Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wet markets' buyout causes upset

Residents oppose plans for 'air-conditioned markets'; stallholders worry about livelihoods

PLANS to shut down five wet markets in Choa Chu Kang, Serangoon North, Bukit Batok West and Bukit Panjang are making two groups of people unhappy.

Residents in these neighbourhoods are upset over what looks to be a loss of lower prices, freshness and variety, and market stallholders are wondering what is to become of their livelihoods. Some have gone to see their Members of Parliament.

The target of their joint ire: supermarket chain Sheng Siong, which bought the markets from boutique property developer Heeton for $25.55 million.

The five markets to cease operations in March next year are in Choa Chu Kang Street 62, Choa Chu Kang Avenue 1, Serangoon North Avenue 3, Bukit Batok West Avenue 8 and Fajar Road.

Sheng Siong plans to convert them into 'air-conditioned markets', although it has yet to spell out how the space in these five sites will be used.

Wet market patrons have already equated 'air-conditioned market' with 'supermarket', which they say they do not want or need.

But Sheng Siong is adamant about avoiding the term 'supermarket'. In its still-unconfirmed blueprint, an 'air-conditioned market' might well be '70 per cent wet market and 30 per cent supermarket', its spokesman explained.

Figures from the National Environment Agency (NEA) show that the island now has 101 wet markets, of which 82 are government-owned and the rest, private. NEA manages the 82 government-owned ones, but does hygiene checks on all 101.

The affected markets, which look like typical heartland wet markets, are privately owned.

Engineer Alex Ng, 45, who visits Serangoon market thrice weekly, is among those who are upset: 'If we have a wet market in our neighbourhood, we can compare prices there with big-chain prices. Usually, wet market prices are lower.'

For Madam Nirmala Narayanan, 48, a customer at the Serangoon market for 15 years, it is about variety. The wet market is where she goes for fresh mutton and grated coconut.

It is the same story with residents in the west. Housewife Winnie Tan, 52, spotted at the market in Choa Chu Kang Street 62, said: 'I don't need an air-conditioned market. Closing this place will be inconvenient for us. It is our only wet market.'

And then there are the stall operators, who feel blindsided. Those interviewed by The Straits Times said they were handed new contracts to sign a month ago.

Fishmonger Mohd Sabri, 52, whose stall is in the Serangoon market, said: 'The old contract didn't have a clause allowing the owners to kick us out in three months. The new one did. I didn't know better and signed it.'

Mr Mohd Sabri and about 140 other stallholders received a letter a week ago, which said they needed to move out by Dec 16.

He has so far tried unsuccessfully to get a stall at three other wet markets.

After some stallholders met Heeton and Sheng Siong representatives, the move-out date was pushed to March, but it is small comfort to the stallholders.

Mr Kelvin Lim, 47, who runs a vegetable stall in the Fajar Road market, said: 'We're not preventing Sheng Siong from taking over the market. We just hope they'll leave it as it is. They can still earn money from rental.

'Can't they empathise? They are such a huge chain, and we are just trying to earn enough to feed ourselves.'

A group of 26 Serangoon market stallholders were anxious enough to approach their MP, Mr Seah Kian Peng, for help.

Acknowledging their fears and noting that the wet market was well patronised, he pointed out that Nex, a mall that will come up behind the market late next year, will already have a supermarket, 'so there certainly will be no shortage of supermarkets in the area'.

But Sheng Siong's managing director Lim Hock Chee said this was unlikely to be an issue 'if residents are able to obtain quality daily necessities at reasonable prices, and are spoilt for choice in the neighbourhood'.

Source: Straits Times, 30 Sep 2009

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