Singaporean authorities – the National Heritage Board (NHB), the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Federation of Merchants’ Associations (FMAS) – have officially submitted the nomination documents on Wednesday (27 March) to put hawker culture in Singapore on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Although the Singapore Botanic Gardens was made Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015, but the hawker culture will be the first submission that the country has made in the category of intangible cultural heritage.
In the nomination documents, things that were included were letters, photographs and videos demonstrating community support for the bid. Some of the snapshots sent were photographs of an Indian Muslim hawker preparing biryani, a Chinese hawker showing a chicken rice recipe, and a father along with his children enjoying the chendol dessert. These documents will be available for public viewing in the organisations’ websites, as well as Unesco’s, by July 2019.
Besides that, a 10-minutes video was also submitted to allow a 12-member Unesco evaluation body – including six experts from various fields of intangible cultural heritage – an insight of the hawker culture in Singapore.
The experts will judge based on five criteria such as how it meets Unesco’s definition of intangible culture heritage, as well as how the potential inscription of hawker culture in the country increases visibility, awareness and dialogue of intangible cultural heritage.
The results will be announced at the end of next year.
According to NHB, this is the Republic’s first important step to change the perceptions about the unglamorous part of being a hawker.
Besides that, this nomination is also not to prove that the cultural practice originated in any particular country, or that someone else is doing a better job at it, said Yeo Kirk Siang, the director of heritage research and assessment at NHB.
In August 2018, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned the country’s intention to submit the documents for this category during his National Day Rally. However, Malaysians have quickly ridiculed Singaporean hawker scene as watered-down versions of dishes that originated in Malaysia.
“There is a common misconception that it is about origins. It is not,” noted Mr Yeo.
But, according to him, the nomination list looks at whether the cultural practice is valued within the country, “the kind of support” it gets, and if there was a dedication to protect the practice.
Highlighting Belgium’s beer as an example, he said that it’s not at all about the beer being unique, but rather “the meaning it has for people in that country”. The drink was listed by Unesco among the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.
In a joint press release statement, the NHB, NEA and FMAS said that this nomination will show the world how proud Singapore is towards its hawker culture.
“(It will) encourage greater appreciation for our hawkers and show our commitment as a nation to safeguard hawker culture for generations to come,” said the three bodies co-driving the nomination bid process.
In order to assist the nomination process, different programmes have been conducted by the organisations, such as NHB’s “Support Our Hawkers” movement early this year. The movement which aimed at asking people to show appreciation towards their favourite hawker, was just a way to change the local’s perception towards the trade, said Mr Yeo.
Although hawkers were once seen as a low paying profession, but today, things are a lot different where there are a number of young hawkers with good education background.
“There are diverse opportunities out there (for them), but they chose to pursue their passion (for cooking) instead,” added Mr Yeo.