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With its racially diverse population, melting pot of ethnic cultures and diverse religious traditions, Singapore is a city that epitomises the beauty of multiculturalism.

Here’s a guide to the heritage, cuisine and culture of Singapore main ethnic groups, which make up the diverse tapestry of the Lion City.

Chinese

A Chinese family in modern ethnic wear on Chinese New Year The Chinese in Singapore make up Singapore's largest ethnic group.
Photo by Michelle Goh

The Chinese are the largest ethnic group in Singapore, making up almost three-quarters of the country’s population. It’s no surprise then that Chinese culture—from the language and food to entertainment and festivals—features prominently in Singapore.

Most of Singapore’s Chinese population made the trek here from the southern provinces of China, including Fujian and Guangdong. Those from the Hokkien and Teochew dialect groups are the most populous, followed by members of the Cantonese, Hainanese and other smaller groups.

A Chinese labourer by the sea posing for a photo in the 1930s to 1950s Many of the Chinese in Singapore were immigrants from China's southern provinces.

Many of these pioneers worked as coolies, responsible for setting the foundation for the Lion City’s future prosperity. Others showed a flair for making money, and many of the city’s notable entrepreneurs were of Chinese descent. Today, Singaporean Chinese are well represented across different segments of society–from politics and business to sports and entertainment circles.

While their traditional culture has since been blended with other local ethnicities and Western influences, the festival of Chinese New Year is still celebrated with much gusto—a raucous reminder of what it means to be Chinese.

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Malay

Modern day Singaporean Malay couple greeting their elders The Malays in Singapore are a part of a very close-knit community.

The original settlers of Singapore, the Malays are the second largest ethnic group here. As such their culture has influenced other ethnicities that arrived here later.

The Malays in Singapore come originally from the surrounding regions, including the Indonesian islands of Java and Bawean, as well as the Malayan peninsula.

The Malay language spoken by the locals here is closer to the version spoken in Peninsular Malaysia than Indonesia.

Black and white photo of early Malay settlers in Singapore kampong It is said that the Malays are Singapore's oldest settlers.
Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Their cuisine, featuring dishes such as nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk, served with an array of side dishes) and mee rebus (yellow noodles in a spicy gravy), holds sway over local taste buds and is a fixture on Singapore’s renowned street food scene.

The majority of Malays are Muslims, and the key festivals of Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji see this close-knit community come together in a colourful celebration of their culture and religion.

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Indian

Modern day Indian family chatting at home over snacks The Indian culture adds much vibrance to Singapore's multi-ethnic society.
? Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

The Indians are Singapore’s third largest ethnic group, and the community here boasts one of the largest overseas Indian populations.

Many came here from the Southern part of India after the British settled in Singapore in 1819. Today, almost 60 per cent of the Indian residents here are of ethnic Tamil ancestry. More than half of Singapore’s ethnic Indians are also Hindus.

Known for their entrepreneurial instincts, many Indians set up businesses here, trading everything from textiles to jewellery. Today, they are also well represented in political and professional circles.

A black and white photo of a young Indian mum with her three young children at a textiles and jewellery store The Indians in Singapore are one of the Indian community's largest population overseas.
? Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

You can't talk about Singaporean Indians without mentioning their cuisine, which adds an extra zing in Singapore’s diverse food scene with favourites such as thosai (savoury pancake) and vadai (fried fritter).

Indian festivals here are colourful, upbeat affairs. Deepavali, or the Festival of Lights, is the main Indian festival, while Thaipusam, where devotees pierce themselves in an act of cleansing, is a fascinating spectacle.

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Eurasian

A young Eurasian family posing for a photo at Merlion Park The Eurasians in Singapore epitomise the city's vibrant east meets west vibe.

The small but influential Eurasian community in Singapore encapsulates the East meets West vibe of the country. This ethnic group is made up of people who have mixed European and Asian lineage and have been present in Singapore since the early 19th-century.

Most Eurasians in Singapore can trace the European part of their ancestry to the Portuguese, Dutch or British, while their Asian ancestry can be traced to the Chinese, Malays or Indians.

The first Eurasians arrived a few years after the British founded Singapore in 1819, and hailed mainly from Penang and Malacca. During the colonial period, many Eurasians were employed as clerks in the civil service, European banks as well as commercial and trading houses. The women worked mainly as teachers and nurses.

A black and white family portrait of an early Eurasian family in Singapore The first Eurasians came a few years after the British founded Singapore.
Lee Brothers Studio Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

There are around 15,000 to 30,000 Eurasians in Singapore today, making up less than 1% of the population. That said, they feature prominently in the country’s media and entertainment industries.

English is the first language of Eurasians, although some from the older generation who are of Portuguese descent speak a version of the Portugese language known as Kristang.

Eurasians also have their own culinary traditions including signatures such as Mulligatawny soup (a curry-based broth), Shepherd’s pie and sugee cake.

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Peranakan

Black and white photo of a Peranakan family portrait in the early days of Singapore The Peranakans in Singapore are a fascinating blend of cultures around the region.
Lee Hin Ming Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

The Peranakans* are a fascinating blend of cultures from the region. The Peranakan Chinese, or Straits Chinese, in Singapore can trace their origins to 15th-century Malacca, where their ancestors were Chinese traders who married local Malay women.

There are also Chitty Melaka, or Peranakan Indians, descendants of marriages between South Indian Hindu merchants and local women, and Jawi Peranakans, who trace their ancestry to intermarriage between South Indian-Muslim traders and women of the local community.

Many of the early Peranakans were traders and shopkeepers, while others were involved in the real estate, shipping and banking sectors.

While many of the Straits Chinese have assimilated into the broader Chinese community, they still retain distinctive cultural traits–most notably in their food and traditional dress.

The spicy Malay-influenced taste of Peranakan food is probably the most commonly encountered aspect of this ethnic group. Nonya food, named after the ladies who cook it, features strong Malay and Indonesian influences with its uses of spices and coconut milk.

*The term is an Indonesian/Malay word that means “local born”, which generally refers to people of Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage.

A row of Singaporean Peranakan women in traditional Nonya Kebaya outfits The Peranakan traditional dress for women known as the Nonya Kebaya features beautifully embroidered details.
Photo by Jaclyn Tan

At formal events, Peranakan women are also likely to be seen in their traditional dress known as the Nonya Kebaya, which is influenced by the Malay Sarong Kebaya. This intricate outfit features a sheer fabric blouse that is often decorated with embroidered motifs such as roses, orchids or butterflies.

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