Saturday, October 24, 2009

Time for wet markets to go

IN RECENT weeks, Singaporeans of all ages have been bemoaning what they feared was the impending loss of several wet markets.

To recap: A few weeks ago, news surfaced that eight privately-run wet markets were to be taken over by large supermarket chains.

That sent lots of residents in the affected areas into a frenzy. Many wrote in to this newspaper’s Forum page, calling for the preservation of the markets and for the Housing Board to reject the sales.

The din grew so loud that a minister had to wade in to soothe frazzled nerves: At the opening of a Marsiling wet market two weeks ago, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who is also an MP for Sembawang GRC, assured residents that he understood how important such markets were to them, and that he was working to keep wet markets available to them.

But why this curious need to preserve an untidy relic of Singapore’s past? Why keep these wet, stinking, unhygienic monuments to yesteryear?

It certainly isn’t because many of us shop there. Take the privately-run markets. There are 19 here, and most, if not all, are struggling to survive. Business is so bad, it’s no wonder their owners are thinking of letting them go.

At the private wet market in Tampines Street 81, for instance, customer flow has dropped 30 per cent over the past nine years. To ensure that stallholders survive, the market’s operator had to cut rents, and now earns 20 per cent less than he used to.

Other owners were not so willing to hang on. Boutique property developer Heeton Holdings, for instance, offloaded five of the wet markets it owned to focus on building boutique hotels. Another company, Bai Sha Market, is in the process of selling its market in Elias Road. The story is the same at other, government-owned markets.

Stallholders themselves are beginning to realise the game is up. The number of wet market stalls here has dropped from 13,224 in 2000 to 11,025 last year, according to the National Environment Agency. A recent survey of consumer shopping patterns here by The Nielsen Company showed a 9 per cent drop in spending on fresh food at wet markets last year.

The explosive growth of supermarkets, with their bright interiors, rows of neatly-stocked shelves, dry floors – not to mention, an absence of pong – is a key contributing factor to this state of affairs.

In Tampines Street 81, for example, three supermarkets have sprung up next to the wet market in recent years. Little surprise, then, that the buyers of the private markets are planning to overhaul them.

The Sheng Siong chain is proposing hybrids – air-conditioned wet markets with extended operating hours – at the six sites it is slated to take over.

As wet market sales fall, supermarket checkout lines are growing longer and longer: Business at hypermarkets – those mutant cousins of supermarkets that sell everything from meat to mattresses – jumped 53 per cent last year. Sales at the average supermarket rose 8 per cent in the same period.

So there you have it: Popularity is not the reason for this clamour to keep wet markets. Could it be price, then? Singaporeans tend to think wet markets are cheaper.

A recent Sunday Times price comparison of popular produce put paid to that. It showed that in almost all instances, wet market prices were either equal to, or more expensive than, those in supermarkets.

All this should mean the writing is on the wall for wet markets. Initially built to provide consumers with cheap alternatives, they have all but lost their purpose.

Supermarket chains like NTUC FairPrice, Giant and Shop N Save have all but rendered them useless: Through economies of scale and sourcing of cheaper products overseas, prices in these supermarkets are equal to, or lower than, the neighbourhood mom-and-pop.

The products are also just as fresh, better packaged, and more hygienic. Astute shoppers who clip coupons, wait for offers and the like can save a pretty bundle.

Despite all this, the wet market will stay, perhaps because there would be a public outcry if they disappeared. And the Government has promised as much in Parliament.

Rationally, however, there is no good reason to retain wet markets.

Some Singaporeans have an odd sense of what we should retain to keep the character of the country intact. Several have described wet markets as ‘uniquely Singaporean’. Others went a bit further up the hyperbole scale, and called them a ‘national icon’.

I say wet markets are an idea whose time has passed – and Singaporeans should get over their nostalgia. People who romanticise the past would do well to remember the days when hawkers used to ply their offerings out of carts that were parked next to canals – or the toxic stew that was the Singapore River.

Next time you visit another country in the First World, take a look at their fresh produce markets. Any traveller not wearing rose-tinted glasses will tell you that the produce markets there are as far away from those here as is possible.

They smell good, are clean, airy, well-lit and stocked with fresh, and in some instances, live produce. The grocers and butchers there provide the same level of friendly service that some of us say is the reason we keep going back to our wet markets – a wink here, a nudge there, a couple of dollars off the tab for a Saturday morning regular.

I want a produce market like that too. It would be a good complement to the First World transport, education and housing here.

Failing which, a Sheng Siong air-conditioned wet market that is dry will do just fine.

Source: Straits Times, 24 Oct 2009

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