Singapore International Festival of Arts

Singapore Infopedia


The Singapore International Festival of Arts is an annual highlight of Singapore’s cultural calendar. It began as the Singapore Festival of Arts in 1977 and was a biennial event up till 1999. Started at a time when Singapore was often called a “cultural desert”, the festival has contributed greatly to the nation’s arts and cultural development. However in 2012, faced with dwindling ticket sales amid a vibrant arts scene, the government initiated a review of the 35-year-old festival. As a result of the review, an independent company, Arts Festival Limited, was set up by the National Arts Council to take over the organising of the festival. Now called Arts House Limited, the company has revamped the festival and its inaugural edition in 2014 was a huge success.

The first arts festival in Singapore was held in April 1959. Called the Singapore Festival of Arts, it was funded by the Singapore Arts Council, an association that consisted of performing and visual arts societies. Various cultural organisations, schools and consulates participated in the festival. The eight-day programme featured mainly dance and musical performances, but there were also visual art exhibitions and film shows. Despite hopes that it would become an annual event, the festival did not see a second season.1

The next significant arts festival was the Southeast Asia Cultural Festival, which took place in August 1963. It was organised by the Ministry of Culture to mark the opening of the National Theatre. A total of 11 Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, put up a series of song and dance performances during the eight-day festival. These early festivals, which were efforts at nation-building through the celebration of multicultural diversity, helped to lay the ground for the national arts festival of today.2

Inception: 1970s
Born during a period when Singapore was seen as a “cultural desert”, the Singapore International Festival of Arts owes its beginnings to the Young Musicians’ Society, the extra-curricular arm of the Ministry of Education, and multinational oil company Mobil. The society had originally approached Mobil to sponsor a concert in 1975. Mobil was very supportive and even suggested organising an arts festival instead. In 1976, a press conference was held to launch the Singapore Festival of Arts, as the festival was known then. Amateur and part-time performing groups were invited to enter the competition to select those who would be participating in the festival. This first arts festival – featuring ballet, choral and instrumental performances as well as Chinese, Malay and Indian music and dance items – was held at the Victoria Theatre over seven days in April 1977.3

The 1978 festival was organised by the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Education and Radio and Television Singapura, again with the sponsorship of Mobil. However this time, it was held in December. Besides the winners of the competition, established groups such as the National Dance Company and the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society also put up performances. In addition, the festival included visual arts for the first time, with an exhibition at the National Museum featuring contemporary works by artists from Singapore and the region.4

The Singapore Festival of Arts was next held in 1980, after which it became a biennial event.5  

In the 1980s, the Singapore Festival of Arts sought to extend its reach to the people, with the aim of exposing Singaporeans to the world through art in its various forms.6 The festival continued to be organised by the Ministry of Culture (which became the Ministry of Community Development in 1986), but it grew in scale and duration with the increased budgets made possible by new corporate sponsors such as the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board), Singapore Airlines and Singapore Turf Club. For the 1978, 1979 and 1980 editions, Mobil had been the sole sponsor.7

The appointment of artistic directors, starting from 1982, also enhanced the programming and positioning of the festival. The competition component ceased being part of the festival after 1980. Under stronger artistic direction, programmes were curated to ensure a diverse range of events to suit people of different ages and tastes, in line with the government’s view of the arts as a tool for nation-building and cultural development.8

During this period, local groups were invited or commissioned to stage works. Some noteworthy productions staged include the plays Kopi Tiam and No Parking on Odd Days by Kuo Pao Kun (1986), the Beauty World musical by TheatreWorks (1988), and the dance work Nu Wa: Mender of Heavens by Goh Lay Kuan (1988). International directors and choreographers were also brought in to work with local performers.9

At the same time, the festival expanded to include other art forms. Theatre programmes were added in 1980, while film and literature were introduced through Festival Film Week in 1982 and Writers’ Week (now known as Singapore Writers Festival) in 1986. To reach out to more people, a festival fringe programme was introduced in 1984, with the addition of a mini-fringe in 1988 that was targeted specifically at those aged 15 years and below.10 

Two other key developments took place in 1984. That year, a computerised ticketing system was introduced, and the festival was moved from December to June, where it remained in Singapore’s cultural calendar for the next 28 years.11

The festival continued to grow in strength and diversity in the 1990s, especially after 1992, when it came under the newly formed National Arts Council. Festival audiences saw not only more internationally acclaimed acts, but also an increasing number of local commissions.12

Notable works commissioned during this period include: Kampong Amber, written by Catherine Lim with music and lyrics by Dick Lee (1994); Singapore Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of Ho Minfong’s Sing to the Dawn (1996); and Joyce Koh’s Tai, performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and world-acclaimed pianist Seow Yit Kin (1998).13

New strands of the festival were also introduced, including the Music Forum Series (for local music) in 1990, the Homecoming Series (featuring successful Singaporean artists based overseas) in 1992, and the Late Night Series (for local experimental works) in 1994.14

