South East Asia Cultural Festival

Singapore Infopedia


The South East Asia Cultural Festival was held in Singapore from 8 to 15 August 1963. It featured a series of performances involving about 1,500 artistes from 11 Asian countries.1 The main events were held at the National Theatre, which has since been demolished, and the Victoria Theatre. The festival was a milestone in the history of Southeast Asia, as it marked the first time that so many countries in the region came together to participate in a single cultural event.2 

The Singapore government organised the South East Asia Cultural Festival to commemorate the official opening of the new National Theatre at Fort Canning Hill.3 On 8 August 1963, the festival and theatre were opened by then Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof bin Ishak.The theatre building, however, was only partially completed at the time, even though construction had been speeded up.5

Other than celebrating the opening of the National Theatre, another aim of the South East Asia Cultural Festival was to foster better understanding and closer relations among countries in Southeast Asia through cultural exchanges.The countries that took part in the mega event were Singapore, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Laos, Malaya, North Borneo (now Sabah), Pakistan, the Philippines, South Vietnam and Thailand.7

On 16 August, the day after the festival closed, delegation leaders from the participating countries met to discuss holding the festival on an annual basis. The meeting was held at Eusoff College within the University of Singapore campus. The delegates agreed in principle to organise the event regularly, rather than annually, to be held in various countries in the region.8 The delegates also agreed to consult their respective governments on where and when the next festival would be held. A sequel to the first festival, however, was never staged.9

Still, similar festivals focusing on Southeast Asian culture were organised after the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. Such events include the first ASEAN Film Festival, which was held in Manila, the Philippines in 1971;10 the 1972 ASEAN Art Exhibition;11 and the first ASEAN Festival of Performing Arts, which was held in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1981.12

The South East Asia Cultural Festival was a platform for participating countries to showcase their culture through songs, dances and dramas. The performances, which saw an attendance of more than 45,000, were staged primarily at the National Theatre and Victoria Theatre. Ticket prices ranged from $1 to $5. Three outdoor shows were also staged in the evenings at other locations for the public to enjoy for free. The three venues were the City Hall steps, Hong Lim Green and Bukit Timah Community Centre. In addition, the festival was fully televised. It was one of the first major events broadcast over the television after the introduction of television services in Singapore in February 1963.13

A highlight of the festival was the performance by the world-famous Royal Ballet Troupe from Cambodia. Among the performers were Princess Norodom Bopha Devi and Princess Norodom Botum Bopha, daughters of Cambodia’s then head of state, Prince Sihanouk. Before this, only royalty, heads of state and their guests were given the privilege to attend the troupe’s performances.14 The other participating countries also sent their top performers, such as the Baranguay dance troupe from the Philippines, the Kalakshetra dance company from India, and top movie stars from Vietnam and Hong Kong. Singapore’s contribution to the festival included performances by the Festival Symphony Orchestra and Choir conducted by Paul Abisheganaden.15

As part of the festival, an exhibition was held from 7 to 15 August to showcase paintings, sculptures, photographs, musical instruments, costumes, art and craft, and books brought in by the participating countries. The exhibition was held at two venues: Victoria Memorial Hall and Singapore Polytechnic.16

Most of the visiting delegates were housed in the Festival Village, which comprised hostels at the University of Singapore, namely, Raffles Hall and Eusoff College, and the hostel at Dunearn Road.17 The Festival Village offered a wide range of amenities, including transport service, a post office, a medical post, a bank branch, a travel agency and shops.18

Besides its historic significance as being the first of its kind in Asia, the South East Asia Cultural Festival had political significance as well. Specifically, most of the countries that participated in the event were former or soon-to-be-former colonies, including Singapore. The festival was thus a celebration of the participating countries’ cultural revival, following years of colonial rule.19

Singapore was a self-governing state within the British Empire when it started planning for the festival. It declared independence from British rule on 31 August 1963, before merging with Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo to form the Federation of Malaysia on 16 September that year.20

Valerie Chew

1. “A Historic Event, Milestone of an Era Says Rajaratnam,” Straits Times, 8 August 1963, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Theatre Opening Heralds New Era in S.-E. Asia,” Straits Times, 8 August 1963, 9. (From NewspaperSG); South-East Asia Cultural Festival: [Souvenir Programme] (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1963) (Call no. RCLOS 793.3195 SOU)
3. “Theatre Opening Heralds.”
4. “National Unity and Closer Understanding – Theme of Festival,” Straits Times, 8 August 1963, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
5. State of Singapore Annual Report 1963 (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1965), 265. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SSAR-[HYT]); “Problems Dogged the Theatre from the Start,” Straits Times, 8 January 1984, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
6. . “Theatre Opening Heralds.”
7. Jackie Sam, “Dazzling Finale to South-East Asian Festival,” Straits Times, 16 August 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Venue of Next Festival,” Straits Times, 17 August 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Lee Khoon Choy, “Struggle for Power,” in On the Beat to the Hustings: An Autobiography (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 71–72. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 LEE); Patricia Goh, “Yearning for More Regional Festivals,” Business Times, 2 September 1980, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Boost for ASEAN Mass Media,” Singapore Herald, 29 October 1970, 6; “Manila to Host an ASEAN Seminar on Mass Media,” Straits Times, 20 May 1971, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Violet Oon, “Big Plans for ASEAN Art,” New Nation, 15 April 1972, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Khng Eu Meng, “Asean Dances for Festival,” New Nation, 23 January 1981, 12–13. (From NewspaperSG)
13. South-East Asia Cultural Festival”; “‘Greatest Show in the East’ Opens in Singapore Today,” Straits Times, 8 August 1963, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “National Unity and Closer Understanding.”
15. Sam, “Dazzling Finale to South-East Asian Festival”; “National Unity and Closer Understanding”; “The Theatre,” Straits Times, 31 May 1964, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Photos and Art from 11 Asian Lands on Display,” Straits Times, 8 August 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “400 for First SE-Asia Cultural Festival,” Straits Times, 20 June 1963, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Judith Yong, “600 Find All laid On at Festival Village,” Straits Times, 15 August 1963, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “National Unity and Closer Understanding.”
20. “Towards a National Culture,” Singapore Free Press, 11 October 1961, 6; “Lee: We Are free!Straits Times, 1 September 1963, 1; “Up Goes the Flag,” Straits Times, 17 September 1963, 1; Felix Abisheganadan, “Hail Malaysia!Straits Times, 16 September 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at April 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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