Hawker centres

Hawker centres are open-air complexes that house many stalls that sell a wide variety of affordably priced food. They are mostly conveniently located at the heart of housing estates, usually with adjoining wet markets. Hawker centres are a unique aspect of Singapore culture and lifestyle. It is also an important place for social interaction and community bonding.

After Singapore’s successful inscription of the Botanic Gardens to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at his 2018 National Day Rally the intention to nominate hawker culture for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.2 Singapore’s proposal was submitted to UNESCO in 2019 and, in 2020, Hawker Culture in Singapore was successfully inscribed as Singapore’s first element on the list.3

Singapore’s food culture was greatly influenced by its geographical location and diverse population. Street peddling by hawkers of different races has been a common sight in Singapore since the 1800s.4

Street hawking continued to thrive in Singapore after World War II. This can be attributed to the high unemployment rate that prompted many people to turn to hawking to provide for their families, as it required low capital investment and skills. The demand for cheap and affordable hawker food continued after Singapore’s independence.5

Itinerant hawking
As the number of street hawkers increased, so did problems such as poor hygiene and unsightly conditions.6

Poor hygiene
Food was prepared in less than ideal conditions due to a shortage of piped water and proper storage equipment. Inappropriate disposal of refuse led to an increase of pests such as flies, mosquitoes, rodents and cockroaches that fuelled the spread of diseases such as cholera, typhoid and malaria. The threat to public health was a major problem associated with hawkers.7

Unsightly conditions
The operation of itinerant hawkers was haphazard and disorganised, thus often appearing unsightly, rowdy and chaotic. They obstructed traffic and impeded pedestrian flow, competing with the government on the use of land,8 especially at prime commercial areas. 

These problems led to tensions between law enforcers and the hawkers. There were also instances of corruption within the police force, as hawkers resorted to bribing the police to avoid raids.9

Hawkers Inquiry Commission

The Hawkers Inquiry Commission was set up in 1950 by Governor F. Gimson to address the problems related to hawking.10 Its objective was to investigate all aspects of hawking with particular emphasis on the social, economic and health issues affecting the public and the hawkers.11

The inaugural public meeting of the Singapore Hawker Inquiry Commission, chaired by Professor T. H. Silcock, was held at the Victoria Memorial Hall on 20 April 1950 at 2.15 pm. The commission gathered information from the chairman of the Hawkers Association, the municipal health officer, the superintendent of the Town Cleansing Department, and a police officer. It also collected evidence from hawkers and members of the public.12

Legalising hawkers and construction of hawker centres
The Hawkers Inquiry Report led to the formalisation of a policy to relocate hawkers at designated locations where they could be better controlled.13 This was a process that took years to implement.14

The exercise to legalise hawkers through an island-wide hawkers’ registration was carried out in the 1960s. The government then embarked on a programme to construct markets and hawker centres between 1971 and 1986.15 In 2011, it was announced that 10 new hawker centres would be built over the next decade. In addition, it announced in 2015 that another 10 new hawker centres would be built by 2027.16

Governing body of today’s hawker centres
The Hawkers Department’s Special Squad was formed in 1974, which proposed that the Housing and Development Board and Jurong Town Corporation incorporate hawker centres as part of the development of new residential and industrial estates respectively. On 1 April 2004, the management of markets and hawker centres was consolidated under the National Environment Agency (NEA).17 The NEA formulates, implements and administers hawker policies, including licensing and tenancy matters. It also oversees the upgrading of hawker centres, and as of November 2020, manages 114 markets and hawker centres in Singapore.18

Regulation of food hygiene
In addition to the management of markets and hawker centres, the NEA also regulates the food retail industry in Singapore to ensure that food is prepared hygienically and is safe for public consumption.19

Points demerit system
In 1987, a Points Demerit System was introduced whereby demerit points were issued to hawkers who violated public health laws. Repeat offenders also ran the risk of having their licences suspended or revoked. This was to ensure that hawkers maintained good hygiene standards.20 

