Culture of Singapore

Culture of Singapore
Nuvola Singaporean flag.svg
Life in Singapore
Singapore English
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Centre square of Raffles Place

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. After World War 2, Singapore 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 in the world after Macau and Monaco.

Singaporean culture is best described as a melting pot of mainly Chinese, British, Malay, and Indian cultures, a reflection of its immigrant history.



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

English is the first language of Singapore. The standard form of English spoken in Singapore is Singapore Standard English, which uses British spellings 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 Chinese 23.7 35.0 36.0
Other Chinese Languages 39.6 23.8 18.2
Malay 14.3 14.1 13.2
Tamil 2.9 3.2 3.1

Attitudes and beliefs


The government claims that meritocracy is a cornerstone of Singaporean society, and that people are rewarded based on their personal achievements, with no regard to their ethnicity or background.[5] However, critics such as Kenneth Tan have alleged that "in practice, meritocracy is often transformed into an ideology of inequality and elitism".[6]

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,[7] but the concept of religious harmony has also been dismissed as a "facade"[8] or "myth".[9]

Democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality

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

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".

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).


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, true explorations and innovation exist but at a level that is not well funded. However, the local scene of constructive arts critics is still much under developed and often subjective in tone. Most prominent events and venues are government operated and normally with an international focus. For indigenous artistic works, it's best to explore and find out about local private arts companies. Another festival that is going strong is the Singapore Youth Festival organised by the Ministry of Education. In fact, it has become a magnet that provides funding for local performing artists to work at most local schools and compete for the gold! Funding for these arts companies are divided into different class, some are government inititiated companies and may received direct funding from the government (eg Singapore Symphony Orchestra) while others will need to apply for funding through the National Arts Council. 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 on space is still one of the major factors that influence performing arts making in Singapore. A much more vibrant local scene may evolved if this issue can be carefully resolved. 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. TakeOut Comedy hosts a weekly open mic to help develop local comics.[10] Each of Howl at the Moon and The Comedy Club Asia at DXO offers shows one weekend per month primarily featuring leading international comics such as Paul Ogata.[10] Kumar, a drag queen who has performed in Singapore for more than 17 years, is Singapore's leading stand-up comedian.[11]

Cultural policy

Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation. ... There's a certain white-shirted constraint, an absolute humorlessness in the way Singapore Ltd. operates; conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.
William Gibson"Disneyland with the Death Penalty", Wired Issue 1.04, September 1993.

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.[12] The country's first pre-tertiary arts school, School Of The Arts, is currently being built at Kirk Terrace. Expected to commence 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.

Creative writing

Singapore has a rich heritage in Creative Writing in the Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English Languages. While there is more emphasis on social and patriotic themes in Malay, Chinese and Tamil, the writer in English finds himself (or herself) more comfortable in the analysis of the individual and his motivations. For the writer in Tamil, Chinese and Malay, a healthy concern with the particulars of everyday life (one could say the minutae 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 extrapolating 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 comtemprorary Singapore society.


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