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Last updated : Nov 2009
Singapore Culture Guide
Singapore Culture Guide -
Religion and culture retain entwined in Singapore, much more than in the West. All year round, a steady stream of festivals and celebrations in the streets and temples are testament to the various beliefs and backgrounds of this multicultural society, consisting of Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Christians Hindus, and Sikhs. Many of the Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu festivals are declared public holidays and Christmas is just another holiday – for which shops remain open. The Chinese calendar is closely adhered to and the Chinese New Year is the biggest festival of all, where everything closes for several days.

The city’s art scene, while for the most part conventional, reflects the flavours of the region: Malay, Indian and Chinese performances, music and art are all on offer. Mainstream performing arts represented, culminating in the Singapore Arts Festival, which is held annually in June, and attracts theatre, dance, and music groups from all over the world.

Andrew Lloyd Webber
productions are very popular. Annual performances from abroad tend to be heavily oversubscribed and tickets should be purchased well in advance. Local performers are of a high quality and easier to experience. Free theatrical and musical performances are offered generally in local parks, for example, the Singapore’s Dance Theatre performs Ballet Under the Stars twice a year at Fort Canning Park.

Singapore is a superb place to see and purchase art from all over Asia, as well as works by many local artists. The cultural diversity means that works by local artists cover a broad spectrum of styles and themes.

Renowned galleries include:

Singapore Art Museum, Bras Basah Road (tel: 6332 3222); Artfolio, Raffles Hotel (tel: 6334 4677); Art2 at The Substation, Armenian Street (tel: 6338 8713); and the galleries on the ground floor of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, MITA Building, 140 Hill Street (tel: 6270 7988; fax: 6837 9480; email: For arts and antiques, there is a centre of shopping outlets at the Tanglin Shopping Centre, 19 Tanglin Road.

Local newspapers (the largest English-language paper is the Straits Times) publish lists of events happening each day, as does the online National Arts and Entertainment Calendar. Two free publications to check out for are I-S Magazine and BC. Both have good listings and reviews for art, exhibitions, music and dance.

More details can be acquired from the National Arts Council (tel: 6746 4622; fax: 6837 3010) or through the Singapore Tourism Board. Tickets can be purchased through Sistic (tel: 6348 5555) or Ticketcharge (tel: 6296 2929). Additional information is available from Centre for the Arts (tel: 6874 2492), an arts agency promoting various arts groups and organising many festivals as well.


The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (tel: 6338 1230) performs every Friday and Saturday at the Victoria Concert Hall, Empress Place (tel: 6338 6125), including the open-air concerts. The SSO, established in 1979 walks a skilled tightrope between Asian and Western music and has a growing, if still fragile, reputation. The NUS Symphony Orchestra stages performances at the NUS Forum and Theatre, and the Singapore Lyric Opera, Waterloo Street (tel: 6336 1929), normally performs Western classical pieces, sometimes fusion. The Chinese Classical Music plays at many different venues and are well worth catching. Check the local press for information. The Esplanade (see Theatre below) also hosts local and touring orchestras, and other types of music performances.


Native Singaporeans are very dynamic in producing modern theatre with an Asian flavour, reflecting Singapore's ethnic diversity. The largest and newest venue for performing arts is the Esplanade, the theatres on the Bay, 1 Esplanade Drive (tel: 6828 8222; fax: 6337 3633; email:, which is destined to be one of the best and biggest performing arts centres in Asia. Covering six hectares (15 acres) on the waterfront, it boasts a concert hall (capacity of 1,800), recital studio (250), two theatres (2,000 and 220), and an art gallery.

Some of the more productive theatre companies are: Singapore Repertory Theatre, Cecil Street (tel: 6221 5585), who perform at the DBS Arts Centre, 6 Shenton Way; and TheatreWorks (tel: 6338 4077), located at the Black Box in Fort Canning Centre, Cox Terrace Fort, Canning Park.

Additional theatres include Kallang Theatre, Stadium Walk (tel: 6345 8488; fax: 6344 2340), and The Substation, 45 Armenian Street (tel: 6337 7535 or 7800; fax: 6337 2729), which showcases modern, experimental drama.


Ecnad Project Ltd (tel: 6226 6772), among the youngest professional performing arts groups, has a reputation for also being one of the most daring and dynamic. The company performs at the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre in Cecil Street. The Singapore Dance Theatre (tel: 6338 0611; fax: 6338 9748) performs classical dance and ballet and at the Fort Canning Centre, Cox Terrace Fort, Canning Park. Among the city’s most popular shows is their Ballet Under the Stars, performed 2 times a year at Fort Canning Hill.


Cinemas cater mainly to popular taste. Mainstream films are very popular and usually sold out; however, there is a backlash from those who deplore the censorship enforced through the Film Act of 1981, which bans obscene and pornographic movies with a much tighter definition of these than in the West. NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) was founded in 1994 to involve film-makers, critics, festival organisers and the like to promote greater artistic freedom in Singapore’s film industry. Singapore's International Film Festival is held in April, and features films and documentaries from around the globe.

