Yusheng, and Opportunities for Regional Cooperation
In 2010, I made a Facebook post seeking views on Singapore's intangible cultural heritage but nobody responded. Therefore, I am amazed at how the issue has suddenly come alive and is now being reported in some newspapers as a formal proposal for yusheng to be listed on UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage programme (ICH).
The heated passions and the interest that have been aroused by this issue, together with the KTM Rail Corridor and Bukit Brown issues, do indicate that Singaporeans care a lot about our heritage and identity as a nation.
It is important, at this point to revisit the UNESCO World Heritage scheme and its relevance for Singapore.
The UNESCO World Heritage Convention is an international treaty that seeks to identify sites around the world which possess outstanding value to humanity and commit signatory nations to protect and preserve these sites. It is widely acknowledged that world heritage status often result in significant rise in tourism numbers and receipts, why explains the interest many governments have in the programme.
The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.is an offshoot of the world heritage scheme, and its key focus are, according to UNESCO, "traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts."
Singapore is neither a signatory to the World Heritage Convention nor the 2003 Convention on ICH, and as such the issue of Singapore attempting to list a Malaysian intangible cultural heritage does not arise.
UNESCO emphasises that "the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next." Such heritage is meant to give us "a sense of identity and continuity, providing a link from our past, through the present, and into our future."
UNESCO explains that the scheme is meant to be inclusive, and "does not give rise to questions of whether or not certain practices are specific to a culture." Countries are often encouraged to seek joint listing of intangible cultural heritage. Since the UNESCO ICH inception in 2003, 267 "elements" belonging to 142 countries have been listed as intangible cultural heritage, of which 10 are joint listings, which include, the following:
* Mediterranean cuisine: Joint listing by Greece, Italy, Spain and Morocco
* Nowruz festival: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkey
* Language, Dance and Music of the Garifuna: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras & Nicaragua
In the case of falconry, twelve countries as diverse as Belgium, Morocco, Mongolia and Saudi Arabia jointly applied for listing and succeeded in the efforts.
What are these implications for Southeast Asian nations?
This region has, since time immemorial, been a region of transcontinental trade and cultural exchange. The peoples of this region have frequently intermarried with each other, and have demonstrated enormous capacity to adapt other cultural practices into their own value systems. In numerous cases, the marriages of different practices have resulted in a fascinating range of cuisines, crafts, traditions and performing arts that continue to evolve today in a dynamic fashion.
Peranakan culture, which is the marriage of Malay-Indonesian and Chinese cultures manifested through cuisine, material art and traditions, is a good example of this exuberant cultural exchange in historical Nanyang, particularly in Singapore, Melaka, Penang, Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan.
Frequent trading and cultural exchanges between the cities in the region further enriched the communities that lived in these lands and have produced a cosmopolitan hybrid that is still a sense of pride among Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians. This suggests a great opportunity for a joint application of these nations for UNESCO ICH inscription of this unique culture and cuisine. The success of this application would signify a celebration of a shared heritage and would help foster ties among the nations
Also often mentioned by anthropologists as unique to the region are the colourful rituals of the Nine Emperor God Festival, a festival unknown in China but elaborately celebrated among Taoists in Phuket, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The festival is already officially acknowledged by the governments of Thailand and Malaysia as a key representation of local culture and traditions. A joint application of this festival to the UNESCO ICH would be an excellent example of cooperation between Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand
This then brings us to the question of whether yusheng would qualify for ICH listing. Yusheng as a dish is originated from neither Singapore nor Malaysia. In fact, the concept of eating raw fish salad exists in many forms from the southern tip of Argentina to Zamboanga in the Philippines. What is unique about yusheng is the tossing of the salad to signify community bond and goodwill, and a hope for peace, happiness and prosperity, all qualities highlighted as UNESCO ICH criteria.
The tossing of yusheng as a focus of community spirit and bond makes it an intangible cultural heritage of both Singapore and Malaysia. However, yusheng at the current stage, due to its relatively recent invention and evolution, probably does not satisfy the UNESCO criterion for a heritage element to have been "transmitted from generation to generation". We do not know if the significance of the yusheng toss of today would survive in the future. This means that, even if the yusheng toss can be considered an intangible cultural heritage of Singapore or Malaysia, it does not qualify as a UNESCO ICH.
I believe that the listing of yusheng is premature. Those interested in the listing of yusheng should come back in 100 years time to see if the yusheng toss is still practised with the same spirit. If it does, then that criterion may be satisfied.
The debate on whether yusheng is Singaporean or Malaysian distracts people from the real issue, which is to find ways to preserve and promote our historical and cultural heritage. I hope this affair would instead sets us off thinking what constitutes our heritage, how to preserve it and whether we can use the UNESCO ICH as an opportunity to promote regional cooperation and celebrate our shared past, present and future.
Tan Wee Cheng