New Naratif is Fundraising!

New Naratif is a 100% ad-free, member funded, non-profit movement for Southeast Asian democracy. Membership fees fund high quality, independent journalism and create positive change in our communities. This year, we need to raise US$226,336 to continue our operations. Please consider becoming a member or donating today!

Visit our fundraising page

It was a predictable outcome. When Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, announced during his National Day Rally speech in August 2018 the intention to nominate Singapore’s hawker culture for UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Malaysians were swiftly up in arms.

Across the Johor-Singapore Causeway, Singapore’s UNESCO bid was blasted by some as arrogance, or yet another attempt to claim superiority. In a region of foodies where people have argued over the ownership of all sorts of dishes—from yusheng to cendol—the city-state’s desire for international recognition was interpreted as one more instance of trying to lord it over its closest frenemy.

But such fights over ownership and heritage can be myopic, especially considering the fact that, between 1963 to 1965, Malaysia and Singapore were one country. Looking beyond artificial constructs of state borders, people have long experienced Singapore and the Malayan peninsula as a region within which communities, cultures, capital, and yes, food, moved.

Furthermore, a UNESCO bid is not a statement of taste—it has less to do with the quality of the meals served up than the way in which a country has managed and organised its hawkers to create particular customs and behaviours. While it might be futile to wage a food war between Singapore and Malaysia, tracing the development and contemporary challenges of the two hawker industries reveals more about the ways in which the two countries diverged from a shared history.

A headache for administrators

Street hawking is neither Singaporean nor Malaysian—it’s a profession and practice that can be found around the world, and predates the formation of both these Southeast Asian nation-states. Reports and articles written by the British colonialists who governed both territories point to a long-standing tug-of-war between hawkers and the authorities.

In 1872, the Inspector General in Singapore issued a notice assuring the public that, “it is not the intention of the Government to interfere with people selling things in the street except with reference to men setting up stalls in the public thoroughfares and causing obstruction.” The notice, issued in English and Chinese, was in response to a riot that broke out in October that year due to unhappiness over the way the police had been enforcing regulations introduced in 1860 to deal with sanitation and the flow of traffic. In 1950, Franklin Charles Gimson, Singapore’s first post-war governor, set up the Hawkers Inquiry Commission to address issues related to street hawkers.

Credit: Tuan Nini

In 1965, Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia and became a sovereign nation. Following independence, the People’s Action Party (PAP) undertook a long-term effort to register and relocate itinerant street hawkers. In 1969, for instance, then-Minister for Health, Chua Sian Chin, reported that 1,689 hawkers from 22 different areas had been re-sited. In 1971, the PAP government began building hawker centres with the view of relocating about 18,000 street hawkers. Government subsidies were given out, particularly to hawkers facing financial difficulties, to smoothen the transition and encourage support for the scheme.

Meanwhile, Kuala Lumpur had also been grappling—rather unsuccessfully—with illegal and itinerant hawking. Its administrators’ frustration was recorded in a 1987 journal article by James M. Anthony, published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He quoted statements made by an unnamed municipal health officer in Kuala Lumpur in 1953, which described the illegal hawker as, “the main street vending nuisance. His food is likely to be contaminated, he causes street obstructions, he spoils any area he frequents by his slovenly dirt and litter and he is probably the focal point of corruption […] he regenerates with the facility of an amoeba.”

“Arrests and confiscation of hawker property did not solve anything. The victims of police clean-up campaigns simply returned to the streets to set up shop again, once they had paid their fines or served brief terms of imprisonment,” Anthony wrote.

Around 1960, the police raids in Kuala Lumpur were so rampant that politicians and hawker representatives appealed for sympathy, pointing out that street vendors weren’t criminals but hard-working low-income individuals trying to earn a living and support their families.

Unlike in Singapore, resistance is the default stance of street vendors in Kuala Lumpur towards efforts to bring order to their chaotic hawking. One reason is that attempts to re-site street vendors are often impractical. According to Anthony, when two new multi-storey hawker emporia were completed in 1967, “one of them could be described as a very limited success and the other a spectacular failure”. The flop was partly caused by unfavourable location and high rental cost. In the interests of survival, Kuala Lumpur’s hawkers opted for chaos.

A grubby “authenticity”

The different paths that the two countries have taken have now been entrenched in people’s minds, shaping the way each population thinks about street food. In Malaysia, what was borne out of necessity is now a celebrated trait. Many Malaysians like their hawker dining disorganised and disheveled—seen as the hallmark of “authenticity”.

