Pasar: What makes Singapore’s wet markets unique?
This story uses audio. Earphones are recommended.
In urban Singapore, the wet market is a jarring sensory overload against the city’s polish. Housewives fluently bargain with vendors in dialect, the distinct smell of butchered meat in the air. Glistening seafood chills on ice, alongside fruits and vegetables in every colour of the rainbow.
To many young Singaporeans, the wet market is a space for nostalgia. We may recall tagging along on weekend shopping trips to the neighbourhood market with our parents, helping pack bags into our mothers’ shopping carts as they went from stall to stall, stocking up supplies for the week.
The term “wet market” became common during the early 1970s, when the government needed to distinguish them from supermarkets. As the name suggests, the wet market’s floors are perennially wet due to the melting of ice and vendors hosing their stalls down to keep things clean.
To most of their patrons, they are known as pasar—the Malay word for “market”.
A distinct part of Singapore’s history, pasar existed as street markets under colonial rule. Vendors spread their wares and produce across the ground on simple sheets or in baskets for passers by to pick from.
After its independence in 1965, Singapore cleaned its streets, and pasar were moved into managed, purpose-built facilities to ensure hygiene and sanitation. Today, pasar remain an important feature of the Singapore landscape. Having endured the country’s famed development from third world to first, they can be found all over our sunny island.
In the ’80s, the government considered phasing pasar out for reasons such as hygiene and land scarcity. This policy suggestion was hugely unpopular, but as a result, fewer new pasar are being built these days—even though new estates continue to arise. In 2011 the government announced plans to build more pasar, but this has not exactly been realised.
Thanks to strict regulations and frequent spot checks, pasar are far more hygienic these days. Vendors clean their stalls daily, and town councils and government agencies assist in frequent market-wide cleaning. In the 1990s, tougher requirements phased out live slaughters, and vendors switched to selling only chilled and frozen meats.
Only two markets have been built in the past twenty odd years. The famed and beloved Tampines Round Market, noted for its unique architecture, was one of the last to be built in 1983.
Though it’s not situated in a residential area, Chinatown market remains very popular, as it houses hawkers and vendors who had once occupied neighbouring streets. It is now famous for traditional herbs and exotic meats.
Similarly, Tekka Market was built by the colonial government as Kandang Kerbau (buffalo pens) Market in 1915 to serve the Indian community. It was, and still is, known for its beef and mutton cuts due to its proximity to cattle ranches.
What's in a pasar
Pasar are a microcosm of Singapore’s multiculturalism. People from all walks of life, across all ages and ethnicities, gather daily for the simple act of “marketing”. One can buy meat from a Chinese butcher, spices from an Indian vendor, and vegetables from a Malay stall. Step foot in any busy pasar, and you’ll hear a variety of languages right away: English, Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, and so on.
Pasar come in all shapes and sizes. Their layouts are largely similar, with distinct sections for seafood, poultry, meats, vegetables, fruits, dry goods, and the occasional flower shop. Stalls are neatly lined in rows, with some larger vendors occupying multiple cubicles.
Vendors: the heart of the pasars
Unlike air-conditioned supermarkets, where everything is neatly packed and displayed, pasar are a little chaotic. Food sprawls across each stall, and boxes of supplies spill into the corridors. That said, vendors take great care in presenting their items in a highly visible, appealing way, making the most out of every inch of space.
Because vendors specialise in a type of food, they usually know a great deal about their merchandise. They can readily answer which countries their vegetables or meats are sourced from and recommend on how to prepare your meats or seafood, depending on what’s on the menu.
For most pasar vendors, this is the only job they know. Many have done this for several decades, some as long as 50 years—almost as long as Singapore has been independent. For some, they began the work as a means of survival when they were children; for others, it’s about continuing the family business. Their knowledge of their produce is immeasurable, accumulated over decades and even generations.
Why have wet markets endured in modern Singapore?
Despite the island nation’s rapid urbanisation, pasar remain busy spaces today. There are many practical reasons for this.
Having a few specialised stalls means that vendors get to diversify greatly within their niche. Supermarkets may offer 20 to 30 types of vegetables, but the variety of the pasar’s produce often seems endless. Especially in markets that cater to specific ethnic communities, vendors often source produce regionally and closely match what they sell to traditional cuisines.
Less food waste
Shopping at wet markets is arguably more sustainable, too. Their supply chains are usually regional, which may reduce your groceries’ carbon footprint from transportation and storage.
