spots.

This is not the first effort Singapore has made to recognise and better embrace the so-called informal sector. In March, Singapore officially applied for its Hawker Culture to be inscribed into Unesco's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Yet Thailand appears to be going in the opposite direction, and if things continue this way, I won't be surprised if one day in the near future we end up importing Singapore's street culture.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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