Singapore’s bid for Unesco recognition of hawker culture ‘not about origins’ of certain dishes

The bodies co-driving the nomination bid process said that a recognition by Unesco of Singapore’s hawker culture will encourage greater appreciation for hawkers. — TODAY pic
The bodies co-driving the nomination bid process said that a recognition by Unesco of Singapore’s hawker culture will encourage greater appreciation for hawkers. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, March 29 — Singapore’s bid to nominate the country’s hawker culture for the Unesco “intangible cultural heritage” list is an important first step in changing perceptions about the unglamorous aspects of being a hawker, the National Heritage Board (NHB) said yesterday.

Yeo Kirk Siang, director of heritage research and assessment at NHB, said that it is not about trying to prove that a cultural practice originated in any particular country, or that someone else does it better than another.

The NHB, the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Federation of Merchants’ Associations (FMAS) on Wednesday officially submitted the nomination documents to inscribe hawker culture in Singapore on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

While the Singapore Botanic Gardens was made Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015, this will be Singapore's first such submission in the category of intangible cultural heritage.

The intention to submit the documents was announced in August last year by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally.

However, since it was announced, Malaysians have derided Singaporean hawker fare as watered-down versions of dishes that originated in Malaysia.

“There is a common misconception that it is about origins. It is not,” said Yeo.

Instead, he said that the nomination list is about whether the cultural practice is valued within the country, “the kind of support” it gets, and if there was a commitment to safeguard the practice.

Citing Belgium’s beer as an example, he said that it is not about it being unique, but “the meaning it has for people in that country”.

The beverage was listed by Unesco among the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.

The NHB, NEA and FMAS said in a joint press release that a successful nomination will “demonstrate to the world how proud we are” of Singapore’s hawker culture.

“(It will) encourage greater appreciation for our hawkers and show our commitment as a nation to safeguard hawker culture for generations to come,” said the three bodies co-driving the nomination bid process.

To support the nomination process, various programmes have been held by the organisations, such as NHB’s “Support Our Hawkers” movement earlier this year.

The movement, which called for people to show their appreciation towards their favourite hawkers, was just one way to change Singaporean’s perception towards the trade, said Yeo.

He noted that although it was once viewed as a poorly paid profession for the lowly educated, there are now a number of young hawkers who are well-educated.

“There are diverse opportunities out there (for them), but they chose to pursue their passion (for cooking) instead,” said Yeo, who hopes the nomination bid will add more momentum to this new perception.

“It’s no longer just about food it’s about cultural heritage.”

Letters and videos for support

Beyond the official nomination form, there were other items which the organisations included in the submission.

These consist of:

• Letters and videos showing community support

• Photographs that included contributions from Singaporeans and entries to the #OurHawkerCulture photography contest

• A 10-minute video to give the nomination bid’s evaluation committee a better understanding of Singapore’s hawker culture

These documents will be made available on the organisations’ websites, as well as Unesco’s, by July this year.

How it will be evaluated

The nomination will be evaluated by six Unesco experts qualified in various fields of intangible cultural heritage and six representatives of accredited non-governmental organisations.

These experts will evaluate the nomination based on five criteria that include how it meets Unesco’s definition of intangible cultural heritage, as well as how the potential inscription of hawker culture in Singapore increases visibility, awareness and dialogue of intangible cultural heritage.

Timeline of Singapore’s Unesco inscription journey for hawker culture


February: Singapore ratified the 2003 Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

April: The NHB co-created an intangible cultural heritage inventory with Singaporeans

August: Singapore announced its intention to nominate hawker culture in Singapore for the intangible cultural heritage list


March: Singapore submits the nomination documents to Unesco for evaluation and decision on the inscription

Now till end 2020: Evaluation by Unesco. — TODAY