There’s a prevalent Malaysian joke: grubbiness is a symbol of an eatery’s superior flavours. Only a confident cook would have such devil-may-care hygiene standards—or so the assumption goes. It’s a tongue-in-cheek national myth that can (and has) been extended to poke fun at Singapore and its sanitised, organised, rules-based structures. Case in point: a Penang official suggested that Malaysia make its own UNESCO bid as Singapore’s hawker culture was not “so authentic” due to the extent of government control.

But the hawker mop-up continues to this day in Kuala Lumpur. Relocations of food stalls from open-air wet markets, such as the Imbi Market or Pudu market, into clean—some would say “sterile”—indoor facilities have either been completed or are in the pipeline.

Credit: Tuan Nini

Kuala Lumpur aims to do away with roadside hawkers by 2020, according to an announcement made in 2017 by the Federal Territories Ministry. Traders will be relocated or their stalls converted into food trucks. This is in line with a regional trend that’s seeing vendors removed from parts of Bangkok, Jakarta, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Yangon.

“We’ve seen crackdowns in a lot of the bigger cities that have global city aspirations,” Sarah Orleans Reed, the Bangkok coordinator at Wiego, a global non-profit that helps informal workers, told the Thomas Reuters Foundation. She calls this process “Singaporisation”.

Under one roof

This is what “Singaporisation” looks like in Kuala Lumpur: the ground floor of the mammoth Pudu Integrated Commercial Centre is filled with rows of hawkers, relocated in 2016 from the popular Imbi Market. It’s pretty stuffy.

Speaking to New Naratif over breakfast, food and lifestyle blogger Rebecca Saw is put off by the “sticky” heat of the indoor complex. While the food court looks clean and organised, she prefers eating at the old open-air Imbi Market.

Hawkers have been raising the issue of poor ventilation since 2017. One vendor selling nasi lemak (coconut rice) tells New Naratif that while problems like cuts in the water supply have been mostly resolved, the air remains “sauna-like” in many pockets of the food court because not all vendors have installed exhaust hoods over their cooking area.

While some vendors and patrons are happy with the cleaner and more sheltered environment—they say it’s a relief not to be at the mercy of the erratic tropical weather—not all hawkers are enjoying life under the hot roof. Comfort aside, the colloquial character of the street food haven seems to diminish when cooped up inside a complex, even though the vendors have remained largely similar. Both hawkers and patrons lament the loss of the old market’s “human touch”.

Credit: Tuan Nini

“Eating is always more than just the taste, anyway. There is also the sight, smell and sound,” explains Saw’s friend, Daniel Cerventus, as he digs into a plate of wonton noodles beside her.

“Nostalgia plays a big part in what we think is delicious. Case in point, there’s a noodle joint near my old school in Malacca that my friends still like to go, even though the taste is just so-so. We call this ‘eat memory’.”

Lih Ren, a project manager sitting with Saw and Cerventus, chimes in that a food court environment feels like a “mass manufactured experience” compared to eating in a wet market with 60 years of history.

Credit: Tuan Nini

Rosli Mee Rebus is a 47-year-old stall that used to operate by a busy road in Kuala Lumpur. When authorities cleared the area of hawkers, the stall moved into a nearby food court called Pusat Perdagangan Lorong Bunus in 2015.

Its cook, Laila Wati, laments that business has stalled since their move. The nondescript building bears little resemblance to an eatery; customers have told Laila that they’d passed by mistaking it for a hotel or a corporate office.

“Before I moved indoors, I used to sell 15kg of noodles a day. The flow of customers was constant. But these days, it’s difficult for me to sell even 10kg of noodles a day. Sales of my fried tofu dish also dropped to half since I moved into the food court,” the 62-year-old says.

Another nasi campur (mixed rice) seller, Abd Majid Sukiran, is resisting relocation. At his stall amid a stretch of hawkers along a busy Masjid India street, the 54-year-old tells New Naratif that any move, even within a small distance, can put a huge dent in business. He wants to remain at the heart of the shopper and worker traffic—a lucrative location.

As other cities “Singaporise”, what of the actual Singapore?

These transitional pains are a thing of the past in Singapore—there haven’t been any cooked-food street vendors to relocate for a long time. The government began constructing purpose-built centres in 1971 to relocate hawkers into, but stopped in 1986 after, “[having] achieved the social and environmental objectives of providing proper hawker centres for the itinerant street hawkers to operate from”. It was only in 2011 that the government again announced that it would be building more hawker centres over the next 10 years. There are currently over 110 hawker centres across the city-state, with 13 more to be developed by 2027.

