Culture of Singapore

The culture of Singapore has changed greatly over the millennia. Its contemporary modern culture consists of a combination of Asian and European cultures, mainly by Malay, South Asian, East Asian and Eurasian influences. Singapore has been dubbed as a country where "East meets West", "Gateway to Asia" and a "Garden city".[1]

Centre square of Raffles Place
Old Supreme Court of Singapore


Singapore's indigenous culture originates primarily from the Austronesian people that arrived from the island of Taiwan, settling between 1500 to 1000 BCE. It was then influenced during the Middle Ages primarily by multiple Chinese dynasties such as the Ming and Qing, as well as by other Asian countries such as the Majapahit Empire, Tokugawa shogunate, and the Ryukyu Kingdom. In the near-contemporary history after the British arrived, Singapore was also influenced by western countries. Repeated influence, absorption and selection in various ways have added to the development of a distinct and unique culture.

It has a diverse populace of over 5.47 million people[2] which is made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians (plus other mixed groups) and Asians of different origins such as the Peranakan people, descendants of Chinese immigrants with Malay or Indonesian heritage.[3]

National character


The Ministry of Education claims that "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."[4] 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 to excuse their children with valid reasons.

Racial harmony

Singapore is a secular immigrant country. The main religions in Singapore are Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism. Respect for different religions and personal beliefs is heavily emphasised by the government.[5]

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 ethnic 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 ranked Singapore 4 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 153rd out of 180 countries in their Press Freedom Index for 2015.[6]

Ethnic areas

Singapore has several distinct ethnic neighbourhoods, including Katong, Kampong Glam, Geylang Serai, Chinatown and Little India.

Both Geylang Serai and Kampong Glam are the focal points of the Malays in Singapore.[7] A Malay Heritage Centre in Kampung Glam showcases the history and cultural exposure of the Malays,[8] who are indigenous to the land.[9] Both areas feature an annual month long Hari Raya Bazaar, during the fasting month of Ramadan. This is patronised by Malays and also other races.[10]

Katong is home of the Peranakans, and the neighbourhood's identity is shaped by its unique architecture – colourful two-storey shophouses, colonial bungalows, intricate motifs and ceramic tiles. It was designated as a national heritage conservation area by the Singapore Government in 1993.

Little India is known and patronised by all races within the population for its thalisSouth Indian "buffets" that are vegetarian and served on the traditional banana leaves. These neighbourhoods are accessible by public transport, especially by the 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.

Ethnic enclaves from the British colonial era, akin to those seen in major cities in many Western countries, are largely non-existent. The remnant "enclaves" such as Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam are now mainly business hubs for their respective ethnic groups and preserved for historic and cultural reasons. The Housing Development Board enforces the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) to "preserve Singapore’s multi-cultural identity and promote racial integration and harmony" and sets proportions for each ethnic group in each housing estate.[11]


Georgette Chen, Sweet Rambutans, 1965, Oil on canvas, National Gallery Singapore

From its precolonial history to present, the history of Singaporean art may include artistic traditions of the Malay Archipelago, the diverse visual practices of itinerant artists and migrants from China, the Indian subcontinent, and Europe arriving in the colonial period, such as sculpture, Portraiture, landscapes, and natural history drawings, as well as Chinese ink painting, Islamic calligraphy, Nanyang Style paintings, social realist art, abstract art, photography, and printmaking.[12] It also includes the contemporary art practices of today, such as performance art, conceptual art, installation art, video art, sound art, and new media art. Due to Singapore and Malaysia's long shared history as British Malaya, there are many overlaps in the art histories of both countries.[13]

The emergence of modern art in Singapore is often tied to the rise of art associations, art schools, and exhibitions in the 20th century, though this has since been expanded to include earlier forms of visual representation, such as from Singapore's early colonial period.[14] Some of the most well-known works are of the migrant Chinese artists who painted in the Nanyang Style from the 1950s to 60s, such as Georgette Chen. The Nanyang artists characteristically depicted Southeast Asian subject matter such as tropical fruit, kampung scenes, and batik fabric while drawing upon a synthesis of Western watercolor and oil painting techniques with Chinese ink traditions.[15][12][16][17] The name of the movement draws from "Nanyang" (Chinese: 南洋; pinyin: nán yáng; lit. 'Southern Ocean'), a sinocentric Chinese term used to refer to Southeast Asia from the geographical perspective of China.[18][19][20]

Contemporary art in Singapore tends to examine themes of "hyper-modernity and the built environment; alienation and changing social mores; post-colonial identities and multiculturalism."[21] Across these tendencies, "the exploration of performance and the performative body" is a common running thread.[21] Singapore carries a notable history of performance art, with the state having enacted a no-funding rule for the art form for a decade from 1994 to 2003, following a controversial performance artwork at the 5th Passage art space in Singapore.[22][23] Prominent Singaporean contemporary artists include, for example, Tang Da Wu, Amanda Heng, Lee Wen, Ho Tzu Nyen, and Shubigi Rao.

