Singapore is a young nation with origins as a migrant society. We have a multiracial policy, and our culture naturally follows a multiracial and multicultural tenet. Over the last 53 years, we have also developed a set of common values, traditions, memories and social practices. Collectively, these form the basis for our intangible cultural heritage (ICH), an important anchor of our national identity.
One manifestation of our ICH is Singapore's 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.
Hawker centres 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 reflect our multiracial and multi-religious context.
Madam Muthuletchmi Veerapan, a hawker at Ghim Moh Market and Food Centre, is proud to be a part of the trade. She said: "Hawker centres are part and parcel of Singaporeans' daily life. They are a favourite makan spot for many people of all races, because of the wide variety of food, all under one roof. We share a close relationship with our customers, that we can even remember the orders of our regular customers by heart! Our customers trust us to always serve delicious and affordable food."
For many Singaporeans, hawker food is the most common dining option. This is no surprise, when our small country is dotted with over 100 hawker centres and more than 6,000 cooked food stalls.
It is also a deeply personal experience. A question on which hawker offers the best chicken rice or other favourite dishes will likely evoke passionate debate, with occasional heated arguments, even among family and friends. I myself am partial to the fried carrot cake, soon kueh and bak chor mee at blocks 254 and 347 in Yuhua.
Our hawker culture goes beyond hawker centres and food, and is also about the people and their relationships with each other. When pledging her support for hawker culture, one resident, Ms Tan Jia Lin, wrote: "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."
I can't agree with her more.
At my constituency, a group of residents gather every morning at their favourite table in a hawker centre to chat and exchange news. Sometimes they even peel vegetables for each other - and share their life experiences. Through sharing the table with them, I got to know how many grandchildren they have; that one of them had lost her husband to an accident at work, and that one of them will be taken for lunch by their children.
Hawker culture is quintessentially Singaporean. It connects us to our families and our home, and it is often the first go-to place after a long trip away. It is enjoyed by people of all races, faiths, family backgrounds and walks of life. It is also part of our living heritage that evolves as we interact with and influence one another, and as our lifestyles and needs change.
The National Heritage Board has started to identify and document elements of Singapore's ICH, including our hawker culture, in an inventory launched in April this year. The inventory is an ongoing process co-created with Singaporeans, including experts and members of the community. Over time, the inventory will grow to become a rich repository of our multicultural heritage.
I am encouraged by the responses of many Singaporeans and their strong support for the nomination of our Hawker Culture to Unesco.
Cedar Girls' Secondary School launched a heritage gallery in 2015 that explored the history and significance of hawker culture. The Singapore Business Federation has also expressed interest in safeguarding our hawker culture, and rally support for the nomination.
We 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. To pledge support or give suggestions, go to www.oursgheritage.sg
Some have expressed concerns about the new models of management of hawker centres. We hear you, and thank all of you for your 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.
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.
• Grace Fu is Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on Oct 29 at Singapore's inaugural Intangible Cultural Heritage Symposium.
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