I’ve written before about Singapore’s hawker centres. Resembling non-air-conditioned food courts, they attract locals and tourists with a smorgasbord of delicious dishes and drinks at reasonable prices.
Singapore has around 114 hawker centres housing more than 6,000 stalls, some of which have been selling the same dish for decades. Now, hawker culture may be set for an even bigger stage. In August, the government announced that Singapore would nominate hawker culture for a spot on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The list, which was started in 2008, comprises about 400 elements, including Indonesia’s batik and India’s yoga. Washoku and washi are on the list, too.
After Singapore announced its intention, some Malaysians went online to express their views. They felt that other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, have a more “authentic” hawker culture and tastier versions of the same dishes.
Indeed, Singapore’s hawker centres are more tightly regulated and may seem less organic. But that doesn’t make them any less authentic.
Since the 1800s, hawkers of different ethnicities have been peddling food and drink on Singapore’s streets. The fare was cheap and satisfied the population, but the colonial government was concerned about hygiene and land use. In the 1960s, it began to regulate hawkers, giving them licenses and putting them in hawker centres.
Over the years, hawker centres have always had a special place in our hearts. This is where we gather with our family and friends for our favourite local foods. Often crowded and hot, hawker centres are hardly the most comfortable places to eat out. But the casual atmosphere, rich variety and wallet-friendly prices have made it an integral part of our lives. Few Singaporeans could imagine the city without any hawker centres.
Perhaps this is why so many locals were upset by the recent revelation that many hawkers have had to deal with heavy-handed bureaucratic practices. The problem seems to lie with centres run by social enterprises, as opposed to those managed by the National Environment Agency.
In the former, hawkers pay relatively high rental and various miscellaneous fees. Some are not even allowed to decide their rest days and operating hours. This is in stark contrast with those in the latter. Hawkers in NEA-run centres are their own bosses, and they’ve always had the freedom to decide how to run their own business. Once their food is sold out, they close up and go home. Some popular stalls only operate for a few hours each day.
Following the public uproar, the social enterprise hawker centre model is currently under review. Whatever the outcome, I hope we do right by our hawkers. To me, that is far more important than getting onto the UNESCO list. (Tan Ying Zhen)