Literary Festivals in Singapore

Literary festivals in Singapore play host to readers and writers alike, and include book festivals, writers’ festivals as well as language festivals. These events are not only platforms for promoting reading and authors, but also an appreciation for writing and literature.

Singapore Writers Festival

The Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), which celebrated its 20th run in 2017, is one of the longest running literary events in Singapore, celebrating literary works not only in Singapore’s official languages – English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil – but other ones, such as Japanese, as well.1 The annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), described as one of “Asia’s premier literary events”, grew out of the biennial Writers’ Week, which at one point was a fringe event of Singapore Festival of Arts. First held in 1986, the event featured literary readings and forums, and included both local and overseas writers.2 It was also the first time that such a large-scale literary event was organised outside of academia.3 In 1991, the programme was held outside of the Singapore Festival of Arts, citing concerns that vernacular literature tended to get lost in the largely English-language events and readings.4

Over the course of 20 editions, SWF has grown in size: from featuring 71 authors in its debut to 335 authors in 2017, where it also achieved a record attendance of 25,500 festival-goers.5 The festival’s scope also broadened by incorporating different text types such as lyrics, exploring different genres such as graphic novels, and discussing different aspects of literary trade such as publishing and translation work.6 It became an annual affair in 2011, with the appointment of its own festival director, Paul Tan, to oversee its artistic direction, production and organisation.7

Poetry Festival Singapore

In 1965, writers Edwin Thumboo, Wong Meng Voon, Masuri S.N. and V.T. Arasu came together and conceived the idea of a multicultural and multilingual poetry festival. Due to the lack of support for the literary scene back then, the idea never came to fruition.8 In 2015, the idea for such a festival resurfaced as the Poetry Festival Singapore, formerly known as the National Poetry Festival. A non-profit festival, it serves as a “multilingual, multicultural, multi-generational platform for poets and poetry enthusiasts” in Singapore. The festival offers poetry readings and workshops that showcase local poetry in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.9 The festival director from 2015 to 2017 was poet Eric Tinsay Valles. In 2017, the festival also presented the inaugural Singapore Literature Conference, slated to be a biennial event.10

The National Schools’ Literature Festival

The National Schools’ Literature Festival is a ground-up initiative to cultivate an appreciation for the subject among students. 26 schools participated in the inaugural festival in 2005 and grew steadily to over 80 schools in 2013, and 107 schools by 2016. The festival includes debates, poetry slams and other performances.11

Book Festivals

An important aspect of the local literary calendar are book festivals, which bring readers, writers and publishers together. Set up in 1969 to develop the local book industry and nurture a nation of readers and writers, the Singapore Book Council (formerly National Book Development Council of Singapore, NBDCS) organised the first book fair in Singapore: the Festival of Books and Book Fair.12 The first Festival of Books and Book Fair was held in 1969 at the Victoria Memorial Hall.13 In 1972, the Singapore Book Publishers Association (SBPA) came onboard as the co-organiser of the fair.14 The book fair invited writers for lectures and forums, such as acclaimed science fiction writer Brian Aldiss in 1980, as well as held panel discussions with local writers such as Philip Jeyaratnam and Ovidia Yu in 1989.15 In 1998, NBDCS no longer co-organised the festival, which was renamed Singapore Book Fair 98.16 The fair did not continue its run in 2002, and in 2004, it was reported that they were unlikely to hold similar book fairs.17

Another book fair in the 1990s that brought Singapore’s booksellers, distributors and publishers together was the World Book Fair (an expansion of the World Chinese Book Fair). First held in 1996, it was organised by the Chinese Newspapers Division (Singapore Press Holdings) and Times Conferences & Exhibitions.18 In 2009, the fair changed its name to Singapore Book Fair, and was co-organised by Singapore Press Holdings and Marshall Cavendish Business Information.19

Chinese, Malay and Tamil language councils and literary associations

A number of literary and language organisations have held literary festivals, symposiums and conferences to celebrate language and literature. While some of these festivals are not entirely literary-focused, they often incorporate literature as a means of promoting language and culture of the different language groups.

The Association of Singapore Tamil Writers organises its annual literary festivals around legendary Tamil poets such as Kambar and Kannadhasan. Competitions, debates, seminars and workshops are regularly conducted to inculcate the love for the language and nurture young writers.20 The Tamil Language Council holds an annual Tamil Language Festival (also referred to as Tamil Language Month) to promote awareness and greater use of Tamil language in Singapore. It aims to popularise the Tamil language, particularly among the young, and works with government agencies, educational institutions, social organisations and individuals to achieve its objectives.21

The Malay Language Council of Singapore promotes the use and appreciation of the Malay language during Bulan Bahasa (Malay Language Month). The event first kicked off in 1988, and has been an annual celebration since 2010.22 Literary activities incorporated into the event over the years have included lecture series on language and literature as well as poetry competitions and festivals.23 In 1987, the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations held a literary festival from 7 to 18 January. The festival included forums, poetry recitals and exhibitions.24 Other celebrations of Chinese literature are often held as part of the larger Chinese Cultural Festival that was first held in 1990, and usually includes other art and cultural forms. In 1991, the Chinese Cultural Festival was held together with the World Chinese Book Fair, the international Chinese cultural camp and the Chinese Literature Awards.25

These literary events play an important role in Singapore’s cultural landscape, as they help to develop, promote and celebrate literature in Singapore.

