CLEANING HAWKER CENTRES: A CASE WHERE POLITICS WENT OVERBOARD

Have you been following the saga?

It is hoped that members of other opposition parties are following closely the amusing saga of National Environment Agency (NEA) accusing AHPETC over the cleaning of two hawker centres. This will give other opposition parties an idea on what to expect when they win a constituency that has been held by the ruling party for a long time and where deep-rooted local grassroots organizations are loyal to the PAP.

NEA’s requirements

NEA required that quarterly spring cleaning to be carried out in hawker centres and, in addition, the high areas of those hawker centres (e.g. ceilings, beams and exhaust ducts) should be cleaned at least once a year.

Rightly so, NEA does not insist on when should a quarterly cleaning occur and when must the cleaning of high areas (i.e. annual cleaning) take place – because it allows the town council (TC) the flexibility to carry out the cleaning in accordance to local conditions, taking into account various local factors.

In other words, the first quarterly spring cleaning may occur in any month with the last quarterly cleaning held within twelve months from the first quarterly spring cleaning; e.g. a TC may schedule its quarterly spring cleaning in the months of May, Aug, Nov and Feb. The cleaning of high areas (or annual cleaning) may be carried out with any of the four quarterly spring cleanings – depending on local conditions, e.g. the state of cleanliness within the premises, market activities and planned maintenance works.

NEA’s unfounded charges

With heavy firing support from the local media, NEA and its minister (Vivian Balakrishnan) accused the AHPETC and its contractor for attempting to double charge hawkers for cleaning of high areas. The minister even went overboard with his accusations, claiming that his political opponents (Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh of the WP) had made false and untruthful statements! The so-called “evidence” or “dossier” produced by NEA and the minister was weak, suspicious and, in my view, showed their desperate attempt to politicize what was supposed to be a minute issue.

This was the first time Workers’ Party (WP) won a GRC – and it was through a very tough battle! This was NOT the first time stall operators of both hawker centres were having their business premises cleaned! Hence WP, AHPETC and its contractor should know very well that any attempt to cheat the hawkers would amount to a political suicide and end up with criminal charges!

To say that WP and its contractor were willing to trade what they currently had achieved in exchange for a paltry sum of $7200, and knowing very well that the hawkers would report them to the police – is simply incredibly stupid!

Was it a spring cleaning or annual cleaning?

Throughout the saga, Sylvia Lim had on several instances reminded NEA and its minister as well as the media on the difference between ‘spring cleaning’ and ‘annual cleaning’. Vivian Balakrishnan, however, swept that difference aside as “beating around the bush” in his parliamentary debate with Sylvia Lim in parliament. In fact, I noticed that NEA officers and both hawker associations had been sticking to using the phrase “spring cleaning” in their written complaints and correspondence relating to this issue of high area cleaning.

It aroused suspicions. Were we told the full story? Was cleaning of high areas scheduled to take place in that particular spring cleaning, in the first place? Did the hawker associations insist on high area cleaning to be done on dates which the TC could not agree on? Did the hawker associations attempt to use NEA to pressure their TC to give in to their demand?

A check on AHPETC website revealed that cleaning of high areas of both hawker centres were tentatively scheduled to take place in October (for Block 538) and November (for Block 511).

AHPETC was given the responsibilities but not the authority?

Among the emails released by AHPETC, there was one dated 20th December 2012 – long before spring cleaning of Block 538 Hawker Centre started. That email was sent by NEA to AHPETC and it read, “The next spring cleaning date for 538 Bedok North St 3 will be from 4/3/13 (Mon) to 8/3/13 (Fri) as proposed by Hawkers Association rep.”

I find it strange that given TC is responsible for the cleaning of hawker centres within its constituency, why did the representatives of Hawker Association for Block 538 propose spring cleaning date to NEA, instead of discussing the dates with its own TC? Why did NEA allow the hawker association to bypass its TC on a routine issue that is clearly within the responsibility of TC? I can only guess that either the Hawker Association refused to deal with AHPETC or it wanted to use NEA to pressure AHPETC to carry out high area cleaning on a date which the TC refused to accept for some reasons.

