Asian Insider March 28: Saving Singapore’s hawkers

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.


Singapore today submitted a nomination to the UN to have its hawker culture inscribed on the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage. The Republic’s prime minister had announced the country's intention to do so last year, which was followed by a months-long process - including a nationwide campaign - to prepare the nomination. The nomination had drawn scorn from countries like Malaysia, who have similar street food cultures, but Singapore has always maintained the Unesco list is not about ownership or excellence, and that Singapore’s hawker culture is distinct from those of its neighbours.

The big picture: What appears on the surface as a bid by the island nation to try and get its hawker culture some international recognition is more likely a bid to get it some local attention. While the country’s hawker industry is integral to community life, it is facing an existential crisis. The average age of hawkers last year was pushing 60 with few among the young eager to take up a career that involves slaving hours a day over a stove for little pay. The authorities have thus launched all manner of measures to try and revamp the trade (not always successfully). Despite how central hawker food is to life in Singapore, there is concern that it had come to be taken for granted. A Unesco inscription was seen as a good way to try and change perceptions.

The nomination: Singapore submits nomination to inscribe hawker culture on Unesco list

Background:What's so special about Singapore's hawker culture?


Brunei, the small oil-rich sultanate in Borneo, is set to enact a law next week that will punish Muslims guilty of adultery and gay sex to death by stoning. The penalty is part of a harsh new penal code based on strict Syariah law that includes amputation for theft. The provisions were first announced in 2013 and have been delayed as officials worked out the practical details amid fierce condemnation from human rights groups. The details still have not yet been revealed and many questions remain about how one would carry out such a punishment in this day and age.

The big picture: While the announcement that Brunei is now going ahead with its controversial law drew swift criticism globally, the reaction from local Bruneians appears to be  much more muted - which was also the case when the measures were first announced years ago. A lot of it is down to fear of repercussions, but there is also a sense that the move could be more symbolic than punitive. A year after the Brunei first introduced measures that included fines, imprisonment or both for eating, drinking or smoking during fasting hours, skipping Friday prayers for men and giving birth out of wedlock, fewer than 20 people were convicted. All were fined. While even just having such a law on the books is problematic, few are expecting anyone to ever really be subject to its provisions.

The full story: Brunei to impose death by stoning for gay sex and adultery


With no clarity in sight about who will form the next government in Thailand, seven anti-junta parties sought to seize the initiative yesterday by declaring that they had the mandate of the people. The pro-junta party was declared the winner of the popular vote today but the Thaksin Shinawatra-linked Pheu Thai and six other coalition partners claim to have bagged 255 of the 500 Lower House seats. And while that majority is ordinarily enough to form government, it isn’t under the new Thai constitution that has a 250-member senate made up of people largely picked by the junta.

Where does that leave Thailand? Indochina Bureau Chief Tan Hui Yee writes that if things stay as they are and the junta winds up forming a minority government based on its seats in the Lower House and support from senators it appointed, one can expect an administration that is constantly opposed by a sizeable faction in parliament. In effect, it means a constitution ostensibly designed to avoid gridlock may turn out causing it.

Commentary:  Pheu Thai-led coalition creates only strong opposition, not government - at least not yet


South-east Asia’s largest economy and the world’s biggest palm oil producer could consider pulling out of the Paris climate agreement if the EU goes ahead with its plan to phase out palm oil. Reuters reports that the EU classifies palm oil as a crop that causes deforestation and said that its use in renewable fuel should stop in 10 years.

The big picture: While it’s not clear how serious Indonesia’s threat is, the more immediately troubling fact is that we are now seeing the impact of the US decision to pull out. Since it received no sanction for leaving, others are now clearly seeing the deal as a good means of flexing strength - one that happens to also play well with nationalists at home. Indonesia’s coordinating minister overseeing maritime and natural resources even openly cited the US: “"If the US and Brazil can leave the climate deal, we should consider that. Why not?"

Go deeper: Indonesia threatens to quit Paris climate deal over palm oil


Had enough of travelling just to see historical landmarks and theme parks? A travel agency in India is organising a different kind of tour  - one that includes the chance to attend rallies, meet voters and even candidates.

Yes, election tourism has become a thing in India, a thing that costs US$450 a week (not including flights). The organisers think the elections in the world’s largest democracy have immense untapped tourism potential. Apparently 5,200 people went on such tours during the last elections and that number is expected to almost double. Just goes to show, you can get people to pay to see nearly anything.

Read the report from India correspondent Debarshi Dasgupta: India's upcoming elections being pitched as tourist attraction


British Prime Minister Theresa May failed to sway hardline opponents of her European Union divorce deal yesterday with an offer to quit, as Parliament’s bid to agree on an alternative fell short, leaving the Brexit process as deadlocked as ever.

China has made unprecedented proposals in talks with the United States on a range of issues including forced technology transfer as the two sides work to overcome remaining obstacles to a deal to end their protracted trade war, US officials told Reuters.

Representatives of governments from around the world are expected to attend a national remembrance service in New Zealand on Friday (March 29) for the 50 victims of a mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch.

Taiwan plans to ramp up punishments for those who cause a fatal accident while drunk driving, including the death penalty for the most egregious cases, sparking an outcry from abolition and rights groups.

That's it, thanks for reading and see you tomorrow.