'To understand Singapore, head to a hawker centre'
Experts on why our hawker culture is an excellent choice for Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list
It took over six months of public engagement and many focus group sessions involving more than 140 people before hawker culture was selected as part of Singapore's intangible culture.
In naming it as Singapore's nomination for Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage during Sunday's National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of hawker culture being a unique part of Singapore's society, heritage and identity.
In his Mandarin speech, he described hawker centres as the nation's "community dining rooms".
Local food consultant K. F. Seetoh said he and other food experts, including celebrity chef Violet Oon, had raised the idea because all Singaporeans can identify with hawker culture.
Mr Seetoh told The New Paper: "It is something worth celebrating - a place where people from all walks of life can come together.
"It is not fancy or trendy, it just is a place where Singaporeans can eat and bond. Through hawker culture, you can really understand Singapore."
Mr Seetoh said any cynicism over the choice was put to bed once the focus groups realised that hawker culture fit the Unesco criteria to a tee.
According to Unesco, intangible cultural heritage is found in oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, and traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques, among other things.
Started in 2008, Unesco's list of about 400 elements - including Malaysia's Mak Yong theatre, Indonesia's batik and India's yoga on the world stage - sets out to demonstrate the diversity of world heritage and ensure its protection.
Singapore Heritage Society president Jack Tsen-Ta Lee said: "I could see the logic of selecting hawker culture as Singapore's first nomination because it is something that cuts across all communities."
He said other elements that were proposed, such as Peranakan culture and Eurasian culture, were not exclusive to Singapore.
Dr Lee said that one concern he had regarding the proposal to nominate Singapore hawker culture was that neighbouring countries could also claim to have similar hawker cultures.
"I suppose the NHB (National Heritage Board), in consultation with the public, will have to try to identify what is unique about Singapore's hawker culture."
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute sociologist Terence Chong said: "While other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand might have something like our hawker centres, they tend to be more like street food."
Unlike other countries, which may have hawkers who are mobile, we have a fixed site for people to gather under one roof, he said.
The way hawker centres here are regulated and controlled also reflects Singapore's orderliness, Mr Chong added.
Agreeing with the nomination, Ms Frances Loke Wei, 24, said: "It's a living exhibition of Singapore's motley culture that you won't find in a museum of artefacts.
"At the roundtable discussion I attended, it was a pretty unanimous vote, I believe.
"As a linguist, I also like to think of it as a pasar (Malay for market) for languages: a microcosm of Singapore as a whole, its transactional nature and origins, peppered with languages from around the region."
Ms Norizwani Ismail, 49, a hawker, hopes Singapore will succeed with the nomination.
She said hawker centres cut across generations, and when people talk about Singaporean food, they think of hawker centres.
She said: "A hawker centre is not just a place to eat, but also where families come to bond and people get together. It is a Singapore trademark."
And there is the food, of course.
As Mr Lee put it: "One element could be the mixture of different cuisines which may not be found in other parts of the world, in particular dishes that are a blend of more than one traditional cuisine."