Curry dispute

Singapore Infopedia


On 8 August 2011, local daily freesheet Today published a news feature that mentioned a dispute between a migrant family from China and a Singaporean Indian family over the smell of curry emanating from the latter’s home. Following the publication of the news article, the “curry dispute”, as the incident came to be known, provoked public uproar – the settlement terms of the dispute were perceived as unfair.1 The “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” campaign was subsequently organised by some members of the public as a grassroots response to the incident.2

Event, as reported
In the Today article, it was reported in a sidebar that a Chinese family, newly arrived from China, could not tolerate the smell that wafted over from next-door whenever their Singaporean Indian neighbours cooked curry. Out of consideration to the Chinese family’s aversion to the curry smell, the Indian family would shut their doors and windows whenever they cooked curry. However, the Chinese family deemed this measure insufficient, and entreated their neighbours to refrain from cooking the dish altogether. The request was met with a firm refusal from the Indian family. Both families then approached the Community Mediation Centre (CMC) for help in resolving the disagreement. The settlement that was reached following the mediation was that the Indian family would cook curry only when their Chinese neighbours were out. In turn, the Chinese family acceded to their Indian neighbours’ request to try out the curry dish.3

Public reaction
After the publication of the newspaper report highlighting the “curry dispute”, a segment of the public voiced their disgruntlement over the “unfair” outcome that had apparently been brought about by the mediation process conducted by the CMC. Some were also angered by the perceived intolerance that both the Chinese family and the CMC mediator had displayed towards the cultural practices of another ethnic group. This was viewed as unacceptable behaviour that was contrary to Singapore’s inclusive and multiracial society.4

A member of the public uploaded a three-minute video clip on video-sharing website YouTube on 14 August 2011, casting aspersions on the Chinese family involved in the curry saga as well as on Chinese nationals in general and castigating them for their bigotry towards Singaporeans. Within three days of its uploading, the video had been viewed 9,000 times. The creator of the video was both complimented and censured by the online public for the video, with some detractors labelling her as “racist”. The contents of her video was also said to border on running foul of Singapore’s sedition law.5

Some online commenters felt that immigrants who were critical of Singaporeans’ lifestyle and culture should return to their home countries. On the other hand, some urged both Singaporeans and foreigners alike to show mutual respect for and understanding towards each other. The outpouring of vitriol against foreigners was said to belie an underlying resentment among some locals towards people from a different culture who had settled here.6

Government response
In response, the CMC, which is a body under the Ministry of Law, issued a press release on 11 August 2011 stating that the newspaper article had inaccurately reported the mediator’s involvement in the dispute settlement. The CMC explained that the mediator had performed her role as a nonpartisan party to help facilitate the discussion between the two families. One of the families had in fact suggested the final resolution, which was accepted by the other family.7

Due to the magnitude of the online public reaction and heightened emotions resulting from inaccuracies in the original news report, Minister for Law K. Shanmugam held a press conference on 16 August 2011 to clarify the true course of events regarding the incident.8 He explained that the dispute had occurred six to seven years prior to the publication of the Today news report on 8 August 2011 and that the terms of settlement resulting from the mediation had been entirely volitional between the two parties involved.9 The solution as initially reported in the media had been proposed by one family, and was acceded to by the other family. The government stated that the CMC mediator was meant to be a neutral, independent party, and in the case had neither suggested the solution nor imposed or mandated it upon both families.

Shanmugam also commented positively on the strong community spirit demonstrated by the people from different races and cultures who had united to affirm the Singaporean national identity and to vocalise their condemnation of the disparagement of local Indian culture. However, Shanmugam cautioned Singaporeans against letting the unhappy feelings generated by the curry dispute ferment into a blanket dislike of all foreigners in general.10

The following day, on 17 August 2011, Today published an article in which the paper’s editor acknowledged that the roles played by CMC and the mediator in the curry dispute had been incorrectly represented in the original news report.11

“Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” campaign
On 11 August 2011, freelance writer Florence Leow, together with some friends, announced the “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” event via social media platform Facebook. The event encouraged Singaporeans to cook curry at home on 21 August 2011 and invited foreigners to share in the repast as a way “to celebrate curries as part of our way of life and to share this celebration with those who are new to our shores”.12

Gabriel Yeap, Leow’s friend and fellow moderator of the “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” Facebook page, also started a “CurryLoversSG” Facebook page with the aim of inspiring Singaporeans to celebrate “national curry day” on the third Saturday of August every year, beginning with 18 August 2012 the following year.13

Through virtual word-of-mouth and the news media, the “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” event, which was held on 21 August 2011, gained widespread publicity. More than 60,000 residents in Singapore indicated their support and participation in the event. On this day, Leow held a curry feast at her home in Toa Payoh and invited 11 others, including newly arrived migrants, to enjoy the spread of Peranakan-style chicken, Indian vegetable and Japanese curries.14

The so-called “curry movement” also prompted Torte, a café-cum-restaurant situated on Waterloo Street, to serve chicken, stingray and vegetable curries for Sunday brunch on 21 August instead of its usual Western dishes such as pancakes and sausages – an initiative that was said to have met with positive response from patrons. The widespread publicity that the “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” event received also led some to create curry-themed music videos and catchphrases about curry. Pledges and similar spin-off events from overseas Singaporeans also sprang up.15

Said to have been inspired by the “curry incident” in 2011, the following year, from 17 to 23 August 2012, local snack chain Old Chang Kee partnered with the National Heritage Board in organising a weeklong series of curry-themed events called “Curry, a Celebration of Singapore’s Heritage”.16

Sharon Teng

1. Carolyn Quek, “Number of Neighbour Disputes Hit High,” Today, 8 August 2011, 17; Carolyn Quek, “When Neighbours Disagree...,” Today, 8 August 2011, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
2. David Lim, “Shanmugam Cautions Against Xenophobia,” MyPaper, 17 August 2011. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
3. Quek, “Number of Neighbour Disputes Hit High”; Quek, “When Neighbours Disagree....”
4. Benita Aw Yeong, Curry – Our New National Icon,” New Paper, 14 August 2011, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Alvin Lim, “Online Video Further Stirs Hot ‘Curry’ Issue,” New Paper, 17 August 2011, 2–3. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Aw Yeong, Curry – Our New National Icon.”
7. Ministry of Law, “Clarification Issued by Community Mediation Unit regarding Today Article, ’Number of Neighbour Disputes Hit High,” press release, 11 August 2011; Benita Aw Yeong, “I’m Just a Go-Between,” New Paper 17 August 2011, 4. (From NewspaperSG); “Community Mediation Centre,” Ministry of Law, last updated 27 December 2017.  
8. Karen W. Lim, “Families Settle Curry Dispute, Not Mediators,” AsiaOne, 16 August 2011; Malcolm Moore, “Singapore’s ‘Anti-Chinese Curry War’,” Telegraph, 16 August 2011.  
9. “Shanmugam Clarifies ‘Curry Case’,” Channel NewsAsia, 16 August 2011. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
10. Lim, “Families Settle Curry Dispute”; Lim, “Shanmugam Cautions Against Xenophobia”; “‘S’porean Identity Developing’,” New Paper, 17 August 2011, 2–3; Lin Wenjian, (2011, August 17). “‘Okay to Affirm S’porean Way but Don’t Be Anti-foreigner’,” Straits Times, 17 August 2011, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Kaifong, “Shanmugam Clarifies ‘Curry Issue’,” Yahoo News, 17 August 2011.
11. Ng Jing Yng, “Shanmugam Clears Up ‘Curry Issue’, Praises Unity and Identity Shown,” Today, 17 August 2011, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Lim, “Shanmugam Cautions Against Xenophobia”; “Sunday Curry Event to Go On,” Straits Times, 17 August 2011, 4; Olivia Ho, “Keep Calm and Curry On,” New Paper, 21 August 2011, 6–7. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Ho, “Keep Calm and Curry On.”
14. Kimberly Spykerman, “A Day for Curry and Camaraderie,” Straits Times, 22 August 2011, 9; “United Over Curry,” Straits Times, 22 August 2011, 1 (From NewspaperSG); David Lim, “Curry Taste Test for Chinese National,” MyPaper, 22 August 2011. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
15. “Sunday Curry Event to Go On”; Spykerman, “Day for Curry and Camaraderie.”
16. Walter Sim, “Curry’s the Heritage Flavour Next Month,” Straits Times, 29 July 2012, 21. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Fiona Low, “Peace and Stability Not a Given, Cautions Minister,” Straits Times, 4 September 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Lee U-Wen, “Tony Tan to Focus on Social Harmony If Elected,” Business Times, 22 August 2011, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

Ng Kai Ling, “Furore Online,” Straits Times, 4 September 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Zakir Hussain, “Curry Incident Spices Up Presidential Campaign,” Straits Times, 22 August 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 11 May 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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