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.[24]

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. There has been much public rhetoric about liberalisation 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.[25]


In Singapore's hawker centres, for example, traditionally Malay hawker stalls also sell Chinese and Tamil food. Chinese stalls may introduce Malay ingredients, cooking techniques or entire dishes into their range of catering.

Singaporeans also enjoy a wide variety of seafood including crabs, clams, squid, and oysters. One favourite dish is the stingray barbecued and served on banana leaf and with sambal (chilli), and chili crab.


Deepavali decorations in Singapore.

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), Hindu Diwali (known locally by its Tamil name Deepavali) and Christmas, Good Friday (By Christians), and New Year's Day are also public holidays.

On 9 August, Singapore celebrates the anniversary of its independence with a series of events, including the National Day Parade which is the main ceremony. The first National Day Parade, which was held in 1966, was held at the Padang in the city centre.

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.


Sign board with details in Singapore's four main languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil

Many Singaporeans are bilingual. Most speak Singaporean English and another language, most commonly Mandarin, Malay, Tamil or Singapore Colloquial English (Singlish). Singapore Standard English is virtually the same as British, Malaysian, and Indian Standard English in most aspects of grammar and spelling, though there are some differences in vocabulary as well as minor ones in spelling; for example, the word 'swap' is commonly spelled 'swop', as is standard in The Straits Times.[26]

All Singaporeans study English as their first language in schools, 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. There are four main languages in usage in Singapore. 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, though dialects such as Hokkien and Cantonese are still prevalent in the older generation of Chinese.


Singapore has a diverse music culture that ranges from rock and pop to folk and classical.

Creative writing

Singaporean literature, also called "SingLit", is influenced by the multiracial nature of the country. Its development has been hampered by the strong focus on maths and science in Singaporean schools, and a preference for foreign works, which generally sell more. Some grants are provided by the government, although they are dependent on the content of the works. Notable authors include Cyril Wong, Topaz Winters, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Jeremy Tiang,[27] and Sonny Liew.[28]



Murals in Singapore have been encouraged by the government in recent years as part of Singapore's efforts to recast itself as a "Renaissance City" and global arts city. These public art works require permission from the government; unauthorised public art and graffiti are subject to legal penalties under the Vandalism Act in Singapore.[29] Many murals depict scenes common to Singapore's cultural heritage.[30]

In 2013, Singapore launched the PubliCity program, which designated two blank walls along the Rail Corridor for urban art. The Rail Corridor, once a 24 kilometres (15 mi) railway line between Singapore and Malaysia, had closed in 2011. Artwork along the walls of the Rail Corridor is curated by RSCLS, a local art collective. In 2014, the National Arts Council set up the Public Art Trust which provided both a public spaces program in which artists' proposals and willing site owners are matched up, as well as six walls at Goodman Arts Centre, Aliwal Arts Centre, and *Scape youth centre for practice spaces.[29]


The Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay

Gardens and gardening have a special place in Singaporean culture as well as in politics. Historically this is all officially attributed to Lee Kuan Yew who apparently spearheaded this philosophy in 1963.[31] 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.

Performing arts

Singapore is also known as a cultural centre for arts and culture, including theatre and music.

Stand-up comedy

Singapore has a growing comedy scene with three active rooms. The three comedy rooms in Singapore are weekly, starting with Comedy Masala[32] on Tuesdays, Talk Cock Comedy[33] on Wednesdays and Comedy Hub Singapore[34] on Mondays and Thursdays. Every month, The Comedy Club Asia features leading international comics such as Shazia Mirza and Imran Yusuf. Comedy Masala also brings in international comedians, such as Paul Ogata.[35] Kumar, a drag queen who has performed in Singapore for more than 17 years, is one of Singapore's leading stand-up comedians.[36]


Religion in Singapore is characterised by a diversity of religious beliefs and practices due to its diverse ethnic mix of peoples originating from various countries.

UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Sites

The Singapore Botanic Gardens is one of three gardens, and the only tropical garden, to be honoured as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

A hawker centre in Lavender, Singapore

Hawker culture in Singapore was added to the UNESCO list in December 2020, unanimously accepted by a 24-member international committee on 16 December 2020.[37]

National Geographic described Singapore's hawker culture as an endangered food tradition due to a halt in construction of hawker centres since Singapore's rapid development in the seventies and eighties, and an increase in difficulty to get young people into the hawker profession.[38]

See also


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  2. "SingStat". Archived from the original on 1 September 2015. Retrieved 3 September 2015.
  3. "Who Are The Peranakans and What Are Their Traditions?". 26 December 2017.
  4. "Ministry of Education". Archived from the original on 25 March 2013.
  5. PM Lee on racial and religious issues (National Day Rally 2009) / Our News / Singapore United – Community Engagement Programme Portal Archived 11 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine. (16 August 2009). Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  6. "Classement mondial de la liberté de la presse 2020 | Reporters sans frontières". Reports Without Borders.
  7. Lotus Relocation (24 May 2016). "A Little Red Dot – Singapore: Our Heritage". Archived from the original on 7 January 2018. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  8. "About Malay Heritage Centre". Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  9. "Malays – Minority Rights Group". Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  10. "Hari Raya bazaar 'a celebration of Singapore's diversity'". Today. Singapore. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  11. "Ethnic Integration Policy and SPR Quota". Housing Development Board. 1 October 2015.
  12. Susanto, Melinda (2015). "Tropical Tapestry". Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore Since the 19th Century. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore. pp. 30–41. ISBN 9789811405570.
  13. "T.K. Sabapathy". Esplanade Offstage. 12 October 2016. Archived from the original on 27 February 2021. Retrieved 27 February 2021.
  14. Low, Sze Wee, ed. (2015). "Some Introductory Remarks". Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore since the 19th Century. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore. pp. 8–29. ISBN 9789810973520.
  15. Balagopal, Roberta; Yeo, Alicia (31 August 2009). "The Nanyang Style". National Library Board. Archived from the original (article) on 10 March 2011. Retrieved 6 August 2010.
  16. "T.K. Sabapathy". Esplanade Offstage. 12 October 2016. Archived from the original on 27 February 2021. Retrieved 27 February 2021.
  17. Sabapathy, T.K. (2010). Road to Nowhere: The Quick Rise and the Long Fall of Art History in Singapore. Singapore: The Art Gallery, National Institute of Education. ISBN 978-9810852641.
  18. Balagopal, Roberta; Yeo, Alicia (31 August 2009). "The Nanyang Style". National Library Board. Archived from the original (article) on 10 March 2011. Retrieved 6 August 2010.
  19. Ting Szu Kiong (2005). "Nanyang Art". Central Singapore Community Development Council. Archived from the original (article) on 27 December 2009. Retrieved 6 August 2010.
  20. Yeo, Alicia (April 2006). "Singapore Art, Nanyang Style" (PDF). biblioasia. Singapore: National Library Board. pp. 4–11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 February 2012. Retrieved 6 August 2010.
  21. Teh, David (2017). "Insular Visions: notes on video art in Singapore". The Japan Foundation Asia Center Art Studies. 3 via
  22. Lee, Weng Choy (1996). "Chronology of a Controversy". In Krishnan, S.K. Sanjay; Lee, Weng Choy; Perera, Leon; Yap, Jimmy (eds.). Looking at Culture. Singapore: Artres Design & Communications. ISBN 9810067143. Archived from the original on 8 June 2020.
  23. Lingham, Susie (November 2011). "Art and Censorship in Singapore: Catch 22?". ArtAsiaPacific (76). Archived from the original on 15 September 2014. Retrieved 8 June 2020.
  24. Jake Lloyd Smith, 24 July 2004. Singapore filmmaker takes Cut at censors, Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 25 January 2006
  25. Annex D: "Definition of the Term Artistic" in Report of the Censorship Review Committee 1992 Archived 13 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  26. "Singapore, Indonesia on track to implement automatic tax data swop". Retrieved 3 September 2015.
  27. Tan, Megan (11 August 2018). "A new chapter for SingLit". The Business Times. Retrieved 4 April 2021.
  28. Ho, Olivia (22 July 2017). "Graphic novelist Sonny Liew is first Singaporean to win Eisner award, bagging 3 comics Oscars". The Straits Times. Retrieved 4 April 2021.
  29. Chang, T. C. (1 March 2020). "Wall dressed up: Graffiti and street art in Singapore". City, Culture and Society. 20: 100329. doi:10.1016/j.ccs.2019.100329. ISSN 1877-9166.
  30. "Photographing heritage murals in Singapore". Overton County News. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  31. "Mr Lee Kuan Yew – committed in building a garden city". Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  32. Comedy Masala Singapore | Singapore's BEST Weekly Stand Up Comedy Night! — Comedy Masala Singapore | Singapore's BEST Weekly Stand Up Comedy Night!. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  33. The Comedy Club. Retrieved 21 July 2013.
  34. "". Archived from the original on 8 April 2018. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  35. Chee, Frankie. "Stand-up is back", The Straits Times, 12 July 2009.
  36. "Meet Singapore's Leading Comic: A Drag Queen Named Kumar", "ABC News" 14 February 2008
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