Saturday, August 25, 2018

Hawker Culture - Singapore's first nomination for UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage

Food unites us all ! I was invited and attended on 2 April 2018, a Focus Group Discussion organised by the National Heritage Board (NHB). There was a lively and passionate discussion of many cultural heritages from the different racial groups and communities but eventually the topic tend to gravitate to food and the eventual consensus was that food, especially Hawker Food is something we could all agree upon that unites our differences and something we are passionate about. I had my list that i shared during the focus group discussion as well which was not just about food of course !

So it was no surprise, when the decision to nominate Hawker Culture was announced by the Prime Minister during National Day Rally on 19 Aug 2018 and that National Heritage Board (NHB), National Environment Agency (NEA) and Federation of Merchants' Associations (FMAS) will in a committee submit the nomination forms to UNESCO in March 2019 for Singapore’s Hawker Culture to be registered in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The results are expected to be announced sometime in end 2020. I for one, look forward for the preservation of Singapore's Hawker Culture in a time where mounting rental and manpower cost are the major concern's often raised by the younger generation of hawkers working in an environment where major private sector players and REITs are taking over hawker spaces (e.g. foodcourts, coffee shops and even hawker centers ). If that happens, the unique food culture will go the way of Singapore's retail malls suffering the same fate of having the same things being sold everywhere with no uniqueness, very much like a franchise model.

"Car Park" Hawker Centre at Orchard Road 1970 (source: National Archives)

Maxwell Market (source: National Library Board)

Crowd at a Hawker Centre (source: National Archives)
Keeping the barrier of entry low for all Singaporean's who are willing to work hard and make good and affordable food should be the policy and decision makers main focus, if they are serious on keeping this Hawker Culture alive and truly vibrant ! National Heritage Board (NHB) has launched an informative website about Singapore's Hawker Culture and there is even a call to action to pledge our for this nomination. The website is

What is UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage

Extracted from the UNESCO website, this includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.  This elements include:
  • Traditional, contemporary and living at the same time: intangible cultural heritage does not only represent inherited traditions from the past but also contemporary rural and urban practices in which diverse cultural groups take part.
  • Inclusive: It promotes and contributes to social cohesion, encouraging a sense of identity and responsibility which helps individuals to feel part of one or different communities and to feel part of society at large;
  • Representative: It thrives on its basis in communities and depends on those whose knowledge of traditions, skills and customs are passed on to the rest of the community, from generation to generation, or to other communities;
  • Community-based: It is recognised as such by the communities that create, maintain and transmit it.

Singapore's Intangible Cultural Heritage.(website). Rojak Librarian, posted on March 11, 2018
UNESCO Intangilbe Culture Heritage. (website).

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