Singapore’s Claim as a Street-Food Hub Riles Malaysians

HONG KONG — Ever since Singapore separated from Malaysia and declared independence in 1965, the two neighbors have argued over who has stronger claims to aspects of their shared heritage.

The rivalry extends to street food, and the latest sticking point is a plan by Singapore to ask Unesco to recognize the city state’s street vendors, or hawkers, as part of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage.”

The plan has been gaining steam since Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore announced it in August. The country’s national museum is hosting a related exhibition this month, and as of Monday, a government-organized petition to support the Unesco bid had nearly 38,000 signatures.

“Different countries will have their own take on what hawker culture means to them,” the statement said. It added that hawker culture reflected Singapore’s multicultural heritage and illustrated how the city-state’s early residents “toiled to etch a livelihood for themselves and their families.”

Singapore’s hawker food is not especially unique because much of it originated in Malaysia, he said. But because young Singaporeans have not embraced hawker culture as a vocation to the same extent as their parents, the nomination could be a much-needed way for the government to raise the cuisine’s profile.

“Singaporean hawker culture is under siege,” he added, in part because it is still seen by the city-state’s hierarchical society as low-status work.

Ms. Foong, for her part, said that if Singapore’s Unesco campaign was primarily focused on raising awareness of hawker culture as a way of saving it — not on claiming ownership of the tradition — then she was on board.

“Hawker culture is an important and unique heritage, no matter where it is, and should be kept alive,” she said.

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