While the rest of Singapore’s CBD area is fairly quiet on a weekend afternoon, one place is still bustling with energy: Maxwell Food Centre. Hawkers are busying away at their stalls, while locals and tourists alike tuck heartily into their food. And I’m in the middle of all the action.
I’m not sure I could call it “action”, though. After all, our hawker culture is such an ordinary part of Singapore life.
Then again, perhaps that’s what makes it extraordinary – the fact that it resonates so intimately with every Singaporean.
Today, I’m here as an observer rather than a customer, and when I take the time to muse over this scene, I feel a bursting sense of pride.
There’s every reason to feel proud. Singaporeans love it. Globally renowned chefs like Gordon Ramsay have sang praises about it (and, arguably, don’t even do it as well). No overseas visitor’s experience is complete without it. In fact, Singapore’s hawker culture is even about to be nominated as a UNESCO listing.
During the 2018 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the Singapore hawker culture will be nominated for inscription into UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list, which celebrates the expressions and representations that communities recognize as part of their cultural heritage, includes elements like Italy’s Art of Neopolitan ‘Pizzaiuolo’ and the Republic of Korea’s tradition of Kimjang, making and sharing kimchi.
Our city’s hawker culture is undeniably easy to love. In a National Health Board (NHB) poll earlier this year, 27% of respondents identified food as the element that resonated most with their cultural identity, ahead of social practices and festivals as well as traditional performing arts, which each got only 18% of votes.
In his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee termed hawker centres as “community dining rooms”. In these multicultural, intergenerational spaces, people from all walks of life can gather to eat and bond over food. Even if not physically – take for instance a Singaporean living overseas – the place serves as one with fond memories that ground a sense of belonging. Gabriel, a Singaporean engineer working in London, words it sentimentally, “I choose to miss it, but at the same time, I can’t choose not to. That’s what gives [Singapore’s hawker culture] its special validity in affirming my Singaporean identity.”
And, on the flipside, what value does being on the UNESCO list bring to Singapore’s hawker culture?
On the surface, not much, says Mr Chua, a 30-year-old second-generation hawker who runs a nasi lemak stall in Whampoa Food Centre. Undeniably, it’ll take more than inscription on a list – even if it’s one as honoured as UNESCO – to help him and the hawker community.
More practical problems need to be solved to make the hawker trade more sustainable: Training up a new generation of hawkers, schemes to help hawkers cope with high rent and rising costs of materials, to name just a few.
One criteria of inscription on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage is that “safeguarding measures are elaborated that may protect and promote the element … ensuring visibility and awareness of the significance of the intangible cultural heritage”. A UNESCO-worthy status won’t magically keep our hawker culture going, but what it can do is fuel more initiatives to preserve this integral part of the Singaporean identity, and spur authorities to invest more resources into revitalising the hawker trade.
Already, a Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee has been set up in a bid to preserve Singapore’s hawker culture, backed by a $90 million fund. Proposed initiatives include improving productivity in hawker centres such as through centralised dishwashing systems and cashless payments, as well as providing pathways for a new generation of hawkers to break into the industry and providing practical courses to help them run a successful business. Some of these plans have already been introduced into certain hawker centres.
Pledge your support for Singapore’s hawker culture
While a lot of expected of policy-makers and authorities, we also ought to acknowledge that they only run the hawker centres, they don’t own hawker culture. The responsibility lies on every Singaporean to preserve our own heritage.
Here’s a starting point: For the UNESCO nomination to be successful, countries must demonstrate support for the bid. Simply share what you love the most about our hawker culture at https://www.oursgheritage.sg/. The result of the nomination will be released in 2020!