Malaysia bristles at Singapore food bid

Malaysia is angered by Singapore’s application to Unesco to recognise its street-food vendors as part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage”. 

It would be Singapore’s second listing after the Botanic Gardens were named in 2015 as a World Heritage site alongside Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at a National Day rally in August that the tiny republic would bid to the UN’s cultural agency. The city-state’s national museum is currently hosting an exhibition on the subject and a government petition supporting the Unesco bid is gathering pace. 

Singapore’s national dish, Hainanese chicken with rice, was brought by immigrants from the giant, southern Chinese island.

But commentators across the straits say Singapore’s stalls are too sanitised and less tasty than their Malaysian counterparts.

Malaysian celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, also known as Chef Wan, said Singapore’s bid was “arrogant behaviour”.

“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,” the chef added.

Street food “has always been one of the few areas that Malaysians can confidently say they do better than their richer, cleaner and more efficient neighbour,” added Foong Li Mei, a co-author of “The Food That Makes Us” recipe book.

“This could be why Singapore’s petition for Unesco recognition of its hawker culture offends some Malaysians — it sounds as if Singapore is saying that their hawker food is the original and best,” she told the media.  

Bee Yinn Low, another Malaysian cookbook author who blogs at Rasa Malaysia, said the city-state’s bid was purely about marketing.

“There is nothing unique about Singapore hawker culture,” she told the media. “If Unesco approves the application, it would be a real shame, not to mention that Singapore would create a very hostile environment for its neighbouring countries, which have so much more to offer as far as hawker food culture and tradition.”

Singapore’s vendors once used rickshaws and mobile carts on the streets but, from the 1960s, they were moved into government-built, open-air food courts and coffee shops, which also serve as neighbourhood social hubs.

Two Singaporean stalls, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, offer some of the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred food anywhere in the world.

Lee said inscribing the Lion City’s hawker food in Unesco’s intangible heritage register would “help to safeguard and promote this unique culture for future generations”. 

“I hope everyone will strongly support this nomination so that our hawker culture can stand proudly on the world stage,” Lee said in August.


Satay stalls along Boon Tat Street near Telok Ayer Market in Singapore. Picture credit: Wikimedia