In 1993, a new festival aimed at promoting traditional and contemporary Asian performing arts was launched to complement the Singapore Festival of Arts. Called the Festival of Asian Performing Arts (FAPA), it alternated with the Singapore Festival of Arts. Seminal works presented at the FAPA include TheatreWorks’s reworking of Kuo’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995), Singapore’s first Western opera Bunga Mawar (1997) and Action Theatre’s Chang & Eng – The Musical (1997).15

However, the FAPA saw poor attendances at its first two editions in 1993 and 1995. The third edition in 1997 became its last. In 1999, the FAPA and the Singapore Festival of Arts were merged to become a single, annual festival called the Singapore Arts Festival. It was re-launched with a new festival logo created by Batey Ads and a television commercial directed by filmmaker Eric Khoo. The Festival Village, which had been introduced at the FAPA in 1997 and carried over to the 1998 Singapore Festival of Arts, was retained in the merged festival as a valuable space where visitors could attend shows and interact with artists in a casual environment.16

In the latter half of the 1990s, the marketing of the festival became more sophisticated. In 1996, the festival gained an online presence, and partnerships were formed with government agencies, hotels, shopping centres and schools with the aim of reaching out to an even wider audience, both local and foreign. Online ticketing was introduced two years later.17

From the start of the 2000s, the festival took on a more global outlook by providing cutting-edge, contemporary intercultural and interdisciplinary works. It also commissioned new works, brokered relationships between local and international companies, and developed partnerships with other international festivals.18

Local audiences were exposed to a variety of performances by internationally renowned artists such as Tan Dun, Michael Nyman, Richard Foreman, Akram Khan and Ea Sola. Avant-garde programming was balanced with blockbusters from The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Royal Ballet, and the National Theatre Company of China, among others.19

The multitude of works commissioned or co-commissioned during this period include Hot Water, the first international work ever commissioned by the festival. Directed by acclaimed theatre director Robert Wilson, it was commissioned together with Musikfest Bremen and premiered in 2000. Many of the commissions were also collaborations with foreign partners. For instance: Teater Ekamatra presented Causeway (2002) with The Actors Studio (Malaysia); Singapore Dance Theatre worked with H.Art Chaos (Japan) on Le Festin d’Immortalité (2003); Desdemona (2000) by TheatreWorks was co-commissioned with the Adelaide Festival; and 12 SMS Across the Mountains (2004) was a joint work by The ARTS FISSION Company and Dance Theatre CcadoO (Korea) and co-produced with the Seoul International Dance Festival.20

As the festival sought to strengthen its global standing, various international meetings and conferences were held in conjunction with the festival, including the inaugural General Meeting of the Association of Asian Performing Arts Festivals in 2004 and the forum, Critically Speaking: Asia & Europe Contemporary Performing Arts Colloquium, in 2005.21

To further support local arts talents, the festival introduced Forward Moves, a dance platform for young choreographers, in 2006. The following year, Full Frontal and Festival Fantasia were launched to showcase emerging theatre directors and young classical music soloists respectively. The latter two were part of a series of initiatives to mark the festival’s 30th anniversary. Other key anniversary projects include the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Edinburgh International Festival to promote mutual touring and collaborations, and the launch of a book titled Making the Invisible Visible to capture the festival’s 30-year history.22

In 2010, a new outreach programme called commune was introduced to deepen and sustain the public’s engagement with the festival all year round.23 That year also marked the start of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review (ACSR) initiated by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (whose portfolios have since been split and placed under the newly formed Ministry of Communications and Information and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth) to help formulate strategies for Singapore’s arts and cultural development up to 2025.24 Following the release of the review committee’s report in 2012, the NAC announced that the Singapore Arts Festival would take a one-year hiatus to rethink its future direction, given the dwindling attendances in recent years.25

Festival review and later developments

The NAC formed a 17-member review committee in June 2012 to relook the role of the Singapore Arts Festival and make recommendations on the festival’s programming direction and operation model. Consisting of prominent members of the arts community and representatives from key public agencies, the committee also conducted feedback sessions with arts practitioners and members of the public during its six-month review.26 In January 2013, the committee’s recommendations were released. The most significant of these was the establishment of an independent festival company by the NAC to organise the annual event.27 This led to the setting up of Arts Festival Limited a few months later. The new company would receive a budget allocation from the NAC but have autonomy over the direction of the festival. Lee Chor Lin, then director of the National Museum, was appointed as its chief executive officer, while Ong Keng Sen, a Cultural Medallion recipient and artistic director of TheatreWorks, was signed on as festival director. Ong would serve in this role for four editions of the festival from 2014 to 2017.28 In 2014, Arts Festival Limited and The Old Parliament House Limited merged to form Arts House Limited.29

Renamed the Singapore International Festival of Arts, the festival returned in 2014 with a clear shift in direction. Instead of striving to be a people’s festival with something for everyone, it offered a much smaller selection of only 12 productions, with no concurrent fringe events. Catering to a more discerning arts crowd, with families no longer an explicit target group, the revamped festival was moved to August/September from the traditional May/June school holiday period. It was also extended to six weeks, up from the typical duration of three weeks to a month. A new feature introduced was a pre-festival programme, The O.P.E.N., which included talks, films, exhibitions and performances held one month ahead of the main festival. The re-launched festival closed on a high note, as it won acclaim among arts lovers for the high standard of its avant-garde programmes.

