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Hawker culture: safeguarding Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage

Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the Intangible Cultural Heritage Symposium 2018
29 October 2018

1. Singapore is a young nation, originating as a migrant society. Our history as a nation started abruptly and unexpectedly. The post-World War movement towards independence embarked by colonies of major powers provided the backdrop, but it was the departure from Malaysia owing to race policy that set us on the pathway of an independent nation. We adopted a multi-racial policy where no one race dominates over the other. Our cultural policy naturally follows a multiracial and multicultural tenet, even as our racial roots come from civilisations that have spanned thousands of years. Unlike countries where there is one dominant race, religion, language and cultural practice; ours rests on multiple legs. After 53 years as a young nation, we stand confidently as one people, having weathered storms and punched above our weight. We have a set of common values, traditions, memories and social practices. Collectively, these form the basis for our intangible cultural heritage, and an important anchor of our national identity. We must constantly safeguard our intangible cultural heritage and pass them down to our future generations.

2. Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage is constantly evolving as our people interact with and influence each other. First, our housing policy and integrative city planning norms facilitates the different races to meet, live, work, interact, celebrate and mourn together. We often celebrate our festivities together with our neighbours of different races; we hold weddings and funerals in our void decks, which are community spaces at the bottom of every Housing & Development Board (HDB) apartment block. We shop for meat, vegetables and fruits, spices and groceries in a common wet market, incorporating local and traditional ingredients from other races into our cuisine. Our children of different races go to the same schools, and are educated to acquire the cultural sensitivity to be comfortable with each other.

3. Second, our artists and cultural practitioners are infusing and integrating elements of each other’s cultures into their works. Our young contemporary Malay dancers are dancing to Indian classical music; our Chinese orchestras are re-interpreting Malay classics. As we continue to draw on our traditional sources of cultural heritage, we are inspired by the richness of other cultures and excited by the possibilities of new sources of creativity. Works that reflect our unique multi-cultural journey and identity are gaining popularity and acceptance as the mainstream.

4. One such manifestation is our Hawker Culture, which we are seeking to inscribe in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Hawker Culture is a total cultural experience of the place, the food and the people, that binds us together as Singaporeans.

5. Hawker centres – as an infrastructure - have been an important and unique part of Singapore’s development journey, as itinerant street-side peddlers were resettled to clean, accessible and hygienic centres. Our hawker centres also reflect our multi-racial and -religious context as we provide for stalls that cater to all races and faiths.

6. For many Singaporeans, having hawker food is a regular, or even daily experience. Hawker food is the most common dining option. This is no surprise, when our small country is dotted with over 100 hawker centres with more than 6,000 cooked food stalls. Hawker food is also a deeply personal experience for Singaporeans; we have our favourite hawker foods, hawker stalls, and even frequently scout out “top lists” of these foods. A question on which hawker offers the best chicken rice will likely evoke passionate debate with occasional heated arguments, even amongst family and friends.

7. Beyond the significance of hawker centres and our love for hawker food, our Hawker Culture is also about the people and their relationships with each other. It is a place for social bonding. Ms Tan Jia Lin wrote in to NHB saying, “My neighbourhood hawkers are like neighbours to me. They have seen me grow since young. They can talk and share experiences. [Hawker culture] is not only about food, it’s about hardships, experience and flavour of life – human touch, connection and interaction. How a 1st generation [hawker] wants to find a [successor]. How a hawker owner [manages] resources. How a hawker dad chases after his naughty son…A hawker is not just about food, it’s about bonds, apprenticeship, guiding and having a human connection especially in this digital world today”.

8. Indeed, hawker centres are social points for Singaporeans to gather and bond.  At my constituency, a group of residents gather every morning at their favourite table in a hawker centre to chat, exchange news, sometimes you will even see them peeling vegetables - and sharing their life experiences.

9. Hawker Culture is quintessential Singaporean. It connects us to our families and our home, and it is the first go-to place after a long trip away. It is one enjoyed by people of all races, faiths, family background and walks of life. It has evolved – the food has changed, new hawkers have come on board while others have retired, new centres have been built. And it is a living heritage that is evolving as our lifestyle and needs change. So are other ICH items – our music, dance, rituals. It is therefore important for us to safeguard our ICH – by documenting them over time so that we understand the process of its evolution, the sources of inspirations and energy that power the evolution; by promoting the understanding amongst the public, by encouraging the pursuit of excellence and relevance from one generation to another.

10. Singapore has ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of ICH in February 2018. As a new country to the Convention, Singapore has much to learn from the other countries. So NHB will be hosting more ICH Symposiums over the next few years, to encourage dialogue and sharing of ideas among local and international experts.

11. NHB has started work on identifying and documenting elements of Singapore’s ICH inventory, which was launched in April this year. The development of the inventory is an ongoing one co-created with Singaporeans, and in consultation with experts and past focus group discussions. To further grow the inventory and enrich its contents, we are working with Institutes of Higher Learning and community groups to research and document different traditions, crafts, expressions and festivals in Singapore, such as how practices have evolved over time and the experiences of the practitioners. Over time, the inventory will grow to become a rich repository of our multicultural heritage.

12. We are all in this together, and there have been numerous community efforts to promote and safeguard Singapore’s ICH. For instance, schools such as Cedar Girls’ Secondary School had run projects on cultural heritage, such as a 2015 heritage gallery that explored the history and significance of Hawker Culture. Organisations such as Singapore Business Federation are also stepping up to express their interest in safeguarding Singapore’s Hawker Culture, and rally support for the nomination through their avenues.

13. I am heartened by the response of many Singaporeans and their strong support for the nomination of Hawker Culture. I hope more Singaporeans will step forward and help to spread awareness of our Hawker Culture and the nomination process. We welcome passionate individuals and groups to offer ideas on promoting and safeguarding Hawker Culture, to take action by organising their own groups, and in their own ways. Some have expressed concerns about the new models of management of hawker centres. We hear them and thank all of you for their interest and passion to keep our hawker heritage alive. We too want to see that the model evolves in a way that is relevant to the patrons of hawker centres, the stall holders, and the communities which the centres serve. 

14. Let’s continue to work together to safeguard and sustain our intangible cultural heritage – it is, after all, a part of what makes us uniquely Singaporean.

Last Updated: 16 November 2018

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