Despite rapid industrialisation, the majority of Singaporeans celebrate the major festivals associated with their respective religions. The variety of religions found in Singapore is a direct reflection of the diversity of races living there. The Chinese are predominantly followers of Buddhism and Shenism (deity worship), though some are Christians. Malays are overwhelmingly Muslims and most of Singapore’s Indians are Hindus; there is, however, a sizeable proportion of Muslims and Sikhs amongst the Indian population. The four official languages of Singapore are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. English is widespread and is the language which unites the various ethnic groups.
Children are taught in English at school but also learn their mother tongue to make sure they don’t lose contact with their traditions. The only communication problem English-speakers are likely to have in Singapore is with older Singaporeans who did not learn English at school – though trying to understand the unique patois called Singlish- which uses a clipped form of English mixed with Malay and Hokkien words – can be taxing. The use of Malay is mostly restricted to the Malay community. Chinese dialects, such as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hakka, are still widely spoken, especially among the older Chinese, but the government’s long-standing campaign to promote Mandarin, the main non-dialectal Chinese language, has been very successful and increasing numbers of Chinese now speak Mandarin at home. Tamil is the main Indian language, though Malayalam and Hindi are also spoken.
Older Singaporeans are keen on Chinese opera, which is a colourful mixture of dialogue, music, song and dance. It is an ancient form of theatre, reaching the peak of its popularity during the Ming Dynasty from the 14th to 17th centuries. The acting is heavy and stylised, and the music cacophonous to most Western ears. Street performances are held during important festivals such as Chinese New Year. The Lion Dance is a spectacular, acrobatic dance usually performed during Chinese festivals. Other performing arts include Malay and Indian dances; liberalisation has also meant a noticeable increase in alternative theatre, but the mainstay of Singaporean culture must be shopping.
Singapore is the food capital of Asia. Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian and Western foods are all on offer, and some of the most tasty creations are those sold from the atmospheric street stalls. Nonya cooking is a local variation on Chinese and Malay food, mixing Chinese ingredients with local spices such as lemon grass and coconut cream. The popular spicy, coconut-based soup laksa is a classic Nonya dish. Singapore is a great place to discover tropical fruits. Some of the more unusual ones on offer include rambutan, mangosteen, durian, jackfruit, pomelo, starfruit, zirzat, buah duku, chiku and jeruk.
Singapore’s polyglot population celebrates a number of festivals and events. Chinese, Hindu and Muslim celebrations follow a lunar calendar so dates of festivities vary from year to year. Chinese New Year, in January or February, is welcomed in with dragon dances, parades and much good cheer. Chinatown is lit up and there are fireworks and night markets. During Ramadan, food stalls are set up in the evening in the Arab St district, near the Sultan mosque. Hari Raya Puasa, which marks the end of Ramadan in January or February, is marked by three days of joyful celebrations. Vesak Day in April or May celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death. It is marked by various events, including the release of caged birds to symbolise the setting free of captive souls. The Dragon Boat Festival held in May or June commemorates the death of a Chinese saint who drowned himself as a protest against government corruption. It is celebrated with boat races across Marina Bay.
The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is usually celebrated in September. This is when the souls of the dead are released for feasting and entertainment on earth. Chinese operas are performed for them and food is offered; the ghosts eat the spirit of the food but thoughtfully leave the substance for the mortal celebrants. The festival of Thaipusam is one of the most dramatic Hindu festivals and is now banned in India. Devotees honour Lord Subramaniam with acts of amazing body-piercing masochism – definitely not for the squeamish. In Singapore, devotees march in procession from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Rd to the Chettiar Hindu Temple on Tank Rd. The festival is based on the lunar calendar but will be held in October for the next couple of years.