Last Saturday, I asked someone at a barbeque his opinion as to what Singaporeans were thinking with regard to the Aljunied hawker centre controversy. He said he didn’t think people were paying attention to it. Consistent with his observation, I had noticed that there was hardly any online talk about the issue, at least among my circles, but then it was also the same period when the government’s new restriction on online media was the hot-button issue. The latter could have overshadowed it.
Last night, it was revealed that Ng Kok Khim, the chair of the Block 538 Market Association, was a recipient of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) long service award. With this twist, I am sure people will take notice now. What had been a highly convoluted, as-clear-as-mud issue is now easily reduced to a contest between Good and Evil. Few things capture popular attention as easily as such a clash. Look at the blockbusters coming out of Hollywood and you will see this principle in action.
I have been reviewing the documents released so far, though several from the National Environment Agency (NEA) are absent from their website. Statements from the Aljunied-Hougang-PunggolEast Town Council (AHPeTC) refer to these NEA media releases, so I know they must exist, but NEA itself doesn’t have them on their website.
Two hawker centres (also known as ‘markets’) are embroiled in the controversy. In this article, I shall deal only with that surrounding Block 538 Bedok North Street 3. Because the details surrounding Block 511 Bedok North Street 3 (about 500 metres away from the former) are different, it is best not to conflate the two.
The controversy is over the cleaning of the “high areas” of Market 538, including the chimneys, exhaust fans, and structural spans supporting the ceiling. Ng and the association allege that, contrary to previous practice, AHPeTC asked hawkers to pay for the scaffolding needed to reach these high areas. The town council denied it.
A post on The Heart Truths has an infographic showing the key events or media releases relating to Market 538. Readers may find it helpful.
Despite spending an afternoon researching, please don’t expect me to provide a definitive account of what really happened. There are still many gaps in the story, but I think it has come far enough for us to form some opinion about what probably happened and how each side behaved.
There are four parties involved:
- The hawkers’ association led by the above-mentioned Ng Kok Khim. From what has emerged so far, there is reason to believe that there was a political motive behind their actions. Alternatively, they had a misunderstanding, and then took advantage of the miscommunication to manufacture an issue for political purposes.
- ATL Maintenance Pte Ltd, the cleaning contractor, who are in contracting relationship, not with the hawkers, but with AHPeTC. Throughout the saga, they have remained mysteriously silent, thus presenting us with several unknowns as to what actually happened.
- AHPeTC, which seemed to have been caught on the backfoot when the controversy erupted, and has since performed in a rather plodding way in the face of crisis. So far their statements have been reactive, though I can’t see anything that they’ve said to be false or even mis-assumed. But nonetheless, their limited responses gave the impression that they had something to hide.
- NEA, which, from what has been revealed so far, appear to be either incompetent or politically-motivated, or both. As a part of the civil service, it should always be scrupulous in party neutrality, but hasn’t shown itself to be so in this case. It has made statements that are contradictory, and at least in one instance, tried to point to “proof” that actually showed they were wrong. The zealous, and highly accusatory role they played strongly suggests a political dimension to it.
More recently, there is also Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister overseeing NEA, who stridently jumped in trying to make political hay out of this issue, only to make a fool of himself, but I shall ignore him.
Early emails leave open questions
The earliest mentions appear in emails exchanged between NEA and AHPeTC, December 2012. On the 20th of that month, the NEA wrote to AHPeTC to say that, based on the hawkers’ wishes, the “next spring cleaning date” [sic] will be a five-day period Monday 4 March to Friday 8 March 2013.
This raises a number of questions for which I have no answers. Is it the normal practice for the hawkers themselves to set cleaning dates when the payer is the Town Council, and the cleaning contractor reports to the town council? If the town council is responsible, why doesn’t the initiative belong to them? That said, the NEA’s email did ask for comments by AHPeTC, so perhaps a consensus among all parties was being sought.
AHPeTC said in reply that they had no problems with the proposed dates, but then asked about the “staging/scaffolding erection and dismantling dates so that TC can arrange accordingly.” This already begins to confuse. If the town council and its contractor were responsible for scaffolding, then why does this question arise? Two possibilities I can think of are:
- In this email AHPeTC used the term “staging/scaffolding” to mean putting up the canvas covering over the stalls to prevent dirt from dropping into the cooking spaces. This would be a responsibility of the stallholders themselves, and perhaps AHPeTC was asking whether the hawkers planned to do this outside the five-day window or within it. It will have an impact on how ATL, the contractor, schedules its own work. This sloppy, confusing use of the term “scaffolding” appears to recur through the controversy. In this article I will use the term “canvas covering” to mean this protection exercise, in order to distinguish it from the staging and scaffolding needed to reach and clean the chimneys, exhaust fans, etc. Or,
- In this email, AHPeTC really meant staging and scaffolding for cleaning of high fixtures, but there had been some prior communication (not disclosed) about who should pay for it.
Why should the question of who should pay come up? Didn’t the Workers’ Party and AHPeTC say clearly that they knew that the town council was responsible?
Major and minor spring cleaning
This is because there are two kinds of spring cleaning — more problems with sloppy, unclear terminology! Apparently, there is “minor spring cleaning” where the floors and areas reachable by a standing human are cleaned, and “annual major spring cleaning” where the high fixtures are also cleaned. There must altogether be four spring cleanings a year, of which three are minor and one major. AHPeTC noted in its media release of 1 June 2013 that NEA had confirmed on 31 May 2013 that this was the extent of the town council’s obligation.
Somewhere along the way, a hawker was quoted by the press as saying that minor spring cleaning was normally a two-day exercise, while the annual major spring cleaning was a five-day exercise. I don’t know whether this is true. But let’s assume that historically, this has been the case. If so, when the hawkers nominated a five-day period (4 to 8 March 2013), they might have assumed that it would be an annual major spring cleaning.
AHPeTC may take the view that it is not for the hawkers to decide when to do the annual major spring cleaning; it is for AHPeTC, since the town council is the payer. On the other hand, the hawkers could have reason to assume that the March 2013 exercise should be a major one, since the last annual major spring cleaning was done in March 2012. See photographs released by AHPeTC.
There seemed to have been some failure of communication at this point. Could it be that neither side was clear what they were talking about?
More likely, there was some additional, perhaps verbal communication, not yet revealed publicly. I have a suspicion that AHPeTC went back to the hawkers to say, look guys, the annual major spring cleaning for Block 538 isn’t scheduled until October 2013, but if you still want the high areas cleaned in March 2013, then pay for it yourself. It would be additional to the October 2013 major cleaning.
This would explain NEA’s email to AHPeTC on 7 February 2013, saying
. . .the Hawkers Association will make the necessary arrangements with their contractors on the scaffold erection/ dismantling during the spring cleaning period from 4-8 March 2013.
Hawkers sought their own quotation
My conjecture would also explain why Ng Kok Khim and the association sought a quotation from ATL Maintenance Pte Ltd for cleaning the high areas. They did this directly; the town council said they knew nothing of this request for a quote.
The quotation from ATL, addressed to Ng Kok Khim and the association (click thumbnail at left) was dated 19 February 2013. It clearly says that the scope of work encompassed cleaning the high fixtures, and that it includes the erection of scaffolding.
After the controversy broke, I recall seeing a story in the press saying that the hawkers had requested for a quotation to provide only canvas covering. This was before the quotation letter was made public. Once it became public, it became obvious that whoever told the press (NEA? Hawkers?) that they only wanted a quote for canvas covering was engaging in disinformation. Worse, NEA tried to back up this claim, in its media statement of 9 June 2013:
. . . the documents show that the hawkers of Block 538 of Bedok North Street 3 had expected the hawker centre to be cleaned as per normal during the spring cleaning exercise in March 2013. This was why they had made arrangements for the period including putting up canvas as indicated in the email our officer sent on 7 February 2013 to AHPETC.
What on earth is “as per normal”? What sloppy writing! And most certainly the email of 7 February (quoted above) said nothing about putting up canvas, nor did the quotation that ATL sent to the hawkers association. It isn’t hard for a reasonable person to conclude that the NEA either didn’t know what it was talking about or was trying to mislead.
Even more to its discredit, the NEA accused AHPeTC of not having cleaned the higher fixtures at all in 2012, an accusation the town council could easily show was false. Why, you may rightly ask, was the NEA shooting so zealously?
All quiet for over two months, resurrected in June
Apparently ATL heard nothing from the hawkers after that, so one can surmise scaffolding was not needed after all and that the spring cleaning carried out in March 2013 did not include the high areas.
Then nothing seemed to have happened for two months or more, until late May or early June when the hawkers roused themselves again.
On 3 June, they wrote to the editors of mainstream media, the NEA said (Media statement, 9 June 2013, para 5). What the hawkers said to the editors was interesting, shedding a bit more light into the issue. They said (assuming the fragment released by NEA is an accurate facsimile):
Our hawker centre was closed for 5 days from 4-8 March 2013, but cleaning was not properly done. Hawkers have spent $140 each to cover our stalls, lost 5 days of income, but the ceiling, exhaust were not cleaned.
We hope the Town Council will discuss with us on suitable compensation, especially given that the newspaper have reported the Town Council authorised person saying that cleaning of ceiling is within the Town Council’s responsibility and it would bear all costs.
So what can we surmise from the above? Firstly, that even without contracting with ATL, the hawkers managed to canvas-cover their stalls. It contradicts the claim that ATL was asked for a quotation for canvas covering. Secondly, the hawkers expected the high fixtures to have been cleaned (why else would they canvas-cover?).
The latter suggests that AHPeTC did not make it sufficiently clear to the hawkers that the March exercise was a minor spring cleaning. Perhaps AHPeTC staff were themselves hopelessly confused?
On the other hand, one could point out that the very fact that the hawkers sought their own quotation from ATL for cleaning of high fixtures — saying that the quotation was for canvas-covering is simply not believable — would indicate that the hawkers knew very well that there would not be a major cleaning in March. How could they continue to think that ATL would be doing the ceiling work at AHPeTC’s expense?
It is here that a mystery remains. Who knew what? Who believed what? Did hawkers really cover their stalls with canvas? Did they really believe the high fixtures would be cleaned by AHPeTC when their request to ATL for a quotation suggests that they knew well enough that the town council wasn’t scheduling it?
The resurrection of the issue after a hiatus of over two months cries out for an explanation. It is hard to eliminate the possibility that someone saw political advantage in raising the issue again.
The Workers’ Party’s reactive response
The Workers’ Party, which runs AHPeTC, responded in a manner that is quite typical of them — it focusses on answering the specific questions raised without sufficient attention to broader, implied questions in the public’s mind.
The trouble with only dealing with specific questions raised is that the light it sheds is disjointed and patchy. The bits of information revealed do not connect up (and as you can see from my inability to piece together the whole story above, they still do not add up). To the average person, if things don’t add up, there is cause for suspicion that less flattering information is being withheld.
One example was when allegations first surfaced that AHPeTC had asked hawkers to pay extra for the cleaning of high fixtures. In response, AHPeTC insisted several times that no “authorised person” asked hawkers to pay extra. For example, in a media release dated 1 June 2013, the town council said:
We reiterate that no authorized TC staff told any hawker or anyone of any additional charges to be imposed for the cleaning.
But when the hawkers of Block 511 (note: not Block 538) named the person they said told them they would have to pay extra, AHPeTC didn’t look so credible after all.
The NEA last weekend released a letter from hawkers at Block 511 Bedok North Street 3 stating that AHPETC’s property manager Mr Tai Vie Shun had told them they would need to pay extra for scaffolding for high area cleaning.
— Asia One, 7 June 2013, NEA “politically motivated” to tarnish WP town council image: Sylvia Lim. Link.
Still, Sylvia Lim was quoted in the press denying it again:
She maintained that AHPETC staff never approached stallholders to pay extra charges for cleaning.
“Has any stallholder been approached by AHPETC staff or its contractors for the extra charges? If so, please make it public,” she said on Friday.
While I can’t say I know the truth of the matter, I can imagine that AHPeTC may be technically correct, but their replies still fail to connect the dots. Tai Vie Shun could have advised the hawkers that if they wanted an extra unscheduled cleaning of the high areas, they’d have to find their own contractor and pay that contractor themselves. There’s a fine difference between saying that and saying the hawkers had to pay AHPeTC (“charges to be imposed”). The former was advice delivered in his personal capacity; it would not be a demand from AHPeTC for payment from hawkers.
Was that what happened? If not, why doesn’t AHPeTC say out loud what transpired? Why hide behind the expression “no authorised person”. . . .
One of the cardinal rules of crisis management is that one should seize the information initiative. One should not allow oneself to be yanked here and there by the other side’s questions, new ones popping up each day.
The party and AHPeTC should have conducted a thorough internal investigation — better yet, should have commissioned independent third parties to join the review — and announced the full findings. They should have done this urgently; have it completed within three days. If there had been miscommunication or oversight, then admit it. Voters aren’t unforgiving; people can understand small slip-ups and misunderstandings.
I do not think AHPeTC has any major skeleton to hide in its closet, for here is an outfit that has run Hougang for years and years. It has also managed Aljunied for the whole of 2012 with its scheduled major and minor spring cleanings. It is almost inconceivable that they do not know the regulations concerning cleaning of markets. But the halting, piecemeal way they went about defending themselves, issuing cryptic, partial responses and failing to anticipate the implied questions, did them no favours at all.