Global panel recommends Singapore's hawker culture be added to Unesco list

Diners eating at Maxwell food centre on Nov 17, 2020. The report by the Unesco evaluation body said hawker culture provides a sense of identity and continuity for people in Singapore.
Diners eating at Maxwell food centre on Nov 17, 2020. The report by the Unesco evaluation body said hawker culture provides a sense of identity and continuity for people in Singapore.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
The evaluation body said in its report that Singapore's application for hawker culture satisfied all criteria.
The evaluation body said in its report that Singapore's application for hawker culture satisfied all criteria.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
A hawker prepares satay at his stall.
A hawker prepares satay at his stall.PHOTO: MOHAMAD HAFIZ/UNESCO
A hawker prepares briyani at her stall.
A hawker prepares briyani at her stall. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD/UNESCO
A mother shares the skill of making dumplings with her son at her hawker stall.
A mother shares the skill of making dumplings with her son at her hawker stall.PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD/UNESCO
A group of friends enjoying local Chinese, Malay and Indian delights at a hawker centre.
A group of friends enjoying local Chinese, Malay and Indian delights at a hawker centre.PHOTO: NURIN SYAZA SARBINI/UNESCO

SINGAPORE - Hawker culture in Singapore has had its chances of being inscribed as an official Unesco intangible cultural heritage boosted on Monday (Nov 16), with an expert body recommending that it be put on the coveted list.

An evaluation body comprising 12 experts around the world - appointed by the 24-member intergovernmental committee that will give the final verdict in December this year - said in a highly anticipated report that Singapore's application satisfied all criteria.

The evaluation body recommended that hawker culture here be added to the official list.

In the past, the final decision in December has not always adhered closely to what has been recommended by the evaluation body. However, The Straits Times understands that those which have been approved by the evaluation body are typically given the nod.

The report recognised that hawker culture provides Singapore "a sense of identity and continuity for people across the generations and in a context of urbanisation".

"It plays a crucial social role in enhancing community interactions (and) fostering an inclusive society irrespective of the diverse social, religious and ethnic backgrounds of its people," it added.

The Unesco convention for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage, or “living heritage” which changes over time, has been around since 2003. It includes practices as varied as performing arts, festive events, rituals and oral traditions.

The convention hopes to make sure these are transmitted to the next generation and also promote intercultural dialogue and mutual respect for other ways of life. 

Singapore submitted its bid to have hawker culture internationally recognised in March last year, in hopes that it be added to the 463 items currently already on the list.

Ms Chang Hwee Nee, the National Heritage Board’s chief executive officer, said that with the affirmation by the expert panel, she hopes to hear good news during the intergovernmental committee meeting to be held online from Dec 14 to 19.

She added: “We hope the successful inscription of hawker culture would further raise awareness and appreciation among Singaporeans of the importance of intangible cultural heritage in our daily lives, and continue to promote dialogues among our communities.”

Mr Tan Meng Dui, chief executive officer of the National Environment Agency, said Singapore’s bid shows its commitment to the preservation of hawker culture, and that his agency “remains steadfast” in its efforts to attract new entrants and work with current stakeholders. 

For Tekka Centre hawker Ganesh Singh, who has been selling teh tarik for more than 30 years, the recognition is a dream come true and an honour that could help to attract more young people to the profession. 

The 54-year-old said: “I took a big breath when I heard the news. I have no words to express myself.  With recognition, youngsters will join us and make sure hawker culture retains longevity.

“It would be an honour not just for hawkers but for all Singaporeans.”

Member of Parliament (Ang Mo Kio) Nadia Ahmad Samdin, in response to the news, noted that hawker fare is an important part of food security in Singapore, providing affordable meals for locals of all ages. 

For seniors, buying takeaways from hawker centres during times of unprecedented crisis, such as that caused by Covid-19, can also give them a sense of “normalcy and routine, as many hawkers are familiar faces and cornerstones of the community”, she said. 

Ms Nadia, who is a member of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Sustainability and the Environment, added that hawker centres can be a “space for intergenerational bridges”, where senior hawkers and younger hawkers can work together under the NEA’s development programmes for hawkers, for instance. 

The application to be included in Unesco’s heritage list, which was uploaded online, had included letters, photographs and videos demonstrating community support for the bid.

Mr Singh was featured in one of the videos.

Over 850,000 people, through various means such as attending travel exhibitions and singing letters of consent, gave a strong signal to the evaluation body that there is public awareness and "significant vitality" to hawker culture, according to the report.

Hawker culture in Singapore has evolved significantly through the years, from individual hawkers selling their fare on the streets to the more built-up hawker centres of today.

There are currently about 6,000 hawkers spread over 110 hawker centres. 

In the event of a successful inscription, Singapore will be committed to the safeguarding and transmission of hawker culture in Singapore, and will have to submit a report to Unesco every six years on its efforts. 

There were 42 submissions in this year's bid, including mechanical watchmaking by Switzerland and France, Budima dance by Zambia and tree beekeeping culture by Poland and Belarus.

Among these, 25 were recommended to be inscribed on the official intangible cultural heritage of humanity list, including Singapore's bid.