These numbers look promising, suggesting a vibrant hawker scene. It can seem that way in the international media too: Singapore’s hawkers have been featured in travelogues and attracted celebrity chefs from the late Anthony Bourdain to Gordon Ramsay, who participated in a cook-off with some of the local veterans—and lost.

But once the cameras stop rolling, Singapore finds itself facing a bleaker reality. The median age of hawkers in Singapore is around 59 years old.

Credit: Tuan Nini

“I always joke to my friends, if you want to have hawker food, have it now because in 20 years everyone is going to die,” Lim Jialiang of Smith Street Taps—which sells craft beer in a hawker centre—told New Naratif managing director PJ Thum in a podcast in September 2018.

“There really wouldn’t be much left in Singapore, so I don’t think it’s a very big exaggeration to say that the hawker industry is in crisis.”

It’s not that young Singaporeans are uninterested in becoming hawkers; while that may be true for the majority of the population, there’s still a good number of young people willing to give it a go. But the industry is an unforgiving one.

It’s not that young Singaporeans are uninterested in becoming hawkers, but that the industry is an unforgiving one

Maxwell Food Centre is one of Singapore’s more well-known hawker centres. It’s near both Chinatown and the Central Business District, making it well-established watering hole for passing tourists and office workers alike. Rows of stalls sporting state-issued hygiene ratings advertise their dishes—fried carrot cake, fishball noodles, Hainanese chicken rice. There’s no air-conditioning, but there’s shade from the glare of the sun and fans spin to keep the air circulating. Regulars sit around round tables, chatting as they sip on kopi or lime juice. In the quiet period after the lunch rush, some hawkers sit down near their stalls for some down-time, streaming TV dramas on their smartphones. Others take the opportunity to wolf down their own meals, while keeping a watchful eye out for potential customers.

“We usually tell the new stalls that it’s not that you open the stall today and you will have business tomorrow or the day after. You need to be here for at least nine months to a year, so people know about you,” says Richard Ng, whose family has run their stall, China Street Fritters, for about 70 years.

“Those who started earlier will have the advantage, because they have old regulars,” he explains. “[The] customers, when they come [to the hawker centre], they already have what they want in mind. Whether it’s chicken rice, duck rice, ngoh hiang or curry rice… once they come, they go to the stall and queue, they order and eat. They don’t walk around to think about what they want. So the new stalls are disadvantaged.”

This means that those eager to make a foray into Singapore’s hawker scene will need to be both financially and mentally prepared for the long haul. At Maxwell t the monthly rental for a stall can come in at about S$3,000–S$4,000 (US$2,201–US$2,936). It makes it difficult for a newcomer to compete with old-timers like Ng and his family, who inherited their stall from their parents and are therefore still enjoying subsidised rental rates (which can be as much as 10 times lower, before paying for utilities).

KF Seetoh, founder of Makansutra, a company that promotes food culture in Asia, thinks these daunting challenges have put people off, especially now that there are more local news reports about struggling hawkers.

“I think the awareness about failure is even higher now. So people don’t even entertain the thought. Less and less are entertaining the thought of attempting it,” he says. “It’s very frightening, especially for somebody who really wants… they don’t mind toiling long hours a day just to make a decent amount to get by. They don’t mind, but it’s very daunting that there is this noise out there now that scares them.”

“I hope UNESCO never finds out that there isn’t any real effort below to grow [hawker culture]. It’s just surface noise,” he adds. “Yeah, good, we’re creating a lot of noise, hawkers love it because eventually they may get some publicity and more business. But the real issue is, will this be around in 20 years? Right now, if you want me to answer, much of what we know as the [Singapore] hawker culture currently will not exist in 20 years time.”

The importance of consultation

While there are excellent examples of flourishing hawker centres in both Singapore and Malaysia, some have ended up as white elephants. In 2015, the Kuala Lumpur City Hall conceded that over 25 food courts under its purview have failed due to the lack of vendors and patrons. While Singapore might not have as many unsuccessful food centres, in some places turnover can be high as hawkers find it difficult to make ends meet. About half a year after speaking to New Naratif in our podcast on hawkers in Singapore, Gay Yu Ting and her co-owner Alex Ho wound up their stall, Sutachi, in Chinatown Food Centre, Singapore’s largest food complex. The complex later closed for much-needed renovations, prompting some hawkers to permanently relocate, quit, or retire.

Last year, the city-state’s hawker industry was thrust into the spotlight after KF Seetoh, hawkers, and other prominent voices online began highlighting issues with a new model: Social Enterprise Hawker Centres. Unlike traditional hawker centres, these food centres aren’t managed directly by the government, but farmed out to social enterprises. Such social enterprises tend to come from a background in running privately-owned food courts in shopping malls.

