Over this past year, we have come to varying ideas about what qualifies as “essential”: art, entertainment, politics. Food’s place in this category has never been up for debate. Food is fuel. It has to be neither beautiful nor moving to be necessary. Food derives its most basic value from how humanity survives on it. It feeds the body; it does not have to feed the soul.
And yet, feed the soul it does. Because food is also art, entertainment, and politics. Singaporeans know this, of course: how many times has each of us heard (or said) that eating is our national pastime? Maybe it’s because the pleasure that we derive from food feels almost like we’ve cheated the system. The state’s position on pleasure has always been so deeply apathetic towards it, almost to the point of hostility: remember when a minister said Singaporeans didn’t need much space to have sex? Or when poetry was declared a luxury that Singapore could not afford?
Nevertheless, Singaporeans have found decades—centuries—of poetry and pleasure in food. Did our country’s political engineers miss a spot, or did even they—the most pragmatic of pragmatists—find it impossible to give up the sensation of sweet, hot, creamy laksa coating the tongue and burning the throat? With everything else Singaporeans have had to give up, you’d think our leaders would have seen Soylent as another perfect solution to our inefficiencies. But maybe even they knew that a country could never last this long on gruel alone. To live, to be who we are, we needed coconut milk, ghee, lard, chili, pandan, belacan. So much of the Singaporean soul now lies tethered in the way we eat. Calling it a pastime feels wrong, as a result: the stakes feel higher than that. It’s possible that this miscategorisation kept food safe from surveillance—neither a luxury nor a danger, just a taciturn necessity somehow made delicious, the technocrats have mostly just left it be.
But invisibility is a double edged sword—and not everything flies under the radar: hawker centres themselves arose out of state regulation, creating a hawker culture less nimble and fleet than our regional neighbours’, by design. Our farmlands have been cleared to make way for high-rises, each subsequent generation of Singaporeans stacked further and further away from the earth. Traditional Malay and Indian foodways still bear the burden of national stigma, whether they are the targets of prejudiced public health messaging, or thin alibis for housing racism.
And still—hawkers, farmers, and mothers have continued to make this food. I think it isn’t too romantic to say that the people before us made this food so impossibly good because they knew that food had to not only sustain but nourish all of our big, wild dreams. Because food has never had to taste as good as it does in Singapore. Food culture comes from people, not states, deciding that this fact of our lives should also be beautiful; that this thing which could so easily be dead must have a life, too. Everywhere in the history of the world, when people had the resources to make food more than just food—they did. And so they did in Singapore.
Mayukh Sen has written about Bengali widows as their cuisine’s unsung architects, “recognising a spectrum of possibilities within their loss.” And in his 1990 book, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, the political anthropologist James C. Scott spoke of “infrapolitics,” the daily acts of resistance and survival by aggrieved communities which are, “like infrared rays, beyond the visible end of the spectrum. That it should be invisible … is in large part by design—a tactical choice born of a prudent awareness of the balance of power.” Perhaps there is something to be said about the innovators of Singapore’s quietly spectacular food culture as the unsung architects of our civil society, building the pleasures and the principles which we continue to gather around. In a country that limits the ways we can be open with each other, food provides a precious medium existing beyond words. Through it, we feel with each other, we speak to each other, we can be with each other. I think this is why food in Singapore matters so deeply—why we protect it, hold it so dear. For so long it has been one of the main ways that we can communicate, under a regime that has policed what we say, what language we speak it in, what we do, who we do it with. Food has been an excuse to feel human and free; to connect across Singapore’s gaps, divisions, and quotas.
Today there are people continuing the invisible work done by the inventors of our country’s food; its importance and its beauty. Spice Zi Kitchen, an Indian Muslim mother-daughter duo who invite guests and strangers into their home to cook with them; Orang Laut, an archival project and family business which keeps Indigenous histories alive; Mr Farmer, a family-run farm and butchery rethinking the way we coexist with nature; SayurStory, an initiative which uses urban farming to create spaces for community building between foreign domestic workers and Singaporeans; Able Bagel, a pop-up using food to communicate our shared fates and our stakes in issues around the world.
What I hope you will find when you read about these people and their work is that this is food at its most essential: when it does more than just provide calories or perform excess. Food is full of feeling, teaching, and learning. It’s no surprise that these projects, at their core, tell vital stories and histories, negotiate space and place, and strengthen—but also expand—notions of kinship beyond nationality. That’s what food can move us to. And so, while these projects are diligently continuing the work and honouring the visions staked by people before us, I think they are also doing something else: something that that past generations perhaps had no opportunity to do. Today, people in Singapore are claiming the authority and the power to decide what their own food means. To say this is important. To say this is why I do this. The sort of food we make, the way we make it, who and what we make it for—it all speaks to our vision of the world: not just as it is, but what we hope it will become.
There is a beauty, I think, and a bravery, in making food central, in being honest about its importance and its power—more than just economic necessity, or UNESCO tourist bait, or fuel, food still contains so much of what the state tried to discard as it thrust us into a singular vision of modernity. We’ve heard that food communicates, but maybe it communicates on a far larger scale than many of us are used to thinking. It communicates more than the love that a parent expresses when they give you a plate of cut fruit. It communicates more than stock wringing flavour out of bones overnight. Food is speech—perhaps one of the last free domains of speech in Singapore—and it can speak utopia into existence.
I am not a farmer, not a mother; neither a hawker, nor a chef. I’m just a sometimes-writer. But I hope that this makes the work a little more visible, even though the work is important whether or not it is seen. It will endure, like the work of hawkers, farmers, mothers, even if we fail to acknowledge it. I only write this because I think there is still so much beauty in seeing it; because it makes us, I hope, better—when we see it.
Just Food is a five-part series. Click through to read more: