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Forget Chicken Rice, S’pore and M’sia Should Combine Forces for a UNESCO Heritage Icon

Forget Chicken Rice, S’pore and M’sia Should Combine Forces for a UNESCO Heritage Icon

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Top photo from South China Morning Post.

Chicken rice as Singapores UNESCO heritage icon sounds like a tantalising notion at first.

After all, chicken rice can be considered the quintessential Singaporean dish that transcends race and religion. I cant even single out a coffee shop or food court that does not have a chicken rice stall.
But can we really claim ownership over this dish?

Despite its longstanding popularity, we still cant pinpoint the dishs cultural significance to Singapore other than that it was a recipe perfected by Hainanese immigrants a few decades ago. Even this timeframe is ambiguous.

Chicken rice, like many other popular local dishes, is also prepared and enjoyed in many cities in Malaysia. Submitting it to UNESCO would no doubt incite our neighbours to cry fowl (pun intended).

So if Singapore feels that food is most representative of its cultural heritage, then it’s only fair that we acknowledge our shared ancestry with Malaysia and make a joint submission to the UNESCO list—a point that ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh raised.

Chicken rice is Singapore's most popular dish, but details about its history are still murky. (Photo from Travel 141)
In fact, chicken rice encapsulates what Singapore food really is, a melting pot of cultures stewing over two centuries of immigration. Strip away the colours, flavours and smells that excite the senses, and one would be hard-pressed to identify something else that screams Singaporean heritage, other than Singlish of course.

The ICH Representative Lists criteria states that each heritage element constitutes intangible cultural heritage, and its inscription will contribute to ensuring visibility and awareness of the significance of the intangible cultural heritage and to encouraging dialogue, thus reflecting cultural diversity worldwide and testifying to human creativity.

On a list chock full of heritage elements rooted in tradition, folklore and the arts, for example Kyrgyzstans traditional horse game kökbörü and Baltic song and dance celebrations in Estonia, chicken rice, with its lack of cultural depth, would look like a half-baked entry.

On the other hand, a submission comprising Singaporean and Malaysian food would be testament to the important role that they have played in shaping the history and society of both countries, just as Turkish coffee culture and the Mediterranean diet have been intrinsic to their respective countries way of life.

Without Hokkien mee, nasi lemak and roti john—perfected over decades—that feed the some 37 million mouths on both sides of the Causeway every day, the culinary scene that both countries so fiercely pride themselves on would be a lot less vibrant and internationally renowned.

We love all these dishes, and so does Malaysia. (Photo from Burpple)
A joint submission would also be the olive branch to settle the never-ending debate on whether Singapore or Malaysia owns its famous dishes, and which tastes best.

For too long weve let our nationalistic pride keep us blind and foolish in a pointless sparring of words and historical facts, when really the true blessing of living in either country is we get to enjoy both herbal and peppery versions of bak kut teh, as well as 10 variations of laksa.

Food should be celebrated, not a tug-of-war.

But there is also the fear that the food we love so dearly will disappear. Many of the first and second-generation hawkers have passed on or retired, and those recipes that made local fast food (not the kind advertised by golden arches) so toothsome in the first place are either lost or butchered by foreign cooks brought in as cheap replacements.

The hawker trade in Singapore and Malaysia is dying partly because its hard work sweating in a grimy and smoky kitchen, and young people would rather chase careers in Bitcoin and coding in a comfortable air-conditioned office with a well-stocked pantry.

Our governments cant find a permanent solution yet, and perhaps it is time to hold hands and seek divine help from the UN, so that our future generations can continue to enjoy bak chor mee and mee rebus the way they should be: cheap and tasty with a distinct cultural identity.

Edit: Following this article, the National Heritage Board reached out to us with their reply: “Would Singapore consider the possibility of a joint-submission with another country like Malaysia to illustrate the close cultural links and history in the region, for example hawker culture?” This is too early to tell as we are still in the preliminary stages of planning. Our focus now is to establish an intangible cultural heritage inventory, which will be co-created with Singaporeans. Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage inventory will exist as a repository to showcase the diverse, multicultural elements of intangible cultural heritage that are present in Singapore, and will include the contributions of Singaporeans, and be made available to the public to raise greater awareness and understanding of Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage.

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Benjamin Lim Contributing editor