Culture of Singapore

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The Singapore flag being flown by Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) helicopters during a National Day Parade

The culture of Singapore or Singaporean culture embodies the artistic, culinary, literary, musical, political and social elements that are representative of Singapore and Singaporeans. As the city-state lies at the crossroads of several major Asian cultures, its core culture consists of a combination of East Asian, Austronesian Malay, South Asian, and Eurasian influences. Contemporary Singapore was also influenced by European culture, mainly by the British, leading it to been dubbed as a country where "East meets West", the "Gateway to Asia" and a "Garden city".

A multitude of languages are also used in Singapore, reflecting its rich linguistic diversity. Two of the region's major languages, Malay, the language of the indigenous peoples, and Mandarin Chinese, are official languages of Singapore, along with Tamil, spoken by a minority of Indian speakers. English, the de facto main language, was also chosen as a lingua franca between Singaporeans of different backgrounds and races. Historically, Hokkien was widely used as the ethnic language among the different Chinese dialects as well as for the other races to communicate with the Chinese, although Cantonese, Hainanese and Teochew was also used to a lesser extent in Singapore. However, such dialects were gradually replaced by Mandarin, as it was seen by the government as a way to maintain a link to Chinese culture. As Singapore was under Japanese rule during World War II, some Singaporeans, especially of the older generations, are able to natively communicate in Japanese, although such numbers are dwindling.

As a result, Singaporeans are at least bilingual or sometimes even trilingual, as the government has also encouraged a language education policy that promotes a dual-language learning system. Learning a second language has been compulsory in primary schools since 1960 and secondary schools since 1966. In addition, the widespread use of Singlish in informal situations among Singaporeans, a variety of English spoken in Singapore which consists of many of the different languages described above, is commonly associated with the country and is considered a unique aspect of Singaporean culture.

Singapore's indigenous culture originates primarily from the Austronesian peoples that arrived from the island of Taiwan, settling between 1500 to 1000 BCE, and was then known as Temasek. The legend of a Srivijayan prince named Sang Nila Utama, who is believed to have founded the Kingdom of Singapore, has been considered the genesis of its modern history. Singapore 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, including the Ayutthaya Kingdom, Majapahit Empire, Joseon dynasty, the Tokugawa shogunate and the subsequent Japanese Empire, as well as the Ryukyu Kingdom. In the near-contemporary history, Singapore was also influenced by western countries. Repeated influence, absorption and selection in various ways have added to the development of a unique culture that are distinct from its neighbouring countries.


The history of Singapore dates back to at least the third century. At the time, it was a vassal state of various empires before being reestablished and renamed by Sang Nila Utama. The island was ruled by various kingdoms until 1819, when the British came to the island and set up a port and therefore a colony of the crown. During British rule, the port of Singapore grew and many migrants from around Asia moved to the colony. However, Singapore as well as most of East and Southeast Asia was invaded in the 1941 to 1942 and soon came under Japanese occupation during the World War II. After the war concluded, Singapore was self-governed before joining the Federation of Malaysia. However, differences between many government policies between the central government and the Singapore state government as well as ethnic tensions led to its expulsion, and Singapore became independent on 9 August 1965.

As of 2020, It has a diverse populace of over 5.5 million people which are made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians (plus other mixed groups) and Asians of different origins such as the Japanese and Koreans, as well as the Peranakan people, descendants of Chinese immigrants with either Malay or Indonesian heritage.

National character[edit]

Attitudes to government[edit]

In general, Singaporeans have faith in their political system. Singapore has been widely recognised to have very low levels of corruption and a high quality of life, and general support and trust for the government among independents and even some opposition politicians since independence remains uniquely relatively high by international standards.

The Labour Front, which was the predecessor of the largest opposition party today the Workers' Party (WP), was instrumental in leading Singapore towards self-governance and eventual independence. However, the relative longevity and support of the country's ruling party after 1965, the People's Action Party (PAP), can usually be explained by the leadership of its first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who led the country for 31 years. During his tenure, Singapore in just a few decades has transformed from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into Asia's most developed nation and one of the wealthiest, as a center of aviation, international banking, business, tourism and shipping. Subsequently, Singapore has also been dubbed as one of the Four Asian Tigers and continues to experience stable growth, with a higher GDP per capita far above the other Asian Tigers of Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as the Asia-Pacific in general, including Japan.

This has led many Singaporeans to look upon favourably on Lee and his legacy, which in turn tends to garner support for the party which he had founded even long after he had stepped down. When Lee died in 2015, the general elections held later that year gave the PAP almost 70% of the popular vote and 83 out of 89 parliamentary seats, a landslide.

Cultural policy[edit]

The country's first pre-tertiary arts school, School of the Arts, stands along the country's prominent Orchard Road. 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.


"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." Indeed, the Education in Singapore ensures that primary education is compulsory for all children of age 7 to 16. Parents have to apply for exemptions from the Ministry of Education in Singapore to excuse their children under this compulsory rule with valid reasonings.

Singapore's education system has been described as "world-leading". According to PISA, an influential worldwide study on educational systems, Singapore has the highest performance in international education and tops in global rankings. In January 2020, Singapore students made up half of the perfect scorers in the IB examinations worldwide.

Cram school culture[edit]

Singapore, like its neighbors in East Asia, is well known for its cram schools, and literally meaning "make-up class" or "catch-up class" or to learn more advanced classes. Most students from all races attend some sort of cram school, whether it be mathematics, computer skills, other foreign languages, or exam preparation. This is perpetuated by a meritocratic culture that measures merit through testing, with entrance into college, graduate school, and government service decided entirely on testing. This has also led to a remarkable respect for degrees for universities in the country, such as from the National University of Singapore (NUS) or Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which are widely regarded worldwide.

As such, universities such as NUS and NTU are also consistently ranked within the top 20 universities in the world and is considered to be the best universities in the Asia-Pacific by the QS World University rankings.

National defence[edit]

Singapore invokes a "whole-of-society national defence concept" called Total Defence. In 1967, conscription or National Service (NS) was officially adopted by the government for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), making it compulsory for all male citizens and permanent residents who have reached the age of 18 unless medically exempt. The Singapore government felt that it was necessary to build a substantial military force to defend itself in the face of hostile neighbouring countries, and at the time it only had about 1,000 regular soldiers. It also explained that countries such as Switzerland and South Korea also practices conscription for similar reasons.

Furthermore, its rationale was based upon various factors. Firstly, because Singapore has a population of only about 5.5 million, an army solely of regulars would not be practical to defend the country. Secondly, the idea of National Service is supposed to support racial harmony among the races living in the country, which mostly consists of Chinese, Malay and Indian communities. In general, conscription in Singapore continues to show strong support among Singaporeans.

Peace and progress[edit]

The concepts of democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality are enshrined as stars in the Singapore national flag. Furthermore, Singapore has been consistently ranked as one of the top 10 in the world and the highest in Asia on the Global Peace Index. Racial harmony

Racial harmony[edit]

Singapore is a secular 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.

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.

Ethnic areas[edit]

Although ethnic enclaves no longer exist in Singapore, the country has several distinct ethnic neighbourhoods due to historical influences, including Katong, Kampong Glam, Geylang Serai, Chinatown and Little India. These neighbourhoods are widely accessible by public transport, especially by the Mass Rapid Transit or MRT.

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

Katong was also 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 thalis – South Indian "buffets" that are vegetarian and served on the traditional banana leaves.

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.

Such former ethnic enclaves 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.

Cultural World Heritage Sites[edit]

Founded in 1859 by an agri-horticultural society, the Singapore Botanic Gardens played a pivotal role in the country rubber trade boom in the early twentieth century, when its first scientific director headed research into the plant's cultivation. By perfecting the technique of rubber extraction which are still in use today as well as promoting its economic value to planters in the region, rubber output expanded rapidly. At its height in the 1920s, Singapore cornered half of the global latex production. Today, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is one of three gardens, and the only tropical garden in the world, to be honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Early in the nation's independence, Singapore Botanic Gardens' expertise helped to transform the island into a tropical Garden City, an image and moniker for which the nation is widely known. In 1981, the hybrid climbing orchid, Vanda Miss Joaquim, was chosen as the nation's national flower. Singapore's "orchid diplomacy" honours visiting head of states, dignitaries and celebrities, by naming its finest hybrids after them; these are displayed at its popular "VIP Orchid Gardens".


Main article: Singaporean cuisine 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 favorite dish is the stingray barbecued and served on banana leaf and with sambal (chilli), and chili crab, one of Singapore's national dishes.

Hawker centres[edit]

Hawker centres have been considered the driving force behind the popularity of Singaporean cuisine. In 2016, two Singaporean food stands, both located in hawker centres, became the first street food vendors to be awarded a Michelin Star for excellence in eating. The two stalls are Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle (unrelated to Hong Kong) and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle.

