Malaysians argue over Singapore’s hawker food UNESCO bid

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on 19 August that the nation will nominate its hawker culture for the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Great timing really, given the spotlight that’s on the country right now thanks to Crazy Rich Asians. Not forgetting the fact that Singapore became home to the world’s first Michelin-starred hawker stall in 2016.

Read also: What Crazy Rich Asians got right (and wrong) about Singapore

It would have been wise to brace for the onslaught of passionate comments from Singaporeans and Malaysians that followed (because we’re talking about food lah, what else?).

The reactions

Malaysian celebrity chef, Chef Wan, called the move “arrogant behaviour.”

“People who lack confidence in their food will go all out to do these things for recognition,” he said to The Star. “It’s not necessary to announce to the world that you have this or that. By taking this route, it’s a bit of arrogant behaviour.”

He added: “Food is meant to be enjoyed by everyone and not for us to pick fights over who owns what. We already fight about everything else, such as territorial claims, oil and water. Now, it’s up to the level where they want to bring their hawker culture to the UNESCO. I don’t think it’s wise for them to do this because it’ll create a lot of unhappiness among the people in terms of branding.”

Datuk Ismail Ahmad, another Malaysian chef, compared Malaysia’s and Singapore’s hawker centres, saying that while Singapore’s were usually in buildings while Malaysia’s were more widespread (roadside stalls are all too common in Malaysia). He also had harsher comments about it.

“That’s the uniqueness of ours compared to theirs,” he said, according to The Star. “Theirs is monotonous. Their hawker centres are beautiful but tasteless.”

Social media lit up with comments. Some didn’t find fault in Singapore wanting to preserve its food culture, though they pointed out the similarities between both countries.

Michael Sak wrote on Facebook: “Does it say they are claiming for listing of tastiest hawker food or best hawker food? They are merely looking for recognition that hawker food is part of their culture. And it is, just like it is here.”

Another user, SE Liew declared: “Join forces la. No matter how you want to separate the countries, it is difficult to separate these 2 places when come to food. With one exception, bakuteh is from Klang ok!”

Others criticised Singapore’s ‘kiasu’ (fear of losing) behaviour, teasing the country for its people’s habit of reserving tables with tissue packets.

“I went to Singapore bazaar ramadhan last year. It is a joke. Overpriced, lack of traditional food, too much hipster food,” Facebook user Hamzah Hashim added.

“‘Hawker’ or ‘food court’ culture?” one Fikri Hasim commented elsewhere. “I’m confused. In term of hawker food, I think Thailand and Indonesia are the most vibrant one. [sic]”

Perhaps Malaysia and Singapore’s constant food feud is more worthy of the UNESCO recognition.

Other heritages on UNESCO’s list

Among the cultural heritages that have been recognised on the list since its 2008 inception are Indonesian batik, Malaysian Mak Yong Theatre, Mexico’s Day of the Dead and South Korea’s Jeju Haenyeo (female divers). Singapore, which has not yet featured on the list, wouldn’t be the first to be on it for food. French cuisine and the Mediterranean diet of Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and Portugal have been inscribed before.

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Andrea Tim

Andrea is a serial kopi peng drinker (for fun, not for the caffeine; coffee doesn't wake her up) and believer in keyboard shortcuts. She sees The Dress as blue and black, and hears both Yanny and Laurel. Make of that what you will.

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