International Travel

Preserving Singapore’s hawker culture

Preserving Singapore’s hawker culture

During the recent National Day Rally in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the country’s plan to nominate hawker culture for Unesco’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Let’s break down what that means:

What is the URLICHH?
Just what is the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity?

While the name may be a mouthful, simply put, it’s a list of important cultural practices and heritages from around the world that need to be preserved or safeguarded.

These can include oral traditions, rituals, performing arts or traditional craftsmanship, among others.


The list was started in 2008 and currently has about 400 elements, covering such diverse practices as the traditional art of Jamdani weaving in Bangladesh to the scissors dance of Peru.

Why Singapore hawker food?
Hawker food is said to be an intrinsic and integral part of Singaporean life.

PM Lee described hawker centres as the nation’s “community dining rooms” and has said that preserving hawker culture “will help to safeguard and promote this unique culture for future generations”, while also letting “the rest of the world know about our local food and multicultural heritage”.

There are more than 6000 cooked food hawkers in over 110 hawker centres around the island, and they’re not just the go-to places for affordable and good food – 28 of them have even received the 2018 Michelin Bib Gourmand award.

Anyone can go to this website to pledge their support for the cause.

The nomination will be submitted to Unesco by March 2019 with results expected to be announced at the end of 2020.

Does everyone agree with the nomination?
There’s been an uproar from neighbouring Malaysia, with the argument that many other countries also have unique street food cultures.

Malaysian celebrity chef, Chef Wan, called the move “arrogant behaviour”, while another celebrity chef, Datuk Ismail Ahmad, described Singaporean hawker centres as being “beautiful but tasteless”.

This isn’t the first time the two countries have had a war of words over food.

What are the other Asian cultures already included?
While this will be Singapore’s first attempt to be included, many of its Southeast Asian neighbours are already listed.

Vietnam, for example, has 12 elements inscribed, including ca tru singing, which is a complex form of sung poetry from the north of the country, and tugging rituals and games, which are played among rice-farming cultures to ensure prosperity and a good harvest.

The latter is also practised in the Philippines. Malaysia has Mak Yong theatre, an ancient theatre form originating from the villages of Kelantan.

Three more nominations are still being considered.

Indonesia also has several entries on the list, including the wayang puppet theatre, the musical instrument known as the angklung, and batik.

Written by Siti Rohani. This article first appeared in Reader’s Digest. For more of what you love from the world’s best-loved magazine, here’s our best subscription offer.