Singapore and food diplomacy

NOVEMBER 18 — It was nearly past midnight. The media corps covering Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s official visit to Singapore was knackered, and we had just been ushered out from his bilateral talk with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

We had skipped dinner just to go through the strenuous security check for the two leaders’ talk.

We thought that we would never find any food at this time of the night, but luckily the Newton Food Centre proved us wrong.

The famous popiah stall was already closed but the or chien, or oyster omelette, stall gave me an extra portion because it was closing up — but many other stalls were still open, and the crowd was not so bad for a Tuesday night.

Our food came and we tucked in. We were hungry, yet many dishes were left unfinished. The briyani was too dry, the grilled stingray’s sambal was too spicy and unbalanced, that or chien felt like it was missing something despite the juicy oysters. A colleague did not even touch the plate of seafood fried noodles.

A plate of sambal petai was pretty good though. The sugarcane-lemon drinks were refreshing and hit the spot, but the makcik taking the orders could not handle the seven of us... it was like she just started working yesterday.

The super clean and comfortable newly-renovated food court was pretty sweet, though.

Our tummies were not quite happy, but at least they were full.

Over at the 33rd Asean Summit Gala Dinner the next day, the region’s leaders and their spouses were dining on modern takes of local favourites, if the menu we saw was any indication.

At the Asean Summit Gala Dinner, guests were treated to modern Singapore cuisine... a modern take on traditional hawker food. — Picture courtesy of Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information
At the Asean Summit Gala Dinner, guests were treated to modern Singapore cuisine... a modern take on traditional hawker food. — Picture courtesy of Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information

The appetiser was “a fresh approach” to yu sheng or yee sang, with smoked salmon, pomelo, mango, and vegetables served with plum vinaigrette. The soup was “inspired” by laksa: oven-roasted pumpkin bisque with rice noodles and prawn ravioli laced with kesum leaves.

The main course was an “Asian take” on Surf and Turf, with slow-cooked Angus beef short ribs complete with black pepper sauce (what else), and Boston lobster seared with garlic butter... served with vegetables stuffed in a pie tee shell.

The dessert? A “rendition” of kaya toast and kopi, with egg and coconut dessert infused with pandan, and paired with crunchy wafers and coffee ice cream.

So when Singapore-based media portal Rice Media wrote a few weeks ago that “hawker culture belongs to Singapore” because the country has more money, I can see the point.

The article was in response to a New York Times story, quoting several Malaysian food lovers chiding Singapore’s attempt to get Unesco to recognise its street hawkers as part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage.”

Malaysia can boast all day about how our food is much better, and yet, it is Singapore that will almost always get the credit instead. And it is inevitably because the city-state just has much more resources to dedicate to marketing and promoting itself to the world.

It is not as if hawker culture is all dandy and rosy there. As journalist-activist Kirsten Han mentioned on her Twitter account, the conversation about hawkers there is about “exploitation and a skewed industry.”

“My sense is that it’s a nice-to-have if we do get it, but is largely a government-initiated project. Most of our media and social media chatter currently revolve around unfair contract terms and costs imposed upon hawkers,” Han had tweeted in response to the NYT story, referring to the Unesco label.

To sum it, Singapore may look like it cares a lot about its hawkers, but perhaps, they are just better at milking them for the sake of the country’s publicity.

After all, in a lunch he hosted for Dr Mahathir, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned the wantan mee he had decades ago in Bidor, Perak, of all places. Although weirdly enough he mentioned it was topped with freshwater prawns, which the dish does not have.

As for Dr Mahathir himself, he seemed to be drawn to Malaysian east coast food instead. In a high tea with the Malaysian diaspora, he had talked about budu and keropok lekor, and how entrepreneurs there had managed to uplift their industry through innovation.

“You know what budu is?” he asked the crowd, many of whom were clueless about what he mentioned.

“In Thai, it is much more refined, but in Kelantan and Terengganu it is more real ... When you talk about budu, it is as if you talk about a primitive product.

“People who take budu were considered to be very backward, very primitive almost. People will call the condiment ‘stinky fish’,” he said, before praising innovators for marketing budu in tubes and selling keropok lekor online, to rid themselves of that perception.

Could it be Dr Mahathir has a vision on how we can take the Singaporean hawker industry complex with east coast food? If anything, those can never be found in the island until the Kelantan diaspora stretches its wings there.

Now that I am back, excuse me while I greedily hunt for my favourite nasi kerabu, complete with solok lada, daging bakar and ayam percik.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles