George Town—Malaysia’s Deputy Tourism and Culture Minister Muhammad Bakhtiar Wan Chik said on Tue, Apr l 2, that since hawker food is common to both Singaporean and Malaysian cultures, the two countries could perhaps jointly apply for UNESCO recognition for cultural heritage for the hawker culture.
He explained that this is a process called “serial nomination,” according to Free Malaysia Today (FMT).
However, he emphasised that the country is not overly concerned over Singapore’s application: “We are not that worried about Singapore’s listing. We could also have nominated our Teochew “cendol” or “teh tarik” but let’s face it: both countries share similar versions of the same.”
The deputy minister added, “So, I’d like to advise Singapore, let’s submit serial nominations to Unesco, say Penang and Singapore hawker food, together.”
Mr. Bakhtiar said that in the past, Malaysia also had a joint nomination with China for the Wangkang ceremony, which is observed by the Hokkien community in Melaka. The Wangkang is a festival meant to shoo away evil spirits.
He added, “We have done so in recognising the outstanding universal values we share with China, and we expect a favourable decision soon.”
In August 2018, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said, “I hope everyone will strongly support this nomination so that our hawker culture can stand proudly in the world stage.”
Singapore recently nominated its hawker culture to be listed under Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH), using videos, pictures, and letters from various parties to support its nomination.
In connection to the joint nomination with China, Bakhtiar will talk to Singapore’s National Heritage Board about the joint submission to UNESCO.
“Unesco will never stop a country from nominating any culture deemed unique. We have “chingay”, “dikir barat”, “boria” and other cultural performances that are unique to Malaysia,” he said.
However, the issue of hawker food and culture has not always been a friendly one between the two nations. Last year, after Singapore began its efforts towards the UNESCO nomination, many Malaysians criticized this endeavor. Additionally, Malaysian food critics were reportedly saying that Singapore’s hawker centres were too sanitized to compete with authentic Malaysian versions.
An article in the New York Times (NYT) quotes one netizen as saying, “There is hardly any hawker in Singapore, unlike Malaysia. I think they mean they want to protect their air-conditioned food court.”
Another commenter said, “What “hawker culture”? Unless they’re talking about preserving their “unique food court or square culture”? Malaysia should be the one trying to save our hawker scene & not have it turned into the sanitized, for lack of a better word, like Singapore”.
The NYT also quotes Samantha Khor, a senior writer at Malaysian news and lifestyle site Says, who expressed that her colleagues and her doubted that Singapore’s hawker food was good enough. “We’re very proud and protective of our hawker culture, I think. Singapore’s hawker food is just not at our standard, particularly in Penang and Sarawak and the cities of Ipoh and Petaling Jaya.”.
Singapore is well known for its hawker food stalls, which are indeed considered a national treasure. They were even prominently featured in last year’s summer Hollywood blockbuster hit “Crazy Rich Asians”.
Singapore’s hawker culture is part and parcel of everyday life, with the South China Morning Post reporting that over twenty-five percent of Singaporeans in one poll said food had a higher significance for them than traditional performance arts or festivals. Moreover, 8 out of every 10 Singaporeans eat in hawker centers at least once every week.
The roots of hawker culture go back to the middle of the 19th century, and the industry’s focus has always been serving delicious food at affordable prices.