Nadia Ramli

1. Singapore Writers Festival, SWF 2017 Programme Booklet, 2, last retrieved 24 May 2018.
2. “Top Writers and Poets to Offer Guided Tour of Literary Works,” Business Times, 24 April 1986, 2. (From NewspaperSG); Gwee Li Sui, “Twenty Faces of a Literary Festival” in SWF 2017 Programme Booklet, 9, last retrieved 24 May 2018.
3. Irene Hoe, “Festival Debut for Writers’ Week,” Straits Times, 24 April 1986, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “A Writers’ week with More Non-English Events,” Straits Times, 27 August 1991, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Olivia Ho, “Record Turnout at Singapore Writers Festival,” Straits Times, 5 December 2017, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Gwee, “Twenty Faces of a Literary Festival,” 13.
6. Gwee, “Twenty Faces of a Literary Festival,” 9–11.
7. Magdalen Ng, “Literary Festivals Get a Director,” Straits Times, 2 December 2010, 3. (From NewspaperSG); National Arts Council, Setting the Stage: National Arts Council Annual Report FY2010/11 (Singapore: National Arts Council, 2011), 56.
8. Richard Neo, “First Poetry Festival for Singapore,” Straits Times, 23 July 2015, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “About Us,” Poetry Festival Singapore, last retrieved 24 May 2018; Mayo Martin, “High Hopes for Multilingual Poetry Festival,” Today, 23 July 2015, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Martin, “High Hopes for Multilingual Poetry Festival”; Olivia Ho, “Third Poetry Festival Singapore Looks at Local Poetry ‘Regardless of Race’,” Straits Times, 29 July 2017. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Olivia Ho, “Crossing Boundaries with Poetry,” Straits Times, 31 July 2017, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Suzanne Choo, . (2017, August 16). “Commentary by Asst/P Suzanne Choo – “More Schools Offer O-Level Literature This Year”, 16 August 2017; Lim Min Zhang, “Literature Festival Books Record Turnout,” Straits Times, 13 July 2013, 16. (From NewspaperSG); “About NSLF,” National Schools Literature Festival, n.d.
12. “About,” Singapore Book Council, last retrieved 24 May 2018; Hedwig Anuar, “Twenty-Five Years of Book Development,” Singapore Book World, 23 (1993–94): 1–3. (Call no. RSING 070.5095957 SBW); Ong Sor Fern, “Time to Turn the Page on Book Festival,” Straits Times, 29 November 1997, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Ong Sor Fern, “September Book Fair Is On Again,” Straits Times, 18 July 1998, 4; “Pro Team to Handle Book Festival,” Singapore Monitor, 9 March 1983, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Alan John, “The Festival That Grew into a Company,” Straits Times, 14 August 1982, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Kirpal Singh, “The Sci-Fi Novelist Who Never Forgot Army Days in Singapore,” Straits Times, 3 August 1980, 1; “Reading Month Targeted at All Age Groups,” Straits Times, 26 August 1989, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Ong, “September Book Fair Is On Again.”
17. Kor Kian Beng, “Longest Running Book Fair May Be History,” New Paper, 25 February 2004, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Ong, “Time to Turn the Page on Book Festival”; Evelyn Yap, “28th Book Fair Tries New Marketing Strategy,” Straits Times, 31 August 1996, 5; Paula Grosse, “Mega Event for Book Lovers,” Straits Times, 24 May 1996, 17; “Book Fairs Stand United,” (1996, March 8). Straits Times, 8 March 1996, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Advertisement,” Straits Times, 2 June 2009, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Kambar Festival,” Association of Singapore Tamil Writers, last retrieved 24 May 2018; “Festival to Explore the Works of Kannadhasan,” Straits Times, 6 October 1995, 31. (From NewspaperSG); “About Us,” Association of Singapore Tamil Writers, last retrieved 24 May 2018.  
21. “Tamil Language Festival 2017,” Tamil Language Council, last retrieved 28 December 2017; Royston Sim, “Fun for All at Tamil Language Fest,” Straits Times, 30 March 2014, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Bulan Bahasa (Malay Language Month),” Malay Language Council of Singapore, last retrieved 29 December 2017.  
23. “SPH to Sponsor 4 Malay Language Month Events,” Straits Times, 29 June 1996, 30; David Ee, “Shows, Lectures Planned for Malay Language Month,” Straits Times, 23 June 2012, 8; “Kegiatan Bulan Bahasa,” [Malay Language Month Activities], Berta Harian, 15 September 2014, 8–9. (From NewspaperSG)
24.”Literary Arts Festival to Begin with Concert,” Straits Times, 6 January 1987, 13; “New Task Set for S’pore Writers,” Straits Times, 12 January 1987, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Aue Yu Pak, “A Smaller Event This Year, but Better,” Straits Times, 7 April 1994, 13; Sunny Goh, “Chinese Literature Here ‘Entering New Phase’,” Straits Times, 11 June 1991, 22. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at May 2018 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. 

Literary associations