UNESCO bid not about claiming ownership of hawker culture: NHB

UNESCO bid not about claiming ownership of hawker culture: NHB

Singapore has submitted its nomination of hawker culture to the UNESCO for inscription. However, this move is not about staking ownership, authorities said. Tan Si Hui reports.

SINGAPORE: Singapore's nomination of its hawker culture for recognition by the United Nations is not about staking ownership, authorities said on Thursday (Mar 28) as they announced the submission of the bid.

The hawker food, trade and culture can be found elsewhere in the world and Singapore's nomination of it as part of the country's "intangible cultural heritage" does not ascribe ownership or prove that it is better than other countries' street food, said the National Heritage Board's director for heritage assessment and research Yeo Kirk Siang.

"There is some misconception that the nomination is about proving origins, being better or unique. Actually, that's wrong. 

"The nomination and the purpose of the representative list is to demonstrate how important (the cultural element) is to the community and country, and how they are committed to safeguarding this intangible cultural heritage," he said on Thursday (Mar 28).

He gave the example of the beer culture in Belgium, which was inscribed to the list in 2016 for its long history of beer making and wide-spread beer appreciation. 

Traditional Japanese cuisine was also recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2013.

"It's not about whether beer originated in Belgium or Belgian beer is better than others. It's about the meaning it has for the people and the country," Mr Yeo added. 

Similarly, an inscription to the list does not mean exclusivity. For instance, both Turkish coffee culture and Arabic coffee culture were inscribed in 2013 and 2015 respectively. 

If a country can describe how it values and practices an intangible cultural heritage, there is no restriction on whether it can be nominated into the UNESCO list, he said. 

Singapore's announcement last year that it would nominate its hawker culture to UNESCO had sparked some anger across the Causeway, as Malaysians objected that Singapore was trying to "claim" a hawker culture common to both countries.

“People who lack confidence in their food will go all out to do these things for recognition,” Malaysian media had reported Malaysian celebrity Chef Wan as saying.


Singapore's nomination documents were jointly submitted on Wednesday by NHB, the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Federation of Merchants’ Association, Singapore (FMAS), said representatives of the organisations on Thursday during a media briefing. 

“The submission of the nominated documents is a milestone in Singapore’s UNESCO inscription journey to better recognise and protect our intangible cultural heritage,” a statement from the three organisations said. 

“A successful nomination will demonstrate greater appreciation for our hawkers, and show our commitment as a nation to safeguard hawker culture for generations to come,” it added. 

READ: Commentary: UNESCO listing may lift hawker culture but saving it is a different challenge

The documents submitted to UNESCO will be available for viewing on UNESCO’s website and the three agencies' websites by July. 

The bid includes letters and videos showing community support for the nomination, photographs contributed by Singaporeans and entries to the #OurHawkerCulture photography contest, and a 10-minute video to provide a better understanding of the country's hawker culture. 

The nomination will be evaluated by six UNESCO experts qualified in various fields of intangible cultural heritage and six representatives of accredited non-governmental organisations.

They will evaluate Singapore’s bid based on five criteria, such as how it meets UNESCO’s definition of intangible cultural heritage and how existing and future safeguarding measures ensure the promotion, transmission and continued practice of the hawker culture.

A decision on the nomination will be made by end-2020. Currently, 429 items are on the intangible cultural heritage of humanity list. 

The decision to nominate Singapore's hawker culture was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at last year's National Day Rally.

READ: NDR 2018: Singapore to nominate hawker culture as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ for UNESCO listing

The Prime Minister spoke about hawker centres being a unique part of the country's society, heritage and identity. 

There are more than 6,000 hawkers working in cooked food stalls at 114 hawker centres in Singapore. 

Among the 114, seven are Socially-conscious Enterprise Hawker Centres (SEHCs). 

A majority of them serve two meals a day, with each hawker serving an average of between 150 and 200 dishes daily based on feedback collected by NEA from hawkers. 

“Hawker centres are our community dining rooms,” Mr Lee had said, noting how Singaporeans of all races, faiths and income groups are able to eat together in hawker centres. 

If successful, hawker culture will be Singapore’s first entry on the UNESCO list, joining the likes of batik from Indonesia, yoga in India and Malaysia's Mak Yong theatre.

Source: CNA/nc(cy/hm)