Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On hawkers and hawker centres

I read with amusement a letter to the Straits Times yesterday written by a reader who complained about the use of "hawker" and "hawker centre" in Singapore.  He maintains that since hawkers have from the 1960s been prohibited by the government to move from place to place to sell their wares, the centres which the government built with the purpose of making these hawkers stay put in one place should not be called hawker centres.

Any country that uses the English language extensively is sure to have some form of variant that distinguishes it from the standard language of England.  Sometimes, the history and collective national experiences of a country make it necessary for the people to use terms which aren't heard of in the West.

The hawker centre is a term that Singaporeans should be proud of.  In the 1960s, street food vendors sold unhygienic food and there was widespread food poisoning.  It was very difficult for health inspectors to ensure cleanliness because these hawkers could be here today and somewhere else tomorrow.  The Singapore government is not known to let the grass grow under its feet especially when the welfare of its citizenry was involved.  Laws were passed and hawkers were systematically required to place their carts permanently in designated spots in a large building that came to be known as a hawker centre.  In those days, one could see individual carts in hawker centres and some even had their wheels intact.

Many hawker centres are now called "food centres" but this is a trend that should be stopped.  The term "food centre" is merely an anaemic description of a place where food is sold and it is quite unlike the term "hawker centre" which encapsulates the story of our past.

But in every former colony you are sure to find those who would grovel before their former masters and for these people, what's not said in England should not be said here.  There are varying degrees of such grovelling.  The more extreme cases are those who insist on calling the current academic term in Singapore "Michaelmas" but thankfully for the rest of us, there are very few such people around.

I'm not one who encourages the flouting of grammar rules but neither do I bend my knee to anyone.  We should take pride in our history and our past especially when what seemed draconian to the hawkers of old proves to be a huge success today.  It is a fact that Singapore has the fewest cases of food poisoning in Asia.  The hawker centre stands for the great qualities that Singapore is famous for - efficiency and cleanliness.  I have this to say to the grovellers.  Grovel all you want but don't erase our history in the process.

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