A Brief Introduction to the Singapore Theatre Scene
By Teresa Fok
Singapore was founded by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew 56 years ago on 9 August 1965 when Singapore left Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign democratic nation.
Singapore is a very successful economic and finance hub where the city is blooming quickly in south-east Asia. The Singapore 2020 population is estimated at 5,850,342 people at mid year according to United Nations data compared to 1965’s 1,877,808 people. Singapore’s population is equivalent to 0.08% of the total world population. Singapore is only 716 square kilometers (276 square miles) island. 74.2% of Singapore’s population is Chinese with Malays accounting for 13.2%, the second largest but distantly placed community in the country. Indians also comprise part of the minority group and account for only 9.2% of the population.
‘The Performing Arts in Singapore has been established way before Singapore was founded in 1965 (Oon 2001) and it has a very rich and long history to it. At the time, the performing arts venues were not even planned, funded or built. This article aims to give the readers a brief introduction to the theatre art scene in Singapore.
Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA)
According to Oon (2001), SIFA first started as the Singapore Arts Festival in 1977, as part of a nationwide festival to celebrate local arts across the country’s diverse communities. SIFA 2020 was cancelled due to COVID-19 but SIFA 2019 was made as a delightful, colourful and artistic cultural event. Now in its 44nd year, it is still unknown whether it will be held this year because of the Government’s strict limitation of crowd gatherings.
Apart from the exciting and excellent performances, SIFA 2019 also provided invaluable opportunities for artists and audience members to mingle with each other where the festival also transformed into artistic conferences, talks and exchanges. Audiences were given the chance to speak directly to artists, creators and musicians at venues. SIFA 2019 took place at some very popular venues in the centre of the city.
Performing Arts in Singapore
In Singapore, we have many professional and amateur theatre companies, dance companies, opera companies and music organizations that offer a wide range of Asian and Western performances. Different Singapore theatres companies offer various distinct language performances in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.
Very often, when a Broadway, West End, Australian musical productions and pop-stars’ concerts tour to Asia, they always take a stop-over in Singapore. For example, Singin’ in the Rain, Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Chicago, Madonna, U2 and Lady Gaga etc. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra performs regularly at the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, a Durian-shaped building overlooking the Singapore River which was opened in 2002. Nearly all touring international companies will likely perform at the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, Marina Bay Sands Theatres, Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall. The Singapore Lyric Opera collaborates with renowned opera companies from around the world to stage various performances at the Esplanade. Moreover, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, the only professional Chinese orchestra in Singapore, has been producing new works for their classic interpretations. They perform every fortnight attracting a lot of the new and older generation of audience. (Chong 2011)
Here are a number of theatre companies staging very popular performances every year, including the Necessary Stage, the Singapore Repertory Theatre, Wild Rice, TheatreWorks, Drama Box, Nine Year Theatre and Singapore Dance Theatre etc.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the traditional Cantonese opera in Singapore. Cantonese opera could be seen on the street corners under the purposely-built tents throughout the city in the golden days (Chong 2011). However, in these modern days, these artists are very hard to find and be trained. During the ‘Ghost month’ (7th month of the Chinese year calendar), you will be able to see plenty of their performances especially in different heartlands in Singapore. The popularity of Cantonese opera is overwhelming.
Theatre Life!: A History of English-language Theatre in Singapore through The Straits Times (1958-2000) by Clarrisa Oon. Singapore Press Holdings, 2001.
The Theatre and the State in Singapore: Orthodoxy and resistance by Terence Chong. Routledge, 2011.