Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wet markets must stay – even if vacated

SUPERMARKET chain Sheng Siong will not be allowed to convert the six wet markets it recently bought for other uses – even if all the stallholders move out.

The Housing Board said in a statement yesterday that there is still demand for wet markets and it will ensure the needs of residents are met.

The statement comes in the wake of a 30 per cent rental hike Sheng Siong imposed in five of the wet markets from this month. The chain also halved the length of stallholders’ rental contracts to a year.

The changes upset stallholders, who are left with little choice but to raise prices, let go of workers or pull out.

The sixth wet market, in Elias Road, was taken over untenanted on March 1. It too will have to remain as a wet market, said the HDB. Although Sheng Siong is landlord to the individual stallholders, the sale and change of use of such facilities – which are HDB premises – are still subject to official approval.

HDB also weighed in on the supermarket chain’s move to raise rental prices and shorten tenancy agreements.

While Sheng Siong is a private operator and can adjust the terms for stallholders, said the HDB, it advised the chain that it would face difficulty attracting stallholders if it charged excessive rent.

‘Likewise, the stallholders who are compelled to set high prices for their produce because of the high rent may not be able to sustain their business in the longer term,’ it said.

HDB’s advice: that Sheng Siong consider the operation of the wet markets on a sustainable long-term basis when making rental or tenancy adjustments.

When contacted yesterday, Sheng Siong acknowledged HDB’s position on the issue, but said it was ‘following market-rate rents’.

‘We see very good demand for our lots at these wet markets,’ said its managing director Lim Hock Chee, who added that all stallholders in the five tenanted markets had signed the new contracts.

Stallholders are angry about the rental hike, which comes just three months after the chain’s controversial purchase of five of the wet markets – in Serangoon Avenue 3, Bukit Batok West Avenue 8, Fajar Road in Bukit Panjang, and two in Choa Chu Kang – from private company Heeton Holdings.

The chain had wanted to convert them into air-conditioned markets, triggering public concern about the shrinking number of wet markets in Singapore.

Stallholders welcomed the HDB’s statement, but said the future remained uncertain. ‘It is good that the Government has stepped in to make sure the wet market stays,’ said pork seller Richard Goh, 49, who has been at the Serangoon wet market for 15 years.

‘But down the line, Sheng Siong could still keep it as a wet market, but do away with us individual stallholders and hire its own staff.’

It would mean the end of the road for many of them, said Mr Goh, who added that the one-year lease he signed last month with Sheng Siong could be terminated at any time by either party with a month’s notice.

In Bukit Batok, chicken seller Albert Teo felt more reassured.

‘We feel safer now,’ said the 54-year-old, who has been operating there for the past 12 years. ‘I think it will want to keep us because of our good relationship with the customers. It’s something that has taken years to build up.’

In its statement, the HDB also assured residents that prices for market produce at these six wet markets would remain competitive because of competition with other markets and supermarkets in the areas.

It noted that there were two supermarkets and three wet market produce shops within 170m of the wet market in Serangoon Avenue 3. There are also 12 market produce shops and two supermarkets within 180m of the wet market in Bukit Batok.

The HDB, which approved the sale of the wet markets, said it had received feedback from residents and MPs over the rent hike.

Customers like engineer Poh Pin Low, 44, who visits the Choa Chu Kang Street 62 wet market daily, hope nothing will change. ‘It is good as it is. Who knows what this will mean for the prices of fish and chicken in the future?’ he asked.

Source: Straits Times, 8 Apr 2010

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