“Pesta Sukan” is a Malay phrase for Festival of Sports. “Pesta” means festival and “sukan” means sports.
The festival was aimed at providing an opportunity for sportsmen and women to get together in camaraderie and goodwill and to raise the standard of sports through friendly competition.
Conceived by the then Ministry of Culture, Singapore ‘s first festival of sports was held from 4 - 12 December 1964. An ad hoc organising committee, comprising of well-known sports personalities and government officials, was formed while national sports associations and other major sporting organisations also lent their support.
Participation then was restricted to the Malaysian states – Singapore being one of them. The festival then developed into an informal gathering of sports enthusiasts from all over the world. A distinctive characteristic of the Festival was that invitations to the foreign teams was not done on an inter‑governmental basis, but rather an arrangement between national sports controlling bodies of the various countries seeking to further their bonds of friendship in sports.
The then Ministry of Social Affairs became responsible for the organisation of the Pesta Sukan in 1965. In the midst of the sports festival celebration, Singapore broke away from Malaysia and became an independent nation. From then on, the festival has become an annual contribution from the National Sports Associations towards the National Day celebrations. The name of the festival was changed to Pesta Sukan Minggu Merdeka until 1969 when it reverted to its original name.
A salient feature and achievement of the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) was its ability to stimulate greater interest in sports from different institutions - government bodies, commercial firms, sports organisations and individuals. However, it was dissolved in 1971 when the National Sports Promotion Board (NSPB) came into being. The Board took over the role of promoting and subsidising sports activities in Singapore until 1973. That year, the SSC was formed through the amalgamation of the NSPB and the National Stadium Corporation along with the enactment of the Singapore Sports Council Act.
New programmes were initiated as Pesta Sukan became more popular. The Sports Seminar was organised in 1986 in conjunction with the festival, the first of its kind in Singapore. The Seminar was organised on an ad hoc basis during the years 1969 to 1972. It however, became a permanent feature of the Pesta Sukan from 1973 onwards. The name of the Seminar was also changed to “Physical Education Seminar”.
The Water Carnival, later the Sