Pasar malam

Singapore Infopedia


Pasar malam is the Malay term for night market or night bazaar, and a pasar malam typically opens for business when night falls.1 Pasar malam has its origins as weekly night markets organised by hawkers in 1950s Singapore.2 The night markets were phased out in 1978, as they had caused health and pollution problems as well as traffic jams and inconvenience to residents, resulting in the relocation of street hawkers to hawker centres. Pasar malam was given a new lease of life in the 1980s, but was subject to strict government regulatory control.3 Present-day pasar malam is generally held once a year at specific locations, usually before festive occasions such as Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali.4

Early developments
The first pasar malam was established in the mid-1950s near British military bases, in the vicinity of Jalan Kayu, Sembawang and Keppel Harbour.5 It was organised by hawkers on a weekly basis in order to coincide with the payday of workers at the military bases.6

Pasar malam grew in numbers in the 1960s due to the development of public and private housing estates during the decade.7 As there were few shopping facilities outside the city centre, hawkers travelled to various parts of Singapore to sell their wares at pasar malam, which operated at a different location each night.8 During a visit to pasar malam in Woodlands in 1963, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew thanked the hawkers for organising the night market, as “they brought goods to the doorsteps of people, beside[s] providing some employment for a large number of people”.9 The goods sold at pasar malam include food and snacks, clothing and footwear, personal-needs items and household goods and furnishings.10

The proliferation of pasar malam in housing estates gave rise to public complaints. In January 1963, the government announced a ban on the weekly Woodlands pasar malam, as it was causing traffic congestion in the area11 as well as traffic obstruction at the Causeway. Moreover, shopowners in Johor, Malaysia, were unhappy that people were flocking to Singapore to patronise the pasar malam.12

During the early 1960s, pasar malam was characterised by their mobile nature.13 Itinerant hawkers travelled across Singapore on a fixed circuit, setting up makeshift stalls at regular locations in the evenings.14 In a typical week, around 40 pasar malam operated in different parts of Singapore, at locations such as Balestier Road, Farrer Road, Jalan Bukit Ho Swee, Mountbatten Road and Prinsep Street.15

Licensing and closure of pasar malam
In March 1966, an island-wide government campaign was launched to license all hawkers, including those at pasar malam, in light of the new Hawkers Code introduced, which required all hawkers to register with the government as well as comply with public health and traffic regulations.16 Under the new ruling, hawkers were required to apply for a hawker’s licence by completing and submitting a numbered application form to the Hawkers Department on Scotts Road.17 Once the licensing exercise ended in April 1966, hawking without a licence at authorised or unauthorised pasar malam sites was illegal.18 Illegal hawkers were prosecuted and had their goods and vehicles seized.19

The government crackdown on pasar malam continued throughout the 1970s. In February 1970, the Ministry of Health announced that pasar malam would be barred from operating in Housing and Development Board estates as they caused traffic congestion and affected the business of the shops located in the estates.20 In August the same year, then Minister for Health Chua Sian Chin announced that all street hawkers would be relocated to hawker centres by 1975.21

After a massive licensing exercise in 1972 and 1973, no new hawker licences were issued. The government rationalised that granting additional hawker licences would make the relocation of street hawkers impossible.22 In 1975, the Ministry of Environment closed nine pasar malam, and terminated the licences of 119 hawkers.23 In the same year, the ministry also announced plans to gradually phase out pasar malam due to traffic congestion woes, noise pollution and other public-health problems.24

Six more pasar malam sites were closed or relocated in 1976, while 22 were closed in 1977.25 By April 1978, the last of the pasar malam stalls were shut down, marking the completion of the environment ministry’s campaign. Some of the pasar malam hawkers were given licences to run stalls at markets and food centres.26

Establishment of government-organised pasar malam
Pasar malam was revived at Sentosa in 1983, as part of efforts by the Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) to attract tourists and enhance the area’s nightlife.27 The environment ministry aided the SDC by inviting former pasar malam hawkers to rent the stalls. Pasar malam was held on Saturdays from December 1983 to March the following year, along the footpath leading from the Rasa Sentosa hawker centre to the musical fountain. Items sold include costume jewellery, leather goods, glassware, clothes and toiletries.28 It became a regular event from 1985 onwards, and was held on Fridays and Saturdays,29 before becoming a nightly affair in the mid-1990s.30

In March 1985, the government dismissed requests from several members of parliament to allow pasar malam to return to the streets of Singapore. Then Parliamentary Secretary (Environment) Lee Boon Yang stated that pasar malam would not be making a comeback due to the health hazards they pose, but hawkers would be allowed to display and sell their wares at designated locations like the Singapore Handicraft Centre (SHC) and the upcoming Malay Village.31

The SHC pasar malam, which was established in 1985 to attract tourists, sold handicrafts, souvenirs, batik and clothing. There was, however, a “noticeable difference between pasar malams of old and the new pasar malam”, due to the absence of food and fruit stalls, which were disallowed by the authorities for hygiene reasons.32 The SHC pasar malam gradually allowed the sale of pre-packed food items such as preserved fruit, candy, peanuts and biscuits.33 In 1986, food stalls were added to make pasar malam more appealing to Singaporeans.34

The success of the SHC pasar malam led to the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB; now known as the Singapore Tourism Board) and the Ministry of Environment to identify other suitable locations for pasar malam activities.35 In June 1988, the STPB organised pasar malam at Boat Quay along the Singapore River. However, pasar malam was not well received, as the lack of ambience, good bargains and freshly cooked food led visitors to describe it as “nothing like the old days”.36 Neither tourists nor locals were interested to visit it, and pasar malam suspended operations three months later in October due to poor sales.37

The present-day pasar malam
The year 1991 marked the return of pasar malam to HDB estates. That year, the STPB and the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS), along with several town councils, organised a series of “mobile markets” to boost business and revive older HDB estates like Ang Mo Kio and Toa Payoh.38

From 1991 onwards, pasar malam became a fundraising vehicle for community groups and grassroots bodies such as citizens’ consultative committees (CCCs) and residents’ committees (RCs).39 The pasar malam is generally held for a period between one and three days, usually coinciding with festive occasions such as the Lunar New Year, Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali.40 The pasar malam is managed by pasar malam contractors, whose job entails engaging a variety of stallholders for the pasar malam according to the scale and location of the pasar malam as well as hiring tents, tables, chairs, generators and other amenities.41

Unlike the travelling pasar malam of the 1950s and 1960s, which operated on a weekly basis, present-day pasar malam generally operates once a year at fixed locations.42 Only grassroots organisations, RCs and charitable, civic, educational, religious and social institutions are allowed to organise pasar malam. The duration depends on who the organiser is. For instance, CCCs can hold 16-day pasar malam, while RCs are only allowed to organise three-day pasar malam.

Key features of pasar malam
Pasar malam is known for its brightly lit stalls, loud blaring music and affordable goods.43 Common features of pasar malam include stallholders’ shouts of “lelong, lelong” (which means “sale, sale” in Malay)  as well as the haggling with stallholders.44

Pasar malam stalls selling food such as roasted chestnuts, steamed peanuts, steamed corn, coconut cakes, burgers, otah and fish crackers are always a huge draw.45 In addition to food, an eclectic range of items such as clothing, footwear, kitchenware, toys, compact discs, household goods, children’s toys, handicraft, and even books and magazines, are offered for sale at pasar malam stalls.46

Rules and regulations for organising pasar malam
Those interested in setting up a pasar malam are required to apply for a trade fair permit from the National Environment Agency (NEA).47 No trade fair can begin operation unless a permit has been issued. The organiser must also obtain the consensus of the shopkeepers in the neighbourhood to hold the trade fair in a public area,48 and if the trade fair is held at a common area in an HDB estate, the organiser must also apply to the town council for the use of the site.49 In addition, under the Fire Safety Act, the organiser has to apply and seek approval from the Singapore Civil Defence Force.50 Furthermore, organisers are required to obtain written approval from other relevant authorities, depending on the venue and type of facilities required, in order to hold the trade fair.51

Pasar malam food stalls are licensed by the NEA.52 Food handlers at these stalls are required to attend and pass the basic food hygiene course and register with the NEA before they are allowed to work at pasar malam stalls. Stallholders are, however, not allowed to prepare food on site without proper washing and food storage facilities, such as a sink connected to a clean water supply, temperature-controlled storage like freezers, chillers or food warmers, and a display showcase for food items. Without such facilities, only pre-cooked food obtained from licensed sources is allowed to be sold, although simple cooking like grilling and frying is permitted.53 The NEA conducts frequent checks on pasar malam stalls to ensure that hygiene standards are met.54

Pasar malam stalls are prohibited from displaying and selling animals, including ornamental fish, and are also prohibited from selling items that depict tobacco brands. The Media Development Authority requires pasar malam operators to ensure that stalls selling videotapes, VCDs and DVDs hold a valid video licence.55

The state of pasar malam in Singapore
In 2008, an editorial in The Straits Times newspaper commented that times were bad for pasar malam vendors, as their takings had dropped and their numbers had fallen from 1,000 in 2005 to 700 in 2008. The vendors blamed competition from air-conditioned shopping malls as well as rising overheads such as stall rentals, utility bills and workers’ salaries.56 These factors caused many vendors to drop out of the business.57

Pasar malam operators were also affected by the economic recession in 2009, which caused business to be reduced by 30 to 40 percent, resulting in a decrease in the frequency and duration of pasar malam.58

Pasar malam operators also faced complaints from shopkeepers in housing estates for drawing customers away from their shops. In 1992, shopkeepers in Ang Mo Kio, Toa Payoh and Yishun claimed that their business declined by 20 to 40 percent whenever trade fairs were held nearby.59 Similarly, in 2009, shopkeepers in Clementi Central estate complained that pasar malam was taking away their business due to their lower prices.60 Unlicensed pasar malam has proliferated in recent years. Since 2011, the NEA has taken action against the operators of 16 unlicensed fairs held in Tampines, Toa Payoh, Simei, Clementi, Kovan City, Bukit Merah, Kampong Glam, Chinatown, Serangoon North, Rivervale Walk and Tanglin Halt.61

Vina Jie-Min Prasad

1. Frank Chua, “A History of the Singapore Pasar Malam: A Market Experience in Pre-Modern Singapore,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 16, no. 2 (2002): 113. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
2. Y. M. Yueng, “Travelling Night Markets in Singapore,” in Market-Place Rade: Periodic Markets, Hawkers, and Traders in Africa, Asia and Latin America, ed. Robert H. T. Smith (Vancouver: Centre for Transportation Studies, 1978), 143 (Call no. RSEA 381 MAR); Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 118.
3. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 130; Angeline Teo, “Pasar Malam Comeback Draws Hundreds,” Straits Times, 2 July 1991, 27; “Lelong Lelong! The Pasar Malam Is Back,” Straits Times, 10 August 1997, 2; Ee Boon Lee, “Government’s ‘No’ to Pasar Malam,” Singapore Monitor, 27 March 1985, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 137.
5. Parliament of Singapore, Budget, Ministry of the Environment, vol. 47 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 21 March 1986, col. 983 (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN); Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 118; Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets in Singapore,” 143.
6. Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets,” 143.
7. Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets,” 143.
8. Francis Rozario, “Police Enforce Ban on Woodlands Pasar Malam,” Straits Times, 6 January 1963, 18 (From NewspaperSG); Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets,” 145.
9. “Premier’s Pledge to Hawkers,” Straits Times, 28 January 1963, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 121; “Traders Warned: Beware of False Trade Marks,” Straits Times, 16 March 1965, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets,” 146; “Record Shoe Production,” Straits Times, 31 July 1964, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Causeway Night Market Goes,” Straits Times, 4 January 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Rozario, “Ban on Woodlands Pasar Malam”; Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 121. 
13. Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets,” 142.
14. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 117. 
15. “Drive to Licence Hawkers at Night Bazaars,” Straits Times, 28 February 1966, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets,” 143.
16. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 127–8; “Understanding with Firmness: Yong,” Straits Times, 2 April 1966, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “1,724 More Forms for Hawkers,” Straits Times, 3 March 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Licence Hawkers at Night Bazaars”; Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 128.
19. “Licence Hawkers at Night Bazaars.”
20. “No Pasar Malam Hawkers at HDB Estates,” Straits Times, 1 April 1970, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 130.
22. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 131.|23. “9 Pasars Malam Taken Off the Roads,” Straits Times, 27 February 1976, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “No Plans to Revive Pasar Malam, Says Ministry,” Straits Times, 23 June 1980, 7 (From NewspaperSG); “9 Pasars Malam Taken Off the Roads”; William Campbell,  “When Inspectors Have to Be Tough But Tactful...,” Straits Times, 18 February 1975, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 132–3.
26. “The Last Pasar Malam Stalls Bow Out,” Straits Times, 2 May 1978, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Magdalene Lum, “Return of the Pasar Malam,” Straits Times, 29 December 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Pasar Malam Is Back”; Lum, “Return of the Pasar Malam”; “Pasar Malam’s Comeback Washed Out By Heavy Rain,” Straits Times, 4 December 1983, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Page 18 Miscellaneous Column 1,”Singapore Monitor, 27 May 1985, 18Joanne Yap, “‘Pasar Malam Will Be Successful’,” Business Times, 27 March 1985, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Elisabeth Gwee, “Sentosa Spices Up Its Nightlife,” Straits Times, 9 June 1996, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Ee Boon Lee, “Government’s ‘No’ to Pasar Malam,” Singapore Monitor, 27 March 1985, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Shahrir Ariff, “Pasar Malam Comeback Proves Popular,” Business Times, 8 April 1985, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Pasar Malam to Be Expanded to Sell Food Items,” Straits Times, 12 July 1985, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “A Dismal First Night for Foodstalls,” Straits Times, 24 May 1986, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “More Sites for Pasar Malam Being Sought,” Straits Times, 31 August 1985, 13; “$100 M to Resite Hawkers,” Straits Times, 22 March 1986, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “Night Market ‘a Bore’,” Straits Times, 4 October 1988, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Riverside Pasar Malam Suspended,” Straits Times, 7 October 1988, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Teo, “Pasar Malam Comeback Draws Hundreds”; “Pasar Malam Is Back.”
39. “Pasar Malam Is Back.”
40. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 137; “Pasar Malam Is Back.”
41. “Pasar Malam Is Back”; Tan Hsueh Yun and Chin Soo Fang, “The Pasar Malam Makes a Comeback,” Straits Times, 19 April 1999, 32; Jermyn Chow, “Dark Days for Night Markets,” Straits Times, 28 October 2008, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 137.
43. “Save the Pasar Malam,” Straits Times, 2 November 2008, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Chow, “Dark Days for Night Markets”; Jamie Ee Wen Wei, “Sleepless Nights over Pasar Malam,” Straits Times, 22 November 2009, 12; “Boulevard Bargains That Are Not Enough,” Straits Times, 1 January 1984, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Ervina Mohd Jalil, “Tentage at Pasar Malam Collapses,” New Paper, 10 June 2009, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 121.
46. Chua, “History of the Singapore Pasar Malam,” 121; Tan and Chin, “Pasar Malam Makes a Comeback”; “Disc Piracy: A Night Stall Shock for Company Chief,” Straits Times, 19 April 1968, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Yeung, “Travelling Night Markets in Singapore,” 146; “Record Shoe Production”; Ee, “Sleepless Nights over Pasar Malam.”
47. “Pasar Malam,” Government of Singapore, accessed 9 June 2014; “Application for Trade Fair Permit,” Singapore Food Agency, n.d.
48. Singapore Food Agency, “Application for Trade Fair Permit.”
49. Ee, “Sleepless Nights over Pasar Malam.”
50. “Fire Safety Certificate & Temporary Fire Permit,” Singapore Civil Defence Force, accessed 30 July 2014.
51. Singapore Food Agency, “Application for Trade Fair Permit.”
52. “More Night Market Food Stall Operators Booked for Hygiene Lapses,” Channel NewsAsia, 21 April 2009. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
53. “Change in Rules for Refresher Courses for Food Handlers,” Channel NewsAsia, 3 September 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Singapore Food Agency, “Application for Trade Fair Permit.”
54. “More Night Market Food Stall Operators Booked for Hygiene Lapses.”
55. Singapore Food Agency, “Application for Trade Fair Permit.”
56. “Save the Pasar Malam”; Chow, “Dark Days for Night Markets.”
57. Chow, “Dark Days for Night Markets.”
58. Goh Yi Han, “Big Retailers Set Up Shop in Night Markets,” Straits Times, 8 June 2009, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
59. Kwan Chooi Tow, “Neighbourhood Shops Upset over Trade Fairs,” Straits Times, 3 January 1992, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Ee, “Sleepless Nights over Pasar Malam.”
61. Tham Yuen-C, “NEA to Take Another Trade Fair Operator to Court,” Straits Times, 30 November 2014, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 2 March 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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