Singapore’s main cinemas include Cathay, Orchard, 8 Grange Road (tel: 6232 5874); Cathay Causeway Point, 1 Woodlands Square (tel: 6767 1588); Lido 8 Ciniplex, Shaw House; Bugis, Parco Bugis Junction; Balastier, 360 Balastier Road; and Prince/Jade, Shaw Tower, 100 Beach Road (all at tel: 6738 0555). There are no art cinemas; however, the Alliance Française on Sarkies Road (tel: 6737 8422), shows mainstream and alternative French films every Tuesday.

Cultural events

Singapore’s calendar of annual events includes a real mix of modern and ancient, with old, revered ritual pitted up against the modern and experimental.

 In January, Hindus celebrate Thaipusam, a time of devotion, penance and thanksgiving; however, the sheer volume of the dominant Chinese majority outshines them with their New Year celebrations.

  The Lunar New Year is the highlight of the Chinese calendar and the streets of Chinatown are illuminated in January/February with decorations and fairy lights. After dark, Chinatown transforms into a heaving spectacle of the Orient, with hawkers and fortune tellers lining the alleyways as colourful dragon and lion dancers parade through the crowds and Chinese opera takes to the streets.

  The public holiday for Vesak Day, in May, honours the birth, enlightenment and death of Sakyamuni Buddha. Hundreds birds are let out of their cages to symbolise the release of captive souls.

  The yearly Singapore Dragon Boat Festival in June sends fishermen to find the Chinese poet and patriot, Qu Yuan.

  To celebrate the anniversary of Singaporean Independence, a new anthem is composed every year and played constantly in the month leading to the National Day Celebration on 9th August. A National Day Parade is held in front of thousands of spectators.

  The month-long Festival of the Hungry Ghost (August to September) is among the biggest Chinese festivals. As believed by Taoists, the gates of hell open up throughout the seventh month of the lunar year when spirits are permitted to wander the earth. To appease the spirits, sumptuous banquets and ‘wayangs’ (Chinese street operas) are held, candles and joss-sticks are lit in a row in front of Chinese houses and hell currency notes are burnt as offerings.

  During the Lantern Festival in September, the Chinese Garden is illuminated with light and colour as children and adults flock to the park with their paper lanterns.

  Also known as the Festival of Lights, Deepavali is a Hindu celebration held in October/November to commemorate the victory of good over evil and light over darkness. Little India, particularly the Hindu temples of Sri Veerama Kaliamman, Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman and Sri Srinivasa Perumal, is decorated with garlands, fairy lights, and colourful arches.

  Muslims gather for festive shopping for Hari Raya Puasa, for the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting), normally in November.

The younger generation are engaged in an variety of performance and theatre arts that continually test the boundaries of this tightly governed island.

Take Art
, from March to April, combines various local and international events with theatre, comedy, film and art auctions.

For Art’s Sake!
, from September to mid-November, comprises several performing and creative arts festivals. Including WOMAD, which takes place at Fort Canning Park over 3 days in August.

showcases modern art from South-East Asia, and the Singapore Music Festival.

The Singapore Film Festival, normally in April, continues to try and make cultural progress in a heavily censored society, which would prefer to give its attention to the Great Singapore Sale, the yearly shopping bonanza, in May/June.

Literary Notes

  ‘When in Singapore, feed at Raffles.’ It was a smart piece of marketing for the hotel by Rudyard Kipling, who came to Singapore after departing India in 1889. In fact, Kipling spoke of ‘a place called Raffles Hotel, where the food is as superb as the rooms’.

  Raffles has, for over one hundred years, been fertile writing ground for many authors, as well as Hermann Hesse, Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and James Michener – the Writer’s Bar was named in their honour. More than any other writers, Somerset Maugham sought inspiration during many visits to the island beginning in 1921. He wrote several short stories of Singaporean colonial life including ‘The Outstation’, ‘Yellow Streak’ and ‘The Casuarina Tree’ (1926). Society was horrified by his portrayal, in The Letter (1927), of the real-life murder of his lover by a rubber planter’s wife.

  More recently, Singapore’s success could be said to be the vision of the island state’s Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the grandson of a Hakka coolie from China. His memoirs, The Singapore Story (1998), have recently been revised From Third World to First – The Singapore Story (2000) depicts the events leading up to Singapore’s Independence, beginning with British colonial rule through Japanese occupation, Communist insurrection, riots, independence and the struggles that ensued.

  Defending the Lion City (2000) by Tim Huxley is the first major study on the Singapore Armed Forces and looks at its military policies, outlook, and strategy.

 Prominent contemporary Singaporean novelists include Hwee Hwee Tan, whose Foreign Bodies: A Novel (1999) depicts an authoritarian state in which three rootless friends are implicated in the shady dealings of an international soccer gambling ring. A quite different Singapore is portrayed in Catherine Lim’s The Bondmaid (1997), set in the 1950s. The novel depicts a Singapore far removed from the modern, developed, cosmopolitan society of today and much more entwined with its Chinese roots, beliefs and traditions.

Two popular new books are Got Singapore (2002), a combinations of stories and articles by journalist Richard Lim. He depicts his own perception of the changes that occurred with Singapore’s Independence and provides a personal and humorous testimony about life from the 1960s to the 1980s. Neil Humphreys offers a slightly different view in Notes from an Even Smaller Island (2002), dissecting the lifestyle and culture of Singapore from an ex-pat’s viewpoint.