Singapore's hawker culture added to Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage

Unesco's 24-member committee unanimously accepted Singapore's application.
Unesco's 24-member committee unanimously accepted Singapore's application.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Hawker culture in Singapore has been officially added to the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In virtual proceedings that took place on Wednesday night (Dec 16), a 24-member international committee unanimously accepted Singapore's application.

The process took all of three minutes, after nearly three years of work by the National Heritage Board, the National Environment Agency and the Federation of Merchants' Associations. As Singapore’s application fulfilled all criteria, it was decided that there was no need for debate on it at the 15th session of the intergovernmental committee.

The successful nomination means Singapore now has its first item on the intangible cultural heritage list, which currently has 463 entries including yoga in India and Belgian beer.

It is also the country's second entry to any Unesco list. The first came in 2015 when the Singapore Botanic Gardens was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, in a pre-recorded video, gave short remarks to the international audience on the historic occasion on Wednesday, following the announcement of the official result.

Speaking to representatives from 117 states and non-governmental organisations, he said: "Singapore's hawker culture is a source of pride for Singapore and all Singaporeans. It reflects our living heritage and multiculturalism, and is an integral part of the daily lives of everyone in Singapore regardless of age, race or background.

"I thank all our hawkers and Singaporeans for their overwhelming support of this nomination... We pledge to do our part to safeguard our intangible cultural heritage."

Having hawker culture on the list commits Singapore to protecting and promoting it. The country will have to submit a report every six years to Unesco, showing the efforts made to safeguard and transmit hawker culture to future generations.

Both President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took to Facebook to thank those involved in the nomination process. 

Madam Halimah said hawker culture has shaped Singaporean identity in many ways, and contributed to the diversity of Singapore’s multicultural society. 

Mr Lee said the nomination journey had been a fruitful one. “The biggest thanks must go to the generations of hawkers for nourishing a nation’s stomach and spirits. This recognition would not have come without their sweat, toil and dedication to their profession,” he said. 

Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, president of the Federation of Merchants' Associations (FMAS), which, together with the National Heritage Board and the National Environment Agency helmed the Unesco application, said the result will give hawkers' prestige a boost, both locally and internationally.

He said: "For our hawkers, it is a recognition of their dedication to perfecting their craft and their contribution to Singapore's rich food heritage. FMAS will continue to work with the authorities to look into ways to rejuvenate and sustain the hawker trade, and safeguard our hawker culture."

The development is timely for the hawker sector here, which has in recent years found it difficult to attract young people to a trade that calls for 16-hour work days in hot, cramped stalls.

The authorities have sought, through traineeship programmes and monetary subsidies, to lower the barriers to entry for young aspiring hawkers. Since 2013, the median age for new entrants has been lowered to 46, although the overall median age for hawkers nationwide remains 59.

Singapore's submission - Hawker Culture In Singapore: Community Dining And Culinary Practices In A Multicultural Urban Context - was made in March last year, although preparations began earlier, in February 2018.

To celebrate the global recognition, the authorities said a three-week SG HawkerFest will be launched on Dec 26.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, activities will mostly take place online. These include online treasure hunts and quizzes that can be completed and then used to redeem vouchers that can be used at 29 participating hawker centres.

  • Singapore's Unesco journey

  • February 2018

    Singapore ratifies the 2003 Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, as part of the country's first masterplan for the heritage and museum sector. Signing the convention allows Singapore to nominate items to the Unesco list for intangible cultural heritage and signals the country's commitment to safeguarding its living cultures.

    April 2018

    The National Heritage Board, together with Singaporeans, generates an intangible cultural heritage inventory of more than 50 items. These are possible nominations to the list, and include getai, pilgrimages to Kusu Island and hawker culture.

    August 2018

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announces in his National Day Rally speech that Singapore will be nominating hawker culture to the Unesco list, calling hawker centres Singapore's "community dining rooms".

    March 2019 

    Singapore submits the nomination documents to Unesco for consideration. The application includes a form, a 10-minute video and 10 photos depicting hawker culture.

    November 2020

    A 12-member evaluation body comprising experts on intangible cultural heritage gives glowing reviews of Singapore's application. It recommends that the intergovernmental committee, which will make the final decision, inscribe hawker culture on the list.

    December 2020

    The intergovernmental committee unanimously accepts the addition of hawker culture in Singapore to the Unesco list. Singapore will submit a report once every six years to Unesco to document how it has been ensuring hawker culture's survival.