In 2019, Singapore submitted its nomination to inscribe its hawker culture on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Inscription was announced on 16 December 2020, when UNESCO described Singapore's hawker centre as "‘community dining rooms’ where people from diverse backgrounds gather and share the experience of dining over breakfast, lunch and dinner."


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 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.


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 English in most aspects of grammar and spelling, though there are some differences in vocabulary as well as minor ones in spelling due to Americanisation; for example, the word 'swap' is commonly spelled 'swop', as is standard in The Straits Times.

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 Malay. This is in recognition of the Malay people as the indigenous community in Singapore even though a majority of Singaporeans today 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 plurality of South Asians in Singapore are ethnic Tamils from South India and Sri Lanka. However, North Indians are also prevalent in Singapore, especially the Sikhs who speak the Punjabi language. 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.


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 and more significantly in 1967 after independence. The "garden city" vision was envisioned to transform Singapore into a city with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment in order to make life more pleasant for Singaporeans.

It was also envisaged that the presence of ample greenery in an environment clean of litter would signify that Singapore was a well-organised city and country and hence a good destination for both tourists and foreign investments alike. 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 Bangkok, Tokyo and Taipei, 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.

Popular culture[edit]


Stand up[edit]

Singapore has a well established stand-up comedy scene with dozens of active rooms. The comedy rooms in Singapore are weekly, starting with Comedy Masala on Tuesdays, Talk Cock Comedy on Wednesdays and Comedy Hub Singapore 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. Kumar, a drag queen who has performed in Singapore for more than 17 years, is one of Singapore's leading stand-up comedians. Sitcoms

Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, which main character is played by Gurmit Singh, was a popular sitcom in Singapore which aired during the late 1990s and early 2000s, depicting a stereotypical middle-class Singaporean businessman with an exaggerated Singlish accent. Other sitcoms where Singlish is prevalent include Under One Roof and Police & Thief.


Drama and soap opera shows such as the The Little Nyonya on Channel 8 and Anak Metropolitan on Suria has been critically acclaimed, and has been broadcast internationally.


The music of Singapore has reflected the diverse influences that have shaped the country. Its various communities have their own distinct musical traditions: the Chinese people form the largest ethnic group in Singapore, with Malays, Indians, and smaller number of other peoples of different ethnicity as well as Eurasians. The different people with their traditional forms of music, the various modern musical styles, and the fusion of different forms account for the musical diversity in the country.

It has an urban musical scene, and is a center for pop, rock, punk and other genres in the region. The country has produced in the 1960s bands like The Crescendos and The Quests, right up to the new millennium with pop singers such as Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua, Kit Chan and JJ Lin who are widely popular in the Mandopop scene. Folk music of Singapore includes the ethnic music traditions of the Chinese, Malay and Tamil communities. Singapore also has a lively English music scene, notably from musicians such as the Gentle Bones, MICappella, Jasmine Sokko, and The Sam Willows.


Singaporean literature comprises a collection of literary works by Singaporeans. It is written chiefly in the country's four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil.

While Singaporean literary works may be considered as also belonging to the literature of their specific languages, the literature of Singapore is viewed as a distinct body of literature portraying various aspects of Singapore society and forms a significant part of the culture of Singapore. Literature in all four official languages has been translated and showcased in publications such as the literary journal Singa, that was published in the 1980s and 1990s with editors including Edwin Thumboo and Koh Buck Song, as well as in multilingual anthologies such as Rhythms: A Singaporean Millennial Anthology Of Poetry (2000), in which the poems were all translated three times each into the three languages. A number of Singaporean writers such as Tan Swie Hian and Kuo Pao Kun have contributed work in more than one language. However, such cross-linguistic fertilisation is becoming increasingly rare and it is now increasingly thought that Singapore has four sub-literatures instead of one.

Business Times (Singapore) has written that writers in Singapore can also be "highly experimental", and quoting the poet, Cyril Wong, literature in the country "doesn't necessarily mean writing that's on the page. It can be writing that is performed or even writing that is translated into video or images or photographs...including writings that are less tangible. Writings that are expressed through other mediums." Singaporean literature has even begun to make its mark on the international stage, with Sonny Liew's graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye winning three Eisner Awards and the Pingprisen for Best International Comic in 2017.


The communications media of Singapore include numerous television and radio networks as well as newspapers and magazines. For the most part, television networks were established based on capital investments by existing radio networks. Variety shows, serial dramas, and news constitute a large percentage of Singapore evening shows.