Festival directors
1982, 1984: Anthony Steele
1986, 1988: Robert Liew
1990: Tisa Ho (Ng)
1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999: Liew Chin Choy
2000–2009: Goh Ching Lee
2009–2012: Low Kee Hong
2014–2017: Ong Keng Sen
2018– : Gaurav Kripalani32


Kaylene Tan & Valerie Chew

1. Venka Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible: Three Decades of the Singapore Arts Festival (Singapore: National Arts Council, 2007), 31–32. (Call no. RSING 791.095957 PUR); “Festival of Arts Begins Tonight,” Straits Times, 1 April 1959, 7; “At Least 30,000 Saw the Festival Shows,” Straits Times, 9 April 1959, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 32–34; “A Historic event, Milestone of an Era Says Rajaratnam,” Straits Times, 8 August 1963, 9; “11-Nation Grand Finale,” Straits Times, 15 August 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 37; Phan Min Yi, “30 Years and Counting,” Singapore Arts Festival, (2007): 56. (Call no. RSING 791.095957 SAF); “Arts Festival in April to Evolve Local Art-Form,” Straits Times, 13 October 1976, 11; “S'pore Arts Festival 77,” Straits Times, 22 February 1977, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 37–39; “Arts festival to Be Made Event of World Standing,” Straits Times, 10 June 1978, 7; “This Year's Promises to Be Better and More Entertaining,” Straits Times, 10 June 1978, 7; “Festival of Arts Opens Tonight at the Vic,” Straits Times, 11 December 1978, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 39.
6. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 40–41, 46; National Arts Council, “Annex C: Celebrating 35 Years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” press release, 14 March 2012, 8–9.
7. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 41, 43, 44, 45; “Festival of Arts on Grand Scale,” Straits Times, 12 February 1982, 40; Nancy Koh, “A Word from the Sponsors...,” Straits Times, 27 June 1986, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 40–41, 46.
9. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 40, 42, 45; National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 8–9.
10. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 41–45; National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 8–9.
11. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 43.
12. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 50–51, 61–62.
13. National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 10–11.
14. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 63; National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 9–10.
15. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 63–66.
16. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 66.
17. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 66; National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 10–11.
18. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 74–76, 80–81.
19. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 77, 85; National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 12.
20. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 81–82; National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 12.
21. Purushothaman, Making the Invisible Visible, 77, 80.
22. National Arts Council, Singapore Arts Festival 2007: Celebrating 30 years as Singapore’s Premier Arts Event,” Press release, 5 December 2016.
23. National Arts Council, “Singapore Arts Festival 2010 – Making Connections,” Press release, 5 December 2016.
24. Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, “MICA Announces the Formation of the ACSR Steering Committee,” Press release, 2 September 2010.  
25. Helmi Yusof, “Singapore Arts Festival to Go Independent,” Business Times, 12 January 2013, 5. (From NewspaperSG); National Arts Council, “Singapore Arts Festival 2012 Engages Communities and Touches Lives,” Press release, 5 December 2016.
26. National Arts Council, “17 Industry Professionals Appointed for Arts Festival Review,” Press release, 5 December 2016.
27. National Arts Council, “Singapore Arts Festival Review Committee Unveils Key Recommendations for 2014 and Beyond,” 5 December 2016.
28. Corrie Tan, “Theatre Practitioner to Lead Arts Festival,” Straits Times, 3 May 2013, 2–3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Akshita Nanda, “Arts Festival Goes to The Arts House,” Straits Times, 26 March 2014; National Arts Council, “National Arts Council Establishes New Company to Lead the Singapore Arts Festival,” Press release, 5 December 2016.
29. Mayo Martin, “Arts Festival Finds New Home,” Today, 14 March 2014, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Clarissa Oon, “Big Names to Take Stage at Revamped Arts Festival,” Straits Times, 11 November 2013, 3; Corrie Tan and Lisabel Ting, “Open Sesame,” Straits Times, 10 June 2014, 4; Corrie Tan, “Cutting-Edge Festival,” Straits Times, 23 September 2014, 4–5. (From NewspaperSG); “About the Singapore International Festival of Arts,” Arts House Limited, n.d.
31. Tan, “Theatre Practitioner to Lead Arts Festival”; National Arts Council, “Celebrating 35 years of the Singapore Arts Festival,” 8–14.
32. Nabilah Said and Akshita Nanda, “Singapore Repertory Theatre's Gaurav Kripalani to Helm Singapore International Festival of the Arts,” Straits Times, 24 March 2017, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we can 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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