Pilgrimage to Kusu Island, Malay weddings, hawker culture among the first 50 items identified for Unesco listing

The Legends and Pilgrimage of Kusu Island is categorised under the category social practices, rituals and festive events.
The Legends and Pilgrimage of Kusu Island is categorised under the category social practices, rituals and festive events. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE – Hawker heritage, pilgrimages to Kusu Island and Malay weddings are among 50 items that feature in Singapore’s first intangible cultural heritage inventory.

Comprising traditions, rituals, crafts, expressions, knowledge and skills, it was released by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on Saturday (April 7). 

It is hoped its publication will start a conversation about what the Republic’s nomination should be for its first attempt at making Unesco’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Malaysia’s Mak Yong theatre from the villages of Kelantan, Belgium’s beer culture and Italy’s Neapolitan art of pizza twirling already feature on the almost 400-strong Unesco list which sets out to demonstrate the diversity of world heritage. 

Singapore’s bid, which comes after the Botanic Gardens was inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015, is aimed at raising the profile of the country’s rich cultural heritage. 

Items on the inventory were selected by the NHB’s Heritage Advisory Panel from an ongoing intangible cultural heritage survey, started in 2016.

Elements are grouped under six categories, with some entries overlapping.

The categories are: oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; traditional craftsmanship; and food heritage. 

The pilgrimage to Kusu Island falls under several categories and is arguably a truly Singaporean experience as it is location-based.

The island’s history as a place of worship dates back to at least 1813, before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore. In modern times, people visit the island’s Tua Pek Kong temple to worship. They pray for fertility at a tree or stroke the temple’s stone turtle statues for luck.

Worship on Kusu Island is also linked to the Malay keramat (or shrine) on a nearby hill.

Malay weddings here, meanwhile, are typically held at HDB void decks, instead of the traditional arrangement with a reception is held at the family home’s courtyard. 

Another entry, xinyao, is a repertoire of Mandarin songs composed, written and performed by young Singaporeans. It can be traced to the late 1970s.

The board said the inventory will be progressively updated in batches. 

The Singapore National Commission – chaired by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Ms Grace Fu – will submit the country’s nomination after consultations, and feedback from the public and NHB’s panel. It is not yet known when this will take place. 

It takes about two years for Unesco to officially list an element.

At Jurong Town Hall on Saturday, Ms Fu launched both the Singapore Heritage Festival, and the Our SG Heritage Plan – the first holistic masterplan for the Republic’s heritage and museum sector, which the inventory comes under.

On the Unesco nomination, she said the eventual element that is listed “should reflect our multicultural and multiracial make-up”, adding: “It should also resonate with Singaporeans from all backgrounds, and help in building a greater sense of our national identity.”


The $66 million Our SG Heritage Plan also includes a survey of places of architectural, historical, cultural, social or educational significance, and sites or structures completed before 1980. The findings have yet to be released but are expected to be factored into future land planning decisions. 

The masterplan comes as citizens are paying more attention to the island’s history, heritage and identity. The goal is to develop a long-term strategic plan for heritage issues, and to enhance the country’s capabilities in research, documentation and commemoration. 

In her speech, Ms Fu said the food heritage category was a recent addition following “significant enthusiasm and interest” among Singaporeans. In a NHB poll this year, food resonated most strongly with the 3,000-plus respondents. 

The NHB said countries often share similar intangible cultural elements and the inventory will include elements that can be found in other countries. However, the NHB said it will highlight unique features of how these elements are expressed and, or practised in Singapore, and show how they have evolved to suit the local context. 

Other entries in its inventory include silambam – a form of martial arts using a long staff typically made of bamboo. It is believed to have originated from the southern part of India.

Ayurveda, wood-fired pottery and the cuisine of ethnic groups here, also feature .

The NHB added that languages and dialects are not defined as intangible cultural heritage under the Unesco convention. 

The public can weigh in and contribute information and resources to the inventory at: www.roots.sg/ICH