Every day, more than 6,000 cooked food hawkers produce an assortment of mouth-watering dishes at about 110 hawker centres here.
Now, the island's rich hawker culture will be nominated for inscription into Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced yesterday.
If the bid is successful, Singapore's hawker culture will join the likes of Malaysia's Mak Yong theatre from Kelantan, Indonesia's batik and India's yoga on the world stage. Started in 2008, the list which has about 400 elements, sets out to demonstrate the diversity of world heritage and ensure its protection.
In his Mandarin speech at the National Day Rally, Mr Lee called hawker centres Singapore's "community dining rooms", adding that they are a cultural institution and unique part of the country's heritage and identity.
He also described the Singapore Botanic Gardens' inscription as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2015 as a proud moment for the country.
Putting Singapore's hawker culture on the intangible cultural heritage list will "help to safeguard and promote this unique culture for future generations". He said: "It will also let the rest of the world know about our local food and multicultural heritage."
The organisations fronting the bid - the National Heritage Board (NHB), National Environment Agency and Federation of Merchants' Associations Singapore - said hawker culture was selected as it has shaped the Singaporean identity in many ways.
For instance, hawker centres function as accessible multi-ethnic spaces where people can feast on a wide variety of multi-generational and multicultural food offerings that have evolved with the times. The culture is built on the hard work, knowledge and culinary techniques and traditions of hawkers past and present.
Singapore's hawkers started out as migrants who peddled their food on streets and sidewalks. They were moved into purpose-built facilities by the Government from the 1970s. Hawker centres are still being built today and by 2027, a total of 127 hawker centres will dot the landscape.
The cherishing of hawker culture also shows up in a series of engagements conducted with Singaporeans to discover what aspects of the country's intangible cultural heritage resonated with them. This included an NHB poll earlier this year where 27 per cent of 3,000 respondents said food was more important to them than social practices and festivals, and traditional performing arts, which each got 18 per cent.
Countries must demonstrate public support for the bid and a website (www.oursgheritage.sg) has been launched for Singaporeans to pledge their support.
In February, Singapore ratified the Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage as a signatory. This allows the Republic to submit nominations to Unesco. In April, the NHB launched an inventory featuring 50 intangible cultural heritage elements practised here, which is a criterion for the nomination.
By next month, a committee made up of members from the public and private sectors will be formed. It will submit the hawker culture nomination dossier to Unesco by March. The result will be announced by the end of 2020.
An item's listing does not imply it belongs, originates from or exists only in the submitting country.
Hawkers The Straits Times spoke to said the nomination can give due recognition to the labour-intensive trade.
Among them, second-generation hawker Loh Teck Seng, 62, who took over his father's itinerant business selling soya bean milk.
Mr Loh, who has been operating a stall at Tiong Bahru Market, said: "I feel appreciated and a sense of pride. It can help elevate our standing and attract tourists to our stalls. Perhaps new generations of Singaporeans will also desire to pick up the trade."
Cultural geographer Lily Kong, Singapore Management University's provost, believes a successful listing "enhances our sense of pride and ownership of our cultural heritage".
Professor Kong added: "The process is also important, in bringing Singaporeans together to articulate what it is that matters to us as a people, and what our shared heritage is."
Correction note: An earlier caption in the story stated that Kiang Joon Toh was 70 years old. He is in fact 80. We are sorry for the error.