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The South-East Asia Cultural Festival (1963)

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. 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.

The Singapore government organised the South East Asia Cultural Festival to commemorate the official opening of the new National Theatre at Fort Canning Hill. 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.

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.6 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.

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; and the first ASEAN Festival of Performing Arts, which was held in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1981. (Valerie Chew)


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