It’s a very Teochew affair in multicultural Singapore 

29/11/2023

A culture sampling that includes a captivating performance of Teochew opera and a food tour with well-loved Teochew dishes such as Fried Oyster, Beef Meatballs and Pig Trotter Jelly, it is safe to say that Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Heng Swee Keat enjoyed himself thoroughly at the Teochew Cultural and Food Festival last weekend (Nov 24).  

After all, food, music, and cultural performances are ways we get to experience and partake in Singapore’s rich multicultural diversity, noted DPM Heng. And with an increasingly atomised world, the multiculturalism we enjoy in Singapore is both precious and fragile. 

A mishmash of dialect groups  

70% of Singapore’s population is Chinese. Early Chinese migrants consisted of Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, Hakkas, and Hainanese. As they settled and made Singapore home, they brought along a rich tapestry of customs and traditions that continues today.  

Without a doubt, the biggest influence this melting pot of culture has brought about is in our food. And Teochews, being the second-largest dialect group in Singapore, are behind some of our hawker favourites. From Michelin-starred Bak Chor Mee to that peppery style of Bak Kut Teh, followed by breakfast staples in the form of Chwee Kueh and Carrot Cake, we have the Teochews to thank for the hearty, comfort food that tantalises our tastebuds. 

Today, the Teochew culture brought here in the 1800s has flourished and assimilated to become a Singaporean one. In addition, clan groups and welfare organisations such as the Ngee Ann Kongsi set up to look after the needs of Teochew migrants continue to play an important role in building community cohesion and promoting local heritage. 

Being at the crossroads of East and West, a steady flow of people and ideas has helped elevate Singapore into a dynamic and global city. As we celebrate Teochew culture, let us not forget our past as an immigrant society and our need to be an open and inclusive society. Only then can Singapore achieve greater heights. 

Teochews in politics 

Of course, it might just be coincidental. Yet the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew alluded to an X-factor within the Teochews. How else do you explain the disproportionate number of Teochew ministers, he said in his book Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas? 

“Look at the number of smart Teochews there are …Teo Chee Hean, Lim Hng Kiang, George Yeo, Lim Boon Heng. In a Cabinet of 15, how do you explain that?”  

Perhaps the Teochews do have an affinity for public service, with many playing an active role in the PAP. Besides DPM Heng, who identifies as a Gaginang, MPs such as Baey Yam Keng and Dr Koh Poh Koon have embraced their Teochew roots to connect with their residents on a more personal level. 

As the MP for Tampines North, MP Baey frequently joins his constituents for a Teochew Porridge feast. Meanwhile, MP Koh’s fluency in the dialect has since made him the unofficial Teochew spokesperson when he recorded a video to encourage seniors to get their COVID-19 vaccination.  

“Speaking in dialect definitely helps bring the points across in a way they can better understand,” shared MP Koh. And often, it is this desire to speak the language of the people that makes our PAP MPs exceptional and relatable to their residents.  

Photo Source: Heng Swee Keat/ Baey Yam Keng via Facebook