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Thursday, March 4, 2021

The slow rise of veganism in Singapore

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Singapore is full of wealthy heritage and rich culture, from its food to its people, but does the city-state have suitable assets to promote a vegan lifestyle?

The concept of veganism in Singapore can be compared to be sitting on the fence about an idea. It isn’t bizarre but some see it as uncommon. However, it is also becoming increasingly popular. Veganism manages to fit amongst Singapore’s diverse culinary culture, which is dominant in meat and seafood.

Singaporeans love consuming meat and even dishes that are full of carbohydrates, like noodles and rice, incorporate some form of seafood or meat. The cuisine is derived from several ethnicities, developing over time with influences from Malaysia, China and India.

Despite this, the mindset of those who live in Singapore may be one of the biggest barriers against veganism not becoming popular at too rapid a rate.

Mark Lin is a dog trainer, as well as the director and co-founder of Society for Animal Matters, a non-profit animal welfare group and rescue. “I’ve been a very big proponent of animal welfare since I was a child. Growing up, I brought home, rescued, cared for and nursed more animals than I can remember,” he says.

singapore vegan
Photo: Marie-Pier Biron

When Lin was eleven, he stopped eating meat and eventually other animal products. “I’m a big believer in being environmentally conscious to make sure we don’t cause any more harm to the earth than we already do through all our actions, but [instead] to respect and love it because of the abundance we receive from it. So I’ve tried to incorporate all of this into my life.”

He adds that Singapore is a “really great place” to be vegan. Lin finds satisfying meals frequently to fulfil his diet, but he believes it can be improved, as one often has to travel to a restaurant to find specific vegan options. However, he adds: “I haven’t had animal products for 17 years and yet I still haven’t tried all the eateries in Singapore.”

He explains how the law plays a large role in shaping the culture of veganism in Singapore, as animal welfare is severely undeveloped: “I’ve met many people who do not see animals — whether dogs or cats or cows — as living beings, but merely objects for our use. Working in animal welfare, I receive this sentiment all the time.”

Nevertheless, he explains that it will take many years for veganism to become very popular in Singapore due to the local lifestyle. “The culture here in Singapore, from work to social, makes it hard for people to be able to live consciously. People here are tense and stressed out, and many are materialists.” At times, it is difficult to have open conversations about veganism and sustainability, as it can often not be well-received, but he hopes that one day, residents may be more open to explore the lifestyle.

Lin describes how the cultural mindset in Singapore seems to have shifted ever so slightly as locals begin to talk about their impact on the Earth and animals suffering. “It was easy for me, but only because I’m a big activist and advocate of animal welfare,” he says.

singapore plant based
Photo: Marie-Pier Biron

Marie-Pier Biron is a yoga teacher who has been living in Singapore for two years. Biron went vegan three years ago after watching What The Health with her husband, fuelling her transition. She tells me about the importance of food in the country: “Singaporeans could cross town to go and taste a new chicken rice that is supposed to be good.”

A large part of Singapore’s culture are its Hawker centres, a type of food court, which allows locals and tourists to explore cheap yet delicious street food. They are filled with a variety of local and regional food stalls, but Asian food is at large in the culinary hub. Popular dishes include chicken rice, and laksa, a spicy coconut milk soup, originally with seafood, tofu and dumplings.

When Biron first moved to Singapore, she struggled to find interesting vegan restaurants and mainly shopped at the local grocery stores.“It was possible to find fresh products and cook at home. One year later, the movement is growing fast,” she reflects. Biron lives with her husband and their 9-month-old daughter. She adds: “Having a kid now, I will raise her as vegan, and I am hopeful I will not be the only one. I hope this next generation will be more conscious.”

Read our story on raising children as vegan.

A trend she has found is that many Singaporean restaurants offer “plant-based” options that aren’t actually plant-based, as they include egg or dairy. She says: “I even saw seafood as a plant-based option. We need to be really careful and ask questions.”

Biron says the movement is growing, but it is still quite small for now: “After two years, I just met a vegan couple, and they’re the first other vegans I know personally.” While the community is positive, despite the overall lack of knowledge from the general population, she adds: “Some restaurants will put in a nice effort to offer traditional cuisine, like Privé. It is a chain in Singapore and the owner is vegan. They offer vegan chicken rice, vegan laksa and Western options as well.”

Yuan Oeij is the chairman and founder of The Privé Group. He transitioned to veganism in 2018. “I came to understand the inherent cruelties in the food system worldwide,” he says, “firstly being aware of what’s happening in the US, Europe and Australia — where there tends to be more coverage — and later after meeting various animal advocates more familiar with the cruelties also happening in developing countries in Asia.”

He started Privé in 2007, which has now grown into a family of 10 outlets in Singapore, and over the past three years, it has gained a strong reputation for offering well-executed plant-based options.

vegan restaurants singapore
Photo: Yuan Oeij

Oeij adds: “We started offering more plant-based options because we wanted to do our part to help reduce animal suffering in the world.” He explains that he wants his restaurants to be inclusive to those with different dietary requirements and beliefs, and therefore catering for omnivores and vegans.

He says: “This way, we make plant-based food accessible, available and appealing to everyone, and expose omnivores to the joys of plant-based eating. This has already happened, as many meat-loving people have tried our vegan food, from our Impossible dishes to our plant-based takes on local favourites and whole-food plant-based creations.”

The branch is experimentative when it comes to its vegan cuisine, honing to traditional Singaporean food, such as with their vegan option of Heura Hainanese ‘Chicken’ Rice, but also Western cuisine, like its take on the McDonald’s McMuffin: the Privé Sausage Muffin using a house-made plant-based sausage patty and cheese.

Gastronomy is so important to the locals in Singapore, but also the chefs that cater to tourists, ensuring that they experience the diversity of the cuisine. “Developing the dishes has been fun, fulfilling and rewarding. The results have been fantastic and well-received by our customers,” says Oeij.

singapore veganism
Photo: Yuan Oeij

The entrepreneur agrees that veganism in Singapore needs to develop further, as most restaurants and eateries are barely vegan-friendly. However, he says: “2020 has certainly been a year where things started improving, with the introduction of modern meat alternatives that are more appealing to the more contemporary restaurants and cafes rather than the traditional casual eateries that cater more to traditional or religious vegetarians.”

He also understands that due to the lifestyle and social nature of Singapore, with its meat-loving culture, veganism can be depicted as unusual. “People still think of veganism as something quite extreme, especially the older generation, who seem to have the extremely strong ingrained belief that being vegan means one will be undernourished and weak.”

Oeij adds: “The majority of Singaporeans are not prepared to be vegan at this point, and it’s better that many people start taking baby steps rather than take a leap only very few are able to.”

Mansi Vithlani
Mansi Vithlani is a journalism student at City, University of London. A vegetarian her whole life and a massive foodie, she enjoys discovering more about veganism and eating vegan cuisine! She enjoys investigating social media based stories and how its influence has made a significant difference in the last few years.