Singapore Youth Festival: Celebrating 50 years

Part of the Bukit Panjang Military Band at the Parade of Bands on Saturday, when 21 primary and secondary school bands, alongside a school band from Thailand, marched down Orchard Road.
Part of the Bukit Panjang Military Band at the Parade of Bands on Saturday, when 21 primary and secondary school bands, alongside a school band from Thailand, marched down Orchard Road. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Dance performance at the Music and Dance Presentation at the National Theatre in 1970.
Dance performance at the Music and Dance Presentation at the National Theatre in 1970.PHOTO: MOE
River Valley High School Band performing at the Singapore Youth Festival in 1997.
River Valley High School Band performing at the Singapore Youth Festival in 1997.PHOTO: MOE

Over the weekend, the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay became a giant stage for youth, as they celebrated half a century of the Singapore Youth Festival with song and dance, from hip hop to the traditional. Sabrina Faisal looks back at the history of the festival.

How big is the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF)?

"Anybody who has enrolled in a Singapore school would have either participated in it or had a schoolmate who told him about his SYF experience". That is how Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng put it in an SYF message this year.

The event was first launched on July 18, 1967, by President Yusof Ishak at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

Around 24,000 students from primary and secondary schools were involved in a two-week celebration, and then Education Minister Ong Pang Boon dedicated it to the newly independent country's young people as they represented "the most important human potential for future development" and the recognition that education went beyond books.

He also hoped that the SYF would give students the opportunity to learn the meaning of service and leadership.

The next year, it was the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew who opened the event which was supposed to involve every one of the 520,000 students in Singapore in one way or another - from pre-school to pre-university level.

Stressing how social cohesion was the glue to bring Singaporeans together into a nation, he highlighted another aspect of the SYF, as a common ground for young people from different backgrounds to mix and get to know each other.

The opening ceremony in 1970 saw heavy rain but that hardly stopped the participants at the Jalan Besar Stadium, and they were showered with praise for their dedication.

However, in 1975 there was a scale-down of the SYF, with the festival being a one-night event.

This was to address concerns over the hours of preparation that went into the event and which had taken a toll on its participants in previous years - a controversy that was to raise its head again and which the festival has not quite shaken off.

But 1975 was an exception, and the festival returned stronger and continued to grow. In 1976, drama was added to the list of festival offerings.

Then choral singing got a chance to come under stage lights.

From 1991, fringe events featuring performances at the National Museum, Chinese Gardens, Jurong Bird Park and Parkway Parade were organised, expanding the festival's reach.

Participation was expanded to include young people from tertiary institutions and organisations such as the youth clubs, the National Youth Council and the People's Association.

In 1994, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong declared SYF a national event.

That year, 55,000 people packed the National Stadium for the opening of the festival.

At the turn of the millennium, SYF started to adopt a different theme each year, based on the values and aspirations that youth ought to pursue.

The first theme in 2002 was "Opening Hearts".

But as its prestige grew, so did the level of competition.

The SYF may be celebrated in the month of July, but the focus is always on April when central judging takes place. Performing groups, from dance to drama, showcase their work to a team of judges who will decide how well each did - giving out gold with honours, gold, silver, bronze and certificates of participation.

But parents complained about their children coming under too much stress, with some students breaking down when they failed to clinch the highest award.

In 2012, the Education Ministry revamped the award structure and replaced the previous levels with just three awards: distinction, accomplishment and commendation.

The score needed to obtain the highest award was lowered from 85 per cent to 75 per cent.

And SYF Central Judging was renamed SYF Arts Presentation.

The changes kicked in the next year, but even then not everyone was satisfied. Some argued that by watering down the awards, the effort put in by participants was being diluted.

And some parents are still complaining that their children are being made to put in too much work to prepare for the SYF, and that some schools still push too strongly for the top certificate.

But many believe the change had put the spotlight back on the joy of performing.

This year's Arts Presentation involved more than 21,000 students putting up 700 shows.

And this month's celebrations, themed, "Youthforia!", will go on till Sunday.

About 6,000 students from around 250 schools, from primary schools to junior colleges, are taking part.

Besides performances, workshops and an art exhibition, the SYF's heritage and 50-year history are being displayed in a heritage showcase at the Esplanade Festival Corner. The celebrations will also extend to malls, such as Bugis+ and Causeway Point.

There will be featured items such as hip hop dances, pop songs and a fashion parade.

Asked about the significance of SYF to youth, Mrs Valarie Wilson, director arts education, Ministry of Education, told The Straits Times: "Through the 50 years, the spirit and essence of SYF has remained anchored on inspiring our youth to grow and push new creative boundaries through the arts.

"It is an experience, a learning process and a memory that those who have been involved will always remember with great fondness."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2016, with the headline 'Youthforia marks half a century of youthful euphoria'. Print Edition | Subscribe