Grading of licensed food stalls
Since June 1997, food stalls in hawker centres have been given a grade based on the overall hygiene, cleanliness and housekeeping standards of the stalls. All hawker stalls are required to display their grades prominently to allow the public to make an informed choice when purchasing from the stalls, and to encourage stall owners to improve. These ratings are reviewed annually.21

Hawker stalls are assessed and given the following grades:
·    A – a score of 85 percent or higher 
·    B – a score of 70 to 84 percent 
·    C – a score of 50 to 69 percent 
·    D – a score of 40 to 49 percent22

Hawker Centres Upgrading Programmes
The Hawker Centres Upgrading Programme (HUP) was launched in February 2001 at a projected cost of S$420 million. The upgrading was carried out over seven phases and included the following.23
·    Re-tiling / Re-roofing / Re-wiring
·    Replacement of tables and stools 
·    Replacement of water and sanitary pipes 
·    Improvement to ventilation 
·    Provision/replacement of exhaust flue system 
·    Upgrading of toilets

By 2014, 106 hawker centres had been upgraded under the HUP.24

Inscription of Hawker Culture onto the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list
In 2018, following a series of focus groups with the public and various stakeholders, Hawker Culture emerged as a firm favourite to be Singapore’s nomination for the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.25

While Singapore prepared for the nomination, organisations and individuals sent letters of support and online photo contributions, as well as publicly pledged their support for the nomination of Hawker Culture. A travelling exhibition was developed to explain details of the nomination of Hawker Culture, the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention and the concept of intangible cultural heritage.26

In March 2019, Singapore submitted the nomination document to inscribe “Hawker Culture in Singapore: Community Dining and Culinary Practices in a Multicultural Urban Context.”

The nomination was accepted, and Hawker Culture was successfully inscribed in December 2020.27

Tung Ai Jui

1. National Heritage Board, “Singapore to Nominate Hawker Culture for UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage,” press release, 19 August 2018.
2. Lee Hsien Loong, “National Day Rally 2018 Speech (Chinese),” speech, 19 August 2018. (From NLB’s Web Archive)
3. Malavika Menon, “Hawkers Hope UNESCO Nod Will Give Their Stalls a Boost,” Straits Times, 17 December 2020. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
4. Lily Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres: People, Places, Food (Singapore: National Environment Agency, 2007), 21. (Call no. RSING 381.18095957 KON)
5. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 21, 25.
6. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 25–26.
7. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 25.
8. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 25, 26.
9. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 26.
10. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 25.
11. “Hawker Inquiry Opens Today,” Straits Times, 20 April 1950, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Hawker Inquiry Opens Today.”
13. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 27.
14. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 29, 31.
15. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 29, 31.
16. Audrey Tan, “Singapore Budget 2015: 10 More Hawker Centres to Be Built by 2027,” Straits Times, 11 March 2015.
17. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 31.
18. “Managing Hawker Centres and Markets in Singapore,” National Environment Agency, accessed 18 December 2020.
19. “Food Hygiene Standards in Singapore,” National Environment Agency, accessed 17 December 2020. (From NLB’s Web Archive)
20. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 43.
21. Kong, Singapore Hawker Centres, 43–44.
22. National Environment Agency, “Food Hygiene Standards in Singapore.”
23. Tan Yong Soon, Lee Tung Jean and Karen Tan, Clean, Green and Blue: Singapore’s Journey Towards Environmental and Water Sustainability (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2009) (Call no. RSING 363.70095957 TAN); Walter Sim, “Hawker Centres Upgraded Only When Necessary,” Straits Times, 6 November 2014, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Sim, “Hawker Centres Upgraded.”
25. “Nomination – Heritage Plan,” National Heritage Board, 14 January 2021. (From NLB’s Web Archive)
26. National Heritage Board, Hawker Culture in Singapore: Community Dining and Culinary Practices in a Multicultural Urban Context (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2020), 22.
27. “Hawker Culture in Singapore, Community Dining and Culinary Practices in a Multicultural Urban Context,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, accessed 20 April 2022; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “Nomination File No. 01568 for Inscription in 2020 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: Hawker Culture in Singapore, Community Dinng and Culinary Practices in a Multicultural Urban Context,” 19 March 2019.

The information in this article is valid as at August 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources.  It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.




Streets and Places

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