A lack of meaningful communication and consultation between the government and the hawkers have impeded the crafting of policies that genuinely meet on-the-ground needs

Hawkers have since complained about high rental and auxiliary costs at Social Enterprise Hawker Centres, as well as other unreasonable demands in contracts, such as requirements to open for a set number of hours, or the need to seek permission from management to close the stall or even change the menu.

“You bring all these commercial operators in… it’s very obvious, they operate it commercial style,” says Seetoh. “I look at the contract and I know; that’s how I operate because I’m a private operator so I know all these clauses. Yes, if you paid for the place, you built the place, you did everything without any government subsidies, yes, you have to charge all this and it’s accepted by now. But the hawker centre is a different animal.”

Once suggested as a way to revive hawker culture in Singapore, the Social Enterprise Hawker Centres ended up triggering unhappiness and making life even more difficult for the country’s aspiring vendors. Meanwhile, the Malaysian authorities have conceded that misguided planning led to the failure of multiple hawker centres. In both cases, a lack of meaningful communication and consultation between the government and the hawkers have impeded the crafting of policies that genuinely meet on-the-ground needs.

Sean Oon, a former councillor for the Petaling Jaya City Council, admits that office-dwelling municipal workers are often out of their depth when planning and implementing hawker policies. But going on the ground to dialogue with hawkers means extra work, and is therefore not a popular move.

He recalls the relocation of roadside durian vendors in his municipality to concrete stall units. Customers are used to hanging out with friends at the stalls to enjoy the pungent fruit. As some of the new concrete units were built too small to fit dining parties, vendors started putting tables and chairs on the road, which obstructed traffic. Oon was one of the officers tasked to raid these law-flouting vendors. Emotions often flared up during these busts; one vendor had even threatened him with a durian knife.

But Oon says he understood their anger; the hawkers were being made to comply with orders that did not fit with business realities. “To us officers, it is just a piece of paper. But to hawkers, it’s their entire livelihood.”

Credit: Tuan Nini

In Singapore, consultation efforts have been made: the government has appointed a number of panels and committees to study the industry and make recommendations. But critics have pointed out that few of the members in these panels and committees are actually hawkers.

“In human-centred design, we need to involve all stakeholders, and what was done was a very top-down approach. It was not democratically done,” Jack Sim, founder of the non-profit World Toilet Organisation, told TODAY in 2018.

“I felt that it’s too… condescending from a body that doesn’t know about hawker culture to go and say ‘oh, we will [manage this]…’” Seetoh tells New Naratif. “I mean, the hawker centre culture and practice have been around long before food courts came around, so you should let people build this culture which they have.”

Future challenges and development

It’s difficult to imagine either Singapore or Malaysia without its hawker food—dishes from char kway teow to nasi padang to laksa are as much a part of both national cultures as the languages spoken and the religions practised. But both countries have their own challenges to overcome if they want to continue nurturing their hawker industries.

For Malaysia, the trend of “Singaporisation” might not be the most desirable direction, but administrators and hawkers will still have to work together to find ways to evolve the street food industry. Balancing ideas of authenticity and atmosphere with the need for administration and regulation will require more conversations to come. It also has to be kept in mind that, while this article focused largely on the hawker industry in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s hawker culture varies from state to state, and region to region, with local governments making their own decisions about how to handle regulation.

Credit: Tuan Nini

In Singapore, the UNESCO bid was officially submitted at the end of March 2019. While recognition alone will not save the troubled hawker scene, Richard Ng of China Street Fritters argues that it’ll give hawkers an important psychological boost.

“It’s considered low-level work to be a hawker. Hawkers used to be looked down upon; the lowest class of business. So it’s slowly becoming something that people recognise. People know that being a hawker is a good profession. It’s an art, because there’s a craft in the work,” he says.

He grins and sits up a little straighter. “[UNESCO is] the one thing that can make us feel proud about our career… If we get UNESCO [recognition], then the whole world will know about Singaporean hawkers. Then we can say loudly, ‘I am a hawker in Singapore!’”

Reporting from Kuala Lumpur by Foong Li Mei
Reporting from Singapore by Kirsten Han
Illustrations by Tuan Nini

Kirsten Han

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean journalist whose work often revolves around the themes of social justice, human rights, politics and democracy. Her bylines have appeared in publications like The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Asia Times and Waging Nonviolence. As an activist, Kirsten has advocated for an end to the death penalty in Singapore, and is a founding member of abolitionist group We Believe in Second Chances.