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Culture of Singapore

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Culture of Singapore

Centre square of Raffles Place

Life in Singapore

The culture of Singapore is a melting pot of mainly Chinese, Malay, Indian, and British cultures, and is a reflection of its immigrant history.

Singapore was a part of British Malaya for many centuries. It was ruled by the Sultanate of Johor. In 1819, the British came to the Island and set up a port and colony. During British rule, the port of Singapore flourished and attracted many migrants. Singapore became part of the Malaysian Federation in 1962 for two years, and in 1965 it became an independent nation and a republic, which it remains today.

Singapore has a diverse populace of nearly 5 million people[1] which is made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Caucasians and Eurasians (plus other mixed groups) and Asians of different origins, which is in line with the nation's history as a crossroads for various ethnic and racial groups.

In addition, 42% of Singapore's populace are foreigners, which makes it the country with the sixth highest proportion of foreigners worldwide.[2][3]

Singapore is also the third most densely populated territory in the world after Macau and Monaco.


Many Singaporeans though not all, are bilingual. Most speak English and another language, most commonly Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish).

All the children study English as their first language in school, under the compulsory local education system, and their mother-tongue language as their second language. Thus, most Singaporeans are effectively bilingual, especially the youths in today's society.

English is the first language of Singapore. The standard form of English spoken in Singapore is Singapore Standard English, which uses British spelling and grammar. However, there is also a local dialect of English, Singlish, that is unique to Singapore, though it has close affinities with the Malaysian dialect known as Manglish.

Singapore is a multi-lingual nation and Singaporeans speak different languages as their first language. In 2005, 50% of Singaporeans speak Mandarin at home. 32% speak English at home and 12% speak Malay while 3% speak Tamil at home. Singaporeans who do not speak English as their home language normally speak it as their second language.

As part of the multi-cultural ethos of the nation, one language was also chosen to represent each of the four major ethnic or 'racial' groups. The 'national' language of Singapore is Bahasa Melayu. This is in recognition of the Malay people as the indigenous community in Singapore. 85% of Singaporeans do not speak Malay. Malay is used in the national anthem, national motto and military parade drill commands. Tamil is an official language as a majority of South Asians in Singapore are ethnic Tamils from India and Sri Lanka. While most Chinese Singaporeans are descendants of southern Chinese migrants who spoke a variety of regional languages, it is the northern Chinese language of Mandarin that is official in Singapore.

Language most frequently spoken at home (%)[4]
Language 1990 2000 2005
English 18.8 23.0 29.4
Mandarin 23.7 35.0 36.0
Hokkien,Teochew,Cantonese,Hakka,Hainanese 39.6 23.8 18.2
Malay 14.3 14.1 13.2
Tamil 2.9 3.2 3.1

Attitudes and beliefs

A home displaying the national flag underneath their window
The national flag of Singapore


"The system of meritocracy in Singapore ensures that the best and brightest, regardless of race, religion and socio-economic background, are encouraged to develop to their fullest potential. Everyone has access to education, which equips them with skills and knowledge to earn a better living."[5] Indeed, the Education in Singapore ensures that primary education is compulsory for all children of age 7 to 12. Parents have to apply for exemptions from the Ministry of Education in Singapore in order to exempt their children under this compulsory rule with valid reasonings.

Social and religious harmony

Singapore is a secular immigrant country. The main religions in Singapore are Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Respect for different religions and personal beliefs is heavily emphasized by the government.[6]

To demonstrate the importance of imparting racial harmony knowledge to the youths, schools in Singapore celebrate Racial Harmony Day on 21 July annually. Students come to school dressed in different ethic costumes, and some classes prepare performances regarding racial harmony.

Democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality

The concepts of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality are enshrined as stars in the Singapore national flag. Freedom in the World 2006 ranked Singapore 5 out of 7 for political freedom, and 4 out of 7 for civil liberties (where 1 is the most free), with an overall ranking of "partly free". Reporters without Borders ranked Singapore 135th out of 179 countries in their Press Freedom Index for 2011 to 2012.[7] However, for 2012 to 2013, Singapore's ranking dropped 14 places to a record low of 149th position.[8]

Ethnic areas

Singapore has several distinct ethnic neighborhoods, including Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam.

Little India is known and patronized by all races within the population for its thalis-- South Indian "buffets" that are vegetarian and served on the traditional banana leaves. These neighborhoods are accessible by public transport, especially by Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).

Singapore's Chinatown is an ethnic neighbourhood featuring distinctly Chinese cultural elements and a historically concentrated ethnic Chinese population. Chinatown is located within the larger district of Outram.


The major public holidays reflect the mentioned racial diversity, including Chinese New Year, Buddhist Vesak Day, Muslim Eid ul-Fitr (known locally by its Malay name Hari Raya Puasa), and Hindu Diwali (known locally by its Tamil name Deepavali). Christians constitute a large and rapidly growing minority, and Christmas Day, Good Friday, and New Year's Day are also public holidays. On August 9, Singapore celebrates the anniversary of its independence with a series of events, including the National Day Parade which is the main ceremony. The National Day Parade, 2005 was held at the Padang in the city centre.


Sri Mariamman Temple, built in 1843, is the largest Hindu temple in Singapore.

Singapore is a multi-religious country, the roots of which can be traced to its strategic location; after its declaration as a port, a wide variety of nationalities and ethnicities from places as far as Arabia immigrated to Singapore. 33% of Singaporeans adhere to Buddhism, the main faith of the Chinese population of Singapore. Other Chinese are followers of Taoism (11%), Confucianism, and Christianity. Christians constitute about 18% of the population of Singapore.

Most Malays are Muslims, who constitute about 15% of the population, while most Indians are Hindus, constituting 5%. There is also a sizable number of Muslims and Sikhs in the Indian population. As a result of this diversity, there are a large number of religious buildings including Hindu temples, churches and mosques, some of which have great historical significance. There are also some Sikh temples and Jewish synagogues. These interesting buildings often became prominent architectural landmarks in cosmopolitan Singapore. In addition, about 17% of Singaporeans do not belong to any religion and consider themselves as free-thinkers.


Singaporean cuisine is also a prime example of diversity and cultural diffusion in Singapore. In Singapore's hawker centres, for example, traditionally Malay hawker stalls selling halal food may serve halal versions of traditionally Tamil food. Chinese stalls may introduce Malay ingredients, cooking techniques or entire dishes into their range of catering. This continues to make the cuisine of Singapore significantly rich and a cultural attraction. Singaporeans also enjoy a wide variety of seafood including crabs, clams, squid, and oysters. One favorite dish is the stingray barbecued and served on banana leaf and with sambal (chilli).

A hawker centre in Lavender, Singapore

Performing arts

The monument to Chopin in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, just south of Symphony Lake.

Singapore is emerging as a cultural centre for arts and culture, including theatre and music. As a cosmopolitan and multi-racial society, Singapore is often identified with the "gateway between the East and West". In the past decade, there is an emergence of several performing arts groups in Singapore, especially in theatrical arts. A number of productions were staged successfully and several groups, such as TheatreWorks, have performed overseas. The Singapore government encourages a product-oriented arts scene within its master plan to include arts as a commodity for its economy. Most prominent events and venues are government operated and normally with an international focus.

The Singapore Youth Festival [9] is organised by the Ministry of Education. Funding for these arts companies are divided into different class, some are government inititiated companies and may received direct funding from the government (e.g. Singapore Symphony Orchestra) while others will need to apply for funding through the National Arts Council.[10] At the moment, major grants are given to mainly western and ethnic cultural companies to signify them as the flagship companies of Singapore. Due to the limited physical space of Singapore, arts groups and companies are also relatively dependent on housing arrangement and provision by the government. So far, the issue of limited space is still one of the major factors that influence performing arts making in Singapore.

Singapore hosts an annual Singapore Arts Festival when international and local artists gather in the country to perform in a wide variety of events including music, dance and theatre. The Singapore Arts Festival has become an event for Singapore to showcase its ability to buy international renowned performing arts products. In 2003, the Esplanade - "Theatres on the Bay", a centre for performing arts, was opened. The Esplanade is also known as "The Durian", due to its resemblance to the fruit. The Arts House at Old Parliament Lane has also been supportive of local performing arts in recent years. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and LASALLE College of the Arts are the two main arts institutions offering full-time programmes for the performing arts in Singapore. Institutions including government schools nowadays receive good funding for their arts programmes.

Stand-up comedy

Singapore has a growing stand-up comedy scene with three active venues. The three comedy rooms in Singapore are weekly, starting with Comedy Masala [11] on Tuesdays, Talk Cock Comedy [12] on Wednesdays and Fight Comic [13] on Thursdays. Every month, The Comedy Club Asia features leading international comics such as Shazia Mirza & Imran Yusuf. Comedy Masala also brings in international comedians, such as Paul Ogata.[14] Kumar, a drag queen who has performed in Singapore for more than 17 years, is one of Singapore's leading stand-up comedian.[15]

Cultural policy

Singapore maintains tight restrictions on arts and cultural performances. Most artistic works have to be vetted by the government in advance, and topics that breach so-called out of bounds markers (OB markers) are not permitted. While the OB markers are not publicly defined, they are generally assumed to include sensitive topics such as race, religion, and allegations of corruption or nepotism in government. Nudity and other forms of loosely-defined "obscenity" are also banned. Singaporean film director Royston Tan has produced movies which challenge these policies, including a movie called Cut in reference to censorship of the arts.[16]

The country's first pre-tertiary arts school, School of the Arts, is now completed and stands along the country's prominent Orchard Road. Commenced in 2008, the school aims to provide an environment for nurturing young artists aged between 13 and 18 years old. There has been much public rhetoric about liberalization and its association with the development of a creative economy in Singapore. The response from artists, academics, public intellectuals, and civil society activists has ranged from strongly optimistic to deeply pessimistic, as reflected in the chapters written for edited book Renaissance Singapore: Economy, Culture, and Politics. The difference between what is "culture" and what makes up "the arts" has been a matter of some debate in Singapore. For an attempt at defining what is artistic, see, for example, the Report of the Censorship Review Committee 1992.[17]


The Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay

Gardens and gardening have a special place in Singaporean culture as well as in politics. Although the footprint of British culture is clearly seen in Singapore, it is a densely populated city and after World War II came out quite a poor city, fighting for survival. In most big cities this would mean that gardening was not to be a priority, not of the inhabitants and certainly not of the government. But in this respect Singapore seems to have chosen another way. Gardening is common, even very small plots are gardened and it is even a priority of the government talking about "The Garden City" and most recently "Our City in a Garden".[18]

Historically this is all officially attributed to Lee Kuan Yew who apparently spearheaded this philosophy in 1963.[19] In a rare interview with Monty Don shown in the TV-series Around the World in 80 Gardens, Lee Kuan Yew reveals that after visits to other big Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Bangkok he feared that Singapore would turn into another concrete jungle, and he decided that gardens and parks should be established everywhere and made this a priority of the government.

Today it is clear that Singapore is a very green city with numerous well-tended parks, some of world fame such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens, but also a great interest in private gardening - even if it is just a very small plot outside a public housing block or even a few pots on the balcony. There are even a few nature reserves of primary rainforest, f.ex. the Bukit Timah nature reserve.

Curiously, this is still a priority of government, even if Lee Kuan Yew is no longer the prime minister. Changing the concept from "Garden City" (a city with gardens) to "Our City in a Garden" (everything to be thought of as one big garden)[20] launching new big projects as Gardens by the Bay and the park connector project (all major parks connected by foot- and cycle-paths). Another part of the new initiative is trying to create focus on "garden tech" development such as Green roofs and Green walls which is being integrated in many big buildings, both public (Hospitals, Schools) and private companies.

Creative writing

Singapore has a rich heritage in creative writing in the Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil languages. While there is more emphasis on social and patriotic themes in Malay, Chinese and Tamil, the English writer finds himself (or herself) more comfortable in the analysis of the individual and his motivations. For the Malay, Chinese and Tamil writers, a healthy concern with the particulars of everyday life, the minutiae of living, and the interweaving of these into the fabric of larger nationalistic, patriotic social events is in no way an offensive experience—in fact it is expected.

The writer in English seems more concerned with discovering an image of the individual self, or exploring human experience. The social milieu of the English educated is a middle class one and they have middle class pretensions. The middle class preoccupation with the self has over the years pervaded the consciousness of the modern Chinese and Malay writers and is what made it possible for their identification with writers using the English language.

The writer in the English language was a comparatively later phenomenon. Creative writing in English is traced to the establishment in Singapore of an institution of higher education in the arts and sciences, Raffles College, which subsequently became the University of Malaya in Singapore together with the King Edward VII Medical College. One of the high points in writing in English was the early and mid-fifties when a rising anti-colonial nationalism was at play and contributed to the desire to be identified as "Malayan". The poems of Wang Gungwu, Lim Thean Soo and Augustine Goh Sin Tub from this period are in a category by themselves.

Except for Wang who managed to move into some detached social poems, the rest are mostly personal and experimental in their use of language. The imagery is for most part forcedly local with rubber trees, durians, laterite etc. appearing again and again as do words and phrases from Malay and Chinese. This led to the coining of the word "Engmalchin" to explain the highly rarefied, nationalistic application of such languages in poems in English. In the mid-fifties and early sixties there rose a group of writers in English, only a few of whom are alive today--Ee Tiang Hong, Edwin Thumboo, Lloyd Fernando and Oliver Seet. A "younger" group among whom Wong Phui Nam was most outstanding arose a few years later and moved away from the conscious Malayaness of their immediate predecessors, but found themselves unsure of direction; though convinced of their interest in writing.

During this period (1950–1963), prose writing was almost negligible. Herman Hochstadt's "The Compact and Other Stories" is about the only collection. Lloyd Fernando, then a short story writer, published his first novel after 20 years. Of the other writers, Awang Kedua (Wang Gung Wu, again) had surest control of language and development of theme. It was however, poetry and not prose that surged forward in the sixties beginning with Robert Yeo, Dudely de Souza, Arthur Yap (died in 2006) and Wong May. The achievements of these writers were consolidated and enlarged by the establilshment of "FOCUS", the journal of the Literary Society of the University of Singapore, so much so that when the next group of writers, Lee Tzu Pheng, Mohd Hj Salleh, Yeo Bock Cheng, Pang Khye Guan, Syed Alwi Shahab and Chandran Nair (now living in Paris) arrived at the University in 1965, there was already in existence within the confines of the University, a micro-tradition of writing and publishing in English. The arrival of Edwin Thumboo to the English Department from the Civil Service was an added impetus.

At around this time too, Goh Poh Seng (now living in Canada), who had actually taken a year off to do nothing but write in Dublin and London (and almost starved as a result), arrived to begin work as a Medical Officer at the General Hospital. He started "TUMASEK" a journal for the publication of Singapore/Malayan writing; the fourth such attempt—the first being "WRITE" begun by Herman Hochstadt and others in the late 1950s; the second,"MONSOON" edited by Lim Siew Wai in the early sixties; the third, the aforementioned "FOCUS". "TUMASEK" however followed "MONSOON" into death after a few issues but Goh pushed forward undaunted and founded together with Lim Kok Ann, CENTRE 65 which presented the first ever "Poetry and Folk Music Festival" to Singaporeans at the Cultural Centre in 1966. The Centre provided Goh with the framework to develop as a playwright beginning with his "Moon is Less Bright" and going on to "When Smiles are Done". Goh later decided that his particular field was prose; "The Immolation" being his first novel.

The poets of the mid-sixties extended their style and techniques in the seventies and published in local and international journals and also in individual collections—Robert Yeo's "Coming Home Baby" and Arthur Yap's "Only Lines" in 1971, Chandran Nair's "Once the Horsemen and Other Poems" in 1972, and "After the Hard Hours, This Rain" in 1975. The impetus of the sixties was carried over into the seventies and among the names that emerged in poetry were Chung Yee Chong, Sng Boh Kim, Ernest Lim, and Geraldine Heng, who achieved a remarkable fluency of style in a single volume work, "White Dreams".

Today the younger poets writing in English, Leong Liew Geok, Angeline Yap, Boey Kim Cheng, Heng Siok Tian, Paul Tan, Yong Shu Hoong, Aaron Lee, Cyril Wong and Felix Cheong, show a more "diffusive" sensibility: rather than treating the self as linked to a core or primal place or time (Singapore before independence, a childhood haunt), their poems are conscious of the change and flux, the dispersions and returns which are appropriate to contemporary Singapore society.

See also


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^ "Ministry of Education". 
  6. ^ PM Lee on racial and religious issues (National Day Rally 2009) / Our News / Singapore United - Community Engagement Programme Portal. (2009-08-16). Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  7. ^ "Press Freedom Index 2011-2012". 
  8. ^ Reporters Without Borders Index
  9. ^ "Singapore Youth Festival 2014". SYF2013. Retrieved 2014-05-18. 
  10. ^ "National Arts Council". National Arts Council. Retrieved 2014-05-18. 
  11. ^ Comedy Masala Singapore | Singapore's BEST Weekly Stand Up Comedy Night! — Comedy Masala Singapore | Singapore's BEST Weekly Stand Up Comedy Night!. Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  12. ^ The Comedy Club. Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  13. ^ [4]
  14. ^ Chee, Frankie. "Stand-up is back", The Straits Times, 2009-07-12.
  15. ^ "Meet Singapore's Leading Comic: A Drag Queen Named Kumar", "ABC News" 14 February 2008
  16. ^ Jake Lloyd Smith, 24 July 2004. Singapore filmmaker takes Cut at censors, Houston Chronicle, retrieved January 25, 2006
  17. ^ Annex D: "Definition of the Term Artistic" in Report of the Censorship Review Committee 1992
  18. ^ City in a Garden. Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  19. ^
  20. ^ MND Link | Article 4 | Ministry of National Development. (2009-05-06). Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
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