Indisputably, food is central to the Singaporean identity. The question that is rarely tackled is, how is it central? Can we explain the importance of food in our culture, and the extent of this importance? Can we specify the manner in which food relates to our most deeply held beliefs about ourselves? Unless we get a handle on these questions, our understanding of the Singaporean identity is impoverished.
Food is the stuff of our conversations. Our everyday greetings to each other open with the question, “Have you eaten?” Singaporeans can talk to each other about food, even if they are complete strangers to each other. And tourists or visitors will be piled on with, more than anything else, recommendations and suggestions on where and what to eat.
It has often been said that the Singaporean is one who will travel across the country to eat the best nasi lemak (or other local dish). The Singaporean has a well-known reputation for having late night suppers at hawker centres. And in the age of digital media, the Singaporean is the one who will document all meals in the form of Instagram pictures.
A friend lamented that the national preoccupation and even obsession with food is shallow, in comparison with other societies which value more intellectual and spiritual pursuits. But I think that our indulgence with food forms part of our popular culture, as such, it merits greater attention. Just as the weather is central to the British identity, food is central to the Singaporean identity.
Food does not function merely to satisfy our hunger, or even to delight our taste-buds. Rather, food is the lubricant and instigator of social integration. In talking to each other about food and partaking in curry cooking sessions, we acknowledge that we’re all in this together. Food therefore plays a pivotal role in identity, by being the one thing that we have in common with each other.
To see the importance of food in our culture, we need only consider the famous ‘curry case’, where a dispute emerged between two neighbours- a PRC-Chinese family who could not tolerate the smell of curry, and an Indian-Singaporean family who regularly cooked curry. In response, Singaporeans came together to urge each other to cook curry and to share it with their non-Singaporean neighbours.
Because Singaporeans identified with curry cooking (which, incidentally, is a favourite activity of overseas Singaporeans), they staunchly defended their curry cooking way of life, and the right of the Indian-Singaporean family to cook curry. The nationalism which accompanied the response trumped other considerations such as religion and race.
Hawker food in particular, is seen as Singaporean. Prawn noodles, Char Kway Tiao, Chicken rice, Laksa, Mee goreng and other dishes are understood as local fare, in comparison to food that is served in restaurants. Cheap and tasty are defining features of hawker fare. Singapore may be unique in that it is cheaper to eat out at a hawker centre than to eat in at home.
But, in line with Singapore’s urgency to remain competitive and to survive in the global economy, hawker centres undergo continual refurbishment and upgrading. There is a sense of movement and a loss of cultural heritage as stall owners are forced to move to other locations or even to shut down.
As a student, I would frequent the red-brick Old National Library at Stamford Road, and after borrowing books, I would head to the S11 food centre that was just outside. I often sat at S11, facing the existential questions of life and contemplating my future. Years later, when the library was torn down to make way for a road tunnel, I remembered, amongst other things, the cheesy Chinese music and the thick and humid air that contrasted with the cool air-conditioned environment in the library building. Most of all, though, I remembered the delicious Indian rojak from the Indian food stall at S11. Those were the tastiest potatoes I ever had. In fact, as I relished the memory of salty potatoes dunked in peanut gravy, I was, for the first time, living the life of a full-blooded Singaporean.
I will close with a few remarks on how I see food as central to the Singaporean identity:
1. Our beliefs and how we see ourselves may determine what we eat. So, for example, religious beliefs are reflected in our food choices. A Muslim in Singapore will only eat Halal food and no pork, while a Buddhist will typically be vegetarian.
2. Today, we can find Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai food stalls in our food courts. But it is a recent development and an indication of the increasing cosmopolitan character of our city. Your average Singapore citizen is now someone who samples and enjoys a variety of food from different countries.
3. Some of our food stalls are still labelled Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western food, in accordance with the main races of Singapore. But you are likely to find a Singaporean ordering food from any of these stalls without pausing to reflect on his race! Regardless of race is an idea that has rooted itself in the Singaporean mind-set, and that is reflected in the food we choose to eat.