Singapore’s hawker heritage is more than just about food

JANUARY 13 — So Singapore is bidding to have hawker food (in fact more broadly, Singapore’s hawker culture) inscribed on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

This would mean that the UN’s cultural body accepts that hawker culture is valuable to Singapore and the wider world — that it’s a significant and coherent cultural tradition that should be protected.

This brings more prominence to our hawkers of course but it also means that the Singapore government and governments worldwide would have a duty to protect this tradition. 

The bid, which is fronted by a coalition of bodies including the National Heritage Board, has drawn criticism from many quarters in Malaysia. 

These Malaysian critics claim that hawker culture is as much Malaysia’s as Singapore’s with the dishes and techniques that constitute the basis of hawker cooking originating in Malaysia. As such, they argue that it is wrong for Singapore to claim ownership of what is intrinsically shared. 

In this case, I have to say I vehemently disagree with our cross-border cousins.

By placing hawker culture on the list of intangible cultural heritage, Singapore isn’t claiming ownership of these dishes. No one denies that everything from chicken rice to mee goreng is available in Malaysia.

Rather, the argument is that Singapore has its own hawker culture distinct from Malaysia’s and that this culture is immensely important to Singaporeans.

People queue for food at a hawker centre in Singapore May 21, 2016. — Reuters pic
People queue for food at a hawker centre in Singapore May 21, 2016. — Reuters pic

I think this is evidently true. The bid is for hawker culture; that it is more than simply the dishes (though they are central), it’s also the entire socio-economy around our beloved food courts.

From the physical spaces to the ritual of a supper, a midnight tabao or a morning kopi-C, hawker culture is about how generations of Singaporeans have interacted with this extraordinary range of cuisine and communal space.

I hope that the bid, in some form, also includes the beer aunties, the uncles who sit in the corner of just about every hawker centre watching local TV channels and of course the tissue paper sellers; all that is part of the broader culture.

Singapore’s hawker culture is its own and broadly the culture of these communal food courts plays a comparatively larger role in our national psyche and history than it does in Malaysia.

Because the overwhelming majority of people live in public housing, our intensely urbanised population and the way we transitioned rapidly — from developing to developed — the dozens of vast and well organised government-owned food courts became essential community spaces.

People moved from kampongs to modern high rises, from incomes driven by labour to careers powered by education and skills but in the midst of that change, culture was preserved in these dishes and in these spaces. 

This was (and is) where you met your neighbours, it’s where you hang out with your first boyfriend or grab a special serving of sambal stingray for your anniversary.

People mixed and continue to mix in these spaces. A real and important part of our national vocabulary originates in these centres — whatever your race or religion, all Singaporeans can speak Hawker!

The situation in Malaysia is not the same. The food might be similar but the structure and even appearance of the centres is different and the role they play in wider Malaysian culture isn’t the same either. 

Again, I’m not denying Malaysia also has a strong street/hawker food culture and perhaps Malaysia should apply for recognition of its own food culture — but Singaporean hawker culture is a different matter. 

Our own hawkers need the protection from changing economics, from Deliveroo, from agencies and developers who keep tearing down beautiful central hawker centres.

Singapore’s hawker culture is under threat and I can only hope this Unesco bid means the government is really going to make an effort to preserve and protect its essence and spirit.

While I generally like to emphasise cross border connectivity and how our two nations are more connected than most people realised, for once Malaysians this really has nothing to do with you. 

If you feel insecure that Singapore is better at branding everything from chicken rice to laksa, then please take that up with your own government, corporations and tourist development boards.

Do what you can for your hawker culture and we’ll do what we can for ours.

Which is why I am asking all Singaporeans to sign in and register their support for the Unesco bid at the SG heritage website.

To qualify we need to demonstrate hawker culture is truly important to citizens to in order to secure Unesco status.

So sign now because edible heritage is the best heritage of all!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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