Aljunied GRC used to be under the PAP town council for a long time. The various local grassroots organizations are manned by people who are generally loyal to the PAP.

With the GRC now under WP’s management, it is understandable that ground organizations such as grassroots committees and hawker associations are finding it difficult to adapt to the new situation and practices. However, such organizations should bear in mind that the change was a decision of Aljunied voters. They should respect voters’ decision and worked with the new TC management.

Based on its past experience in Hougang, AHPETC claimed that it could do an annual cleaning of high areas without having to close down the market for five days, unlike in the past when the TC was managed by the PAP. Was there a clash between the TC and Hawker Association on this new practice of annual cleaning without requiring market to be closed for five days? If so, I would think the Hawker Association should give AHPETC the opportunity to prove its claim, since such a practice, if successful, would benefit the stall operators as they would not need to lose 5 days’ earnings in future. Incidentally, was this the reason why Vivian Balakrishnan warned that he would inspect the hawker centre’s ceiling cleanliness after the spring cleaning?

The so-called “Dossier”

Vivian Balakrishnan’s so-called “evidence” supporting his accusations was found in his so-called “Dossier”.

To my great disappointment, his so-called “Dossier” contained nothing new but a list of selective information which failed to support his allegations!

(a). Price Quotation of AHPETC’s contractor

As explained by Sylvia Lim, AHPETC’s contractor was an independent commercial company that was free to provide quotations to anyone asking for it. It cannot be used as evidence to accuse the TC or its contractor for attempting to double charge hawkers. Given that the price quotation was addressed to the representative of Hawker Association, I can’t help asking myself this question, “Was the Hawker Association’s chief the one who asked for the quotation – hoping to embarrass AHPETC and WP if the price quotation turned out to be more costly than the rates charged by contractors of PAP constituencies?”

(b). Meeting notes written by NEA staff

Meeting notes is a record written by a participant, based on what he perceived had been said during a meeting. It is not a meeting’s official minute. It is similar to notes taken by students in lecture room when the professor is teaching – and professors do not sign off students’ notes as true and correct.

In the commercial world, it is common to see people writing meeting notes about what had been said but in the wrong context. Hence, a note entry such as “Mr. Tai mentioned that the cost of cleaning high areas should be borne by hawker association” could possibly be recorded out of context. He might have said those words in the context of a spring cleaning that was not an annual cleaning.

(c). Mr. Tai’s stock reply to NEA and Hawker Association

Subsequent to the Block 538 Market cleaning disputes, AHPETC Project Manager, Mr. Tai, was accused by the minister for giving stock reply in response to a number of queries from NEA and Hawker Association of Block 511.

“We would like to inform you that Spring Cleaning is a practice set by NEA, not Town Council. As such we advise the Merchant Association to liaise with NEA directly on the requirement”, wrote Mr. Tai.

I do not know how the minister viewed Mr. Tai’s stock reply, but I saw a very furious project manager who felt that he had been exploited for political gains, his job had been made unnecessarily difficult and resented insinuations that he had done something wrong.

Withdrawing parliamentary privilege

Vivian Balakrishnan told the media that he was withdrawing his parliamentary privilege for his statements against Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh, effectively challenging both to sue him for defamation for accusing them lying.

In my personal opinion, I think Vivian Balakrishnan has probably expected both WP MPs would not want to fight a legal battle against him. I guess both Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh are not earning million-dollar income, they do not have much resource like time and manpower, they cannot afford to be distracted from their current roles, and more importantly there is that X factor – which Singaporeans should know what I mean.

Politics is about contest for power?

Vivian Balakrishnan sees politics as a contest for power. It is no wonder that he put in so much effort and resource in attempting to make a mountain out of a molehill on this very small issue of cleaning high areas of hawker centres.

In the eyes of the minister, Singaporeans are paying him the world highest salary to contest for power!

Celia Lim

TRS Contributor