Customers also often get just what they need from vendors—who do smaller orders with less packaging—meaning there’s less food and packaging waste. Only need a handful of garlic cloves or just two eggs? No problem. The average Singapore household throws away up to 5kg of food a week, and shopping at wet markets helps reduce this.
Many vendors said that people want to touch, feel, and sometimes smell the produce on sale, which you can’t do at a supermarket because most things are wrapped in plastic. This tactile process is important for customers to trust what they’re buying.
Asking your vendor about a food item’s features, origins, and even the varieties or cuts that work best for the dish you have in mind helps people feel assured of the freshness and quality of their produce.
The ties that bind
Over time, people favour certain stalls for the reliability of their produce. Many end up becoming regular patrons and even friends with their vendors—relationships that start from friendly banter and haggling for better prices or fresher cuts.
These intangible relationships, cultivated over decades, are the heart of the pasar’s endurance in modern Singapore. The vendors we spoke to often considered these the most joyous highlights of their difficult jobs. A stall vendor in Tekka Market told us that in his 50 years in business, he’s built tight friendships with customers, seen them grow from adolescence to adulthood, and, in some instances, even attended their weddings. Despite being financially comfortable in his 70s, he keeps the store open for his customers and, as he puts it, “to pass time”.
Though pasar are by definition markets where things are sold, they are ultimately also social spaces. You can shop at a supermarket without speaking to a soul, but this is nearly impossible in a pasar. It’s a space for genuine, unscripted social interaction, where you bump into and gather with your neighbours and people of all ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even language boundaries fall away in the face of this community spirit—a friendly uncle specialising in mutton at Tekka Market told us how vendors who speak multiple languages often help other vendors communicate with customers who speak an unfamiliar language.
For many older residents, pasar are living relics of their past and spaces of familiarity and camaraderie—especially in a country where many historical spaces have been set aside for pragmatic concerns and economic development.
Will our pasar be around for much longer?
The challenges facing wet markets run deep. Stall vendors overwhelmingly point to manpower and succession issues—few, if any, want to take over these difficult jobs—and the persistent decline in patronage by younger generations.
What explains this dwindling interest? Perhaps younger residents are less involved in homemaking these days. Pasar also typically open in the early morning and close by mid-afternoon, while younger people are still at work.
But this only tells half the story. After all, wet markets in Hong Kong and Japan’s cities still attract youth—both as vendors and customers—even though they face the same trends. A recent study in Singapore found that most younger respondents (below 35 years of age) place a high value on wet markets, but they don’t personally visit them. What explains the gap between caring for our cultural heritage and doing what’s necessary to save them?
We’re not sure, ourselves. But one thing is true: our pasar will soon disappear if the communities they serve no longer make space for them.
Keeping the pasar alive
Thankfully, there are many who still champion pasar and recognise their value. Some young hawkers and restaurateurs, such as chef-owner Malcolm Lee of the acclaimed Candlenut, regularly source their ingredients from wet markets, praising their unparalleled variety and freshness.
There are also some from the younger generation who are pursuing unconventional career paths by being vendors in the wet market too. Fishmongers Marcus Phang and pals (112 Jalan Bukit Merah), Jeffrey Tan and Angeline Ong (Dish the Fish), Liew Rhui Heng (Jurong West Blk 497), and Collin Chua and Ryan Goh (Tampines Street 44) are just a few of those reinvigorating Singapore’s food heritage and scene.
Pasar vendors are also keeping up with the times and adapting by going digital, using online deliveries, live-streaming, and stall-owner-run online platforms. Digitisation initiatives such as the Infocomm and Media Development Authority’s Stay Healthy, Go Digital grant help them make this transition easier.
On social media, pasar enthusiast and chef-writer Pamelia Chia as well as Spice Zi—a mother-daughter duo who share their Indian Muslim cuisine and heritage through cooking lessons in their home—started #passthepasar. This movement—created for the community and by the community—uses Instagram Stories to spotlight the diversity and beauty of our wet markets, by encouraging people to share their own experiences shopping at the pasar and using their produce.
We’ve partnered with them to produce this story, and we encourage you to experience the joy of pasar-shopping and cooking heritage dishes, yourself. Please delight in and share these recipes using produce from your local wet market!
Spice Zi Kitchen is an Indian Muslim home-cooking experience that showcases the lesser known dishes rarely found in hawkers or restaurants. This experience is led by Mama Zi (a home cook for 30 years) and her daughter, Baby T(aahira). Together, they use food as an entry point to share the culture, customs, and heritage of their Indian Muslim community in Singapore.