Sungei Road Flea Market

Sungei Road Flea Market closes on 11 July 2017. Just a month ago I went to a discussion panel (Sungei Road Market: A future for street culture heritage?) at the Substation hosted by Dr Chua Ai Lin, President of Singapore Heritage Society. The panelists include Prof Tay Kheng Soon (NUS), Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu (NTU), and Faiz bin Zohri, an architect and volunteer for the Save Sungei Road Market initiative.

These are my notes for the talk:

We first get an introduction to Sungei Road Flea Market, where we were told it first sprung up in 1930s and was a important black market during WWII. It was a popular spot with over 200 peddlers in the 50s and 60s, but there was a decline in the 70s as the government tried to clear the streets. It somehow revived again in the 80s and it was cleared again in 1994 but revived the second time soon after. A more complete history compiled by Remember Singapore can be found in here.

Sungei Road Flea Market

Sungei Road Market, also known as Sungei Road Flea Market and Thieves’ Market was Singapore last free-hawking zone where peddlers could sell their wares without a licence. It is well know for 2nd hand goods and for selling British army surplus goods in the 50s and 60s.

Prof Tay Kheng Soon spoke first, commenting the reason why the government is so bend on closing the market. Here are my notes for his portion:

– Singapore should be valued for technology advancement
– modernization of Singapore
– adopting from developed west
– get rid of “backwardness” of colonial Singapore
– blocking view of 1960s old airport road as kampong (village) seen as backward
– modernization meant getting rid of the backward past
– embarrassment of our past
– foreigners (mainly westerners) come here must feel at home
– don’t want the sight of of our backwardness and poor
– coconut equals kampong equals backwards but there are palm trees in LA so seen more higher class
– poor people are either stupid or lazy – mindset behind the government
– hawker does not have money, solution requires rent, no point
– poverty is an embarrassment to our global image, must be hidden
– provided solution – rent-free, have hawker centre, school, car park, toilet, out of sight – Bukit Timah food centre area, under flyover, able to house 1000 stalls, currently only 200 stalls at Sungei Road

Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu is next, where she work closely with Singapore’s migrant workers. As she is a sociologist, she sees things in a more macro fashion.

– Sungei Road Market as tangible and intangible heritage
– It should be preserved as a heritage site
– heritage as national identity, therefore the market as part of what make us Singaporean
– heritage: looking to our past for the future
– valuable skills of entrepreneurship in the peddlers
– looking back at older generation for youngster
– environmentalism in Sungei Road Market: recycling and reuse
– Global cities: importance of diversity in cities
– Question posed: do you just want Singapore to be just full of air con mall
– tourism in Singapore: heritage districts – Kampong Glam and Little India
– Different needs for others – migrant workers, art students etc
– Intercultural dexterity: Indian speaking perfect Hokkien – Something we can only see in places like these
– social integration and cohesion
– Do we want our city to be an inclusive space, welcome people of different socio-economic class, contributing to SG economy
– interaction between migrant and Singaporeans egalitarian interaction
– What can we learn from this space
– no permanent market, sellers come and go, but the space remain, what this space represents
– doesn’t rely on government, rely on organic needs of the community
– great for tourism
– Singapore is more than just a production city, a space of consummation
– vitality of urban life – street life, street is for people, closure of orchard road once a month, older neighborhood
– how will it morph and change in the future

Mr Faiz bin Zohri is the next speaker, where he mainly talks about relocation efforts and what the Save Sungei Road Market initiative has done so far.

-Divided between going to hawker centre or set up another location
-Support of the poor as their livelihood depends on doing sales in the market
-Myth of younger people not interested in heritage and Sungei aroad Market
-SLA has a adopt-a-field campaign, active use of public space
-the whole market only has 3 small bust bin

Mr Koh, the 77 year old president of Association of Second Hand Goods, arrived and also gave a short talk, aided by a translator:

-Vendors are self reliant, don’t want to depend on government
-A lot of elderly many from pioneer generation, average age 50s to 80
-Vendors are mostly not well off with no children to support, trying to get a living
-Social cohesion and help between the stall owners who are not well off
-Sungei Road also contribute to recycling and reusing
-Vendors made up of different ethic groups, 1000 patrons on average, a place where people socialize
-Where can vendors and patrol go if it close down
-the market only works if they are together than if apart in hawker centre
-hawker centre not a good place to sell second hand goods and need to give rent and bills (registration etc coat over $1000, the vendors cannot afford)
-the stalls are stall that people do not want
-the government did not communicate properly on the hidden cost/terms and conditions in hawker centre
-what is the point of the hakwer stalls if they will get into debt
-MoM ask them to work (get a job), but most have health problem and cant speak English
-welfare of $400-600 is not enough as their monthly use is around $1000+

The rest of the discussion panel is a Q-n-A session where the audiences suggest ideas for helping the market or the ask questions about the market.

I visited the place 19/6/17 and 10/7/17 (the last day of opening), which can be seen in the Field Trip Photo section.



Naidu Ratnala Thulaja. Sungei Road. Infopedia. 2002.

Sungei Road Thieves’ Market. Remember Singapore. Updated 20 July 2011.

Sungei Road Thieves’ Market – From Beginning Till the End. Remember Singapore. Posted 10 July 2017.

Sungei Road Flea Market. Updated 11 July 2017.