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; unauthorized public art and graffiti are subject to legal penalties under the Vandalism Act in Singapore. Many murals depict scenes common to Singapore's cultural heritage.

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.

Performing arts[edit]

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

Symbols, flags, and emblems[edit]

Singapore has a number of national symbols. The National Flag of Singapore has been used since 1959, when the country first gained self-governance. The symbolism behind the flag consists of its elements; the red symbolises "universal brotherhood and equality of man", and white symbolises "pervading and everlasting purity and virtue". The waxing crescent moon represents a "young nation on the ascendant". The five stars stand for the nation's ideals of "democracy, peace, progress, justice and equality".

The Merlion is the national personification of Singapore. Depicted as a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish, it is of a prominent symbolic nature to Singapore and Singaporeans in general. The Merlion's body symbolises Singapore's humble beginnings as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which comes from the same root as the word tasek or "lake" in Malay. Its head represents Singapore’s original name, Singapura, or "Lion City" in Malay. Merlion statues can be found in various locations throughout the country, and are usually facing east, as it is believed to be a direction that brings prosperity. Such an orientation was preserved when a statue was relocated in 2002 to the Merlion Park, located in the Marina Bay area.

The Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim, colloquially known as the Vanda Miss Joaquim, serves as a floral emblem and the national flower of the country. As a hybrid orchid, it was chosen to represent Singapore's uniqueness and hybrid culture.


Singaporeans participate in a wide variety of sports for recreation as well as for competition. Popular sports include football, basketball, cricket, rugby union, swimming, badminton, and cycling. Many public residential areas provide amenities like swimming pools, outdoor spaces (football, basketball courts, running tracks) and indoor sport centres, with facilities for badminton, squash, table tennis, gymnastics, indoor basketball and volleyball, among others.

Since Singapore is an island, Singaporeans also enjoy many water activities including sailing, kayaking and waterskiing. There is also a number of avid recreational scuba divers, a prominent diving spot being the southern island of Pulau Hantu, famous for its coral reefs.

Football is arguably the most popular spectator sport. Singapore has its own professional football league, known as the Singapore Premier League. Launched in 1996, it consists of 10 teams competing against one another. Each team has its own home stadium, which are mostly located in heartland towns. In 1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012, the Singapore national football team were champions in the AFF Championship, the premier football competition in Southeast Asia.

Singapore's athletes have performed well in regional and international competitions, especially in table tennis, badminton, sepak takraw, bowling, sailing, silat, swimming and water polo. To date, Singapore has won a total of one gold, two silver and two bronze Olympic medals. Singapore has also amassed a total of 41 gold, 59 silver and 117 bronze medals at the Asian Games.

At the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling was the gold medalist in the 100m butterfly, gaining Singapore's first-ever Olympic medal in swimming. His winning time of 50.39 seconds is a National, Southeast Asian, Asian record and broke Michael Phelps' record of 50.58 seconds at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.


Religion in Singapore is characterized by a diversity of religious beliefs and practices due to its diverse ethnic mix of peoples originating from various countries. A analysis by the Pew Research Center found Singapore to be the world's most religiously diverse nation.

The most followed religion in Singapore is Buddhism, with 33.2% of the resident population declaring themselves as adherents at the most recent census (2020). A large majority of Buddhists in Singapore are Chinese, with 42.29% of the ethnic Chinese population in Singapore declaring themselves as Buddhists at the most recent census (2020). However, there are also sizeable numbers of non-Chinese ethnic groups in Singapore that practise Buddhism, such as the Japanese, Sinhalese, Burmese and Thais.

As of 2015, 18.5% of Singaporeans had no religious affiliation. Non-religious Singaporeans are found in various ethnic groups and all walks of life in the diverse, multicultural city state. The Singapore non-religious community itself is very diverse, with many calling themselves atheists, agnostics, free thinkers, humanists, secularist, theists or sceptics. In addition, there some people who decline religious labels but still practice traditional rituals like ancestral worship.

The number of non-religious people in Singapore has risen gradually over the decades. Census reports show that those who said they have no religion rose from 13.0% in 1980 to 17.0% in 2010. In recent years, social gatherings of non-religious people are getting popular in Singapore. The Singapore Humanism Meetup is a major network of 400 over secular Humanists, freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics. In October 2010, the Humanist Society (Singapore) became the first humanist group to be gazetted as a society.

See also[edit]