It doesn’t take a visitor long to understand how multicultural Singapore is. From the diverse people, the languages you hear all around you, colourful sights and fascinating array of food, Singapore’s pluralism manifests itself at every turn. If you’re in Singapore during any of the major ethnic festivals, you’re in for an extra treat. Aside from the amped-up shopping and slashed prices, ethnic quarters on the island turn into bustling marketplaces featuring sights, sounds and tastes that are sure to make experiencing a festival one of the most memorable things to do in Singapore. Here are just a few of the many ethnic festivals you can see in Singapore.
With a majority Chinese population, Singapore gets dressed up in bright red for Chinese New Year. Chinatown is the centre of the Chinese New Year celebrations, and is filled with people buying food and decorations. You’ll also see the streets of Chinatown lit up, lion dancers and a range of festive treats such as pineapple tarts and bak kwa (sweet barbequed pork). Chinese New Year is usually followed by the Chingay Parade, a carnival-like street parade with floats, performers, dancers and musicians. Chinese New Year usually falls around February, but if you’re in Singapore around September or October, you can still head to Chinatown for the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest festival celebrated with delicious mooncakes and lantern parades.
The Muslim population in Singapore bursts with activity during Hari Raya Puasa, also known by its Arabic name Eid al-Fitr. The festival marks the end of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims. The date shifts based on the Islamic calendar, but is roughly around July for the current years. This festival of fast-breaking is celebrated with an abundance of joy, family time and — in true Singaporean fashion — the most delicious food. Step right into the heart of Hari Raya Puasa at Kampong Glam and Geylang Serai Bazaar and you’ll be fascinated by the colourful clothes, gorgeous cakes and delicacies such as ketupat (rice cakes) and dates — and no end of cookies and pastries from the region and the Middle East. During the month of Ramadan, step into the Sultan Mosque to experience the profound and significant fast-breaking rituals.
The most significant of the Hindu festivals in Singapore is Deepavali, also known as Diwali. This festival of lights is celebrated around October or November, with special prayers at the Hindu temples all over Singapore, the lighting of oil lamps and joyful celebrations. At Little India, the Deepavali spirit takes foothold about a month before the day itself; you’ll see resplendent clothes and snacks such as murukku (a crunchy, savoury snack) and light, buttery semolina biscuits. Visitors to Singapore earlier in the year around January or February can also head to Little India for Thaipusam. Although this festival is celebrated by the Tamil community in India and around the world, it is only in Singapore and Malaysia where you will see it in its most dramatic form: where several devotees carry large, semicircular canopies decorated with flowers and peacock feathers along a processional route, many of which are attached to their skin with piercings — along with spears pierced through their cheeks and tongues.
Experiencing an ethnic festival in Singapore is a fascinating way to understand the many cultural influences that make up the rich tapestry of the country. And if you’re fortunate enough to have a Singaporean friend celebrating the festival, you might even get an invitation to experience it with them — and what better way to enjoy a festival than with the warmth of a family?