Over the weekend, I went to a shop selling second-hand goods located in an old industrial area at MacPherson. The place, managed by a family in the karung guni business, is a little bit messy with rows and rows of second-hand tables, chairs, lamps, posters, linen, paintings, cutlery and knick-knacks. But there is actually order in the mess as prices for the items are labelled neatly. Customers can choose to ‘upcycle’ their purchases by paying a bit more for refurbishment services. Those who have no time to visit the shop can check out the latest stocks via the shop’s facebook page.

The trip reminded me of the recent public attention on the redevelopment plans for Sungei Road Hawking Zone (SRHZ).

Though the decision for SRHZ to make way for a residential development was announced by the G way back in 2012, public’s interest only spiked recently as the official last day (10 July 2017) was made known in February (Source: The Straits Times, 14 February 2017).

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A petition has been submitted to the Parliament that calls for the G to relocate SRHZ vendors to a temporary site together and a ‘march’ is scheduled for 15 July. Many news reports, on MSM and online sites, focused on the emotional attachment and ‘helplessness’ of the elderly vendors. 

Some argued that SRHZ – from the earlier days of Sungei Road flea market, to Sungei Road Thieves Market to what it is now (Source:Roots.sg, National Heritage Board) – represents a unique culture of blue-collar Singapore. However, SRHZ has now become an area where there are more foreign workers than locals patronising the stalls. To many, the camaraderie shared among the vendors, the casual exchange with the customers and the type of goods on sale (eg old clothes and shoes, watches, CDs, electronic gadgets, coins and stamps etc) have shaped the SRHZ culture. However, despite its history, SRHZ is no longer what it used to be. Now, it feels more like a flea market than a heritage site that many remember it for.

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I am not saying that we should close down / tear down / redevelop old places once they are past their heyday. But in land scarce Singapore, we need to balance the needs of preserving heritage sites with the macro development plans of the country.  

If I may compare, the SRHZ redevelopment is similar to how it was when the government decided to close down farms for urban development. Growing up and living in farms brought about many fond memories for older Singaporeans. Farming was also the livelihood for many. But with Singapore’s shift in economic focus and urbanisation plans, it became inevitable that farms had to go. It was not easy for those who had to uproot their families, but they eventually understood that it was for the greater good of Singapore.  

With any redevelopment of historical sites, it is understandable that the emotional attachment will be strong. Thankfully, our government agencies are already engaging the affected vendors one-on-one. Vendors with permits can approach National Environment Agency if they want to continue their business at hawker centres and flea markets; those who require employment assistance can turn to Workforce Singapore (WSG) while those who have financial difficulties can look for Social Service Offices. According to The Straits Times and Channel NewsAsia (12 May 2017), 44 out of 200 vendors have accepted government’s assistance – they are allocated lock-up stalls; granted ComCare assistance; supported by WSG or have decided to continue selling their goods at flea markets. The agencies remain in touch with the rest of the vendors.

The government cannot please everyone and for the sake of the country’s development and growth, should not aim to please all. What it can and should do, is to minimise the disruption arising from its decision and to render practical and sustainable assistance to those affected. I am glad that government agencies have reached out to the vendors to ease them through the transition, even as it stands firm in not U-turning their decision to redevelop the area.

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One thing to note though, that as we consider the needs of the vendors, we should also be mindful of the residents’ feedback and concerns – public hygiene, security, orderliness. The engagement efforts have started and should remain a work-in-progress, long after the last day of SRHZ, so that both the residents’ and the vendors’ feedback continues to be heard and their needs appropriately attended to.

Besides having a webpage in roots.sg to remember SRHZ, the G may also consider reserving a corner in the current site to educate our future generations about the history of SRHZ. How about some bronze statues that depict SRHZ in the older times – similar to those we see along Singapore River? If an unveiling ceremony is to be organised, the vendors and residents should be invited as special guests and their transport facilitated (given that many of them are seniors).

The physical site may have changed, old trades may take on a new lease of life, but the good memories should be preserved, just like many other heritage sites in Singapore. 

Thank you Sungei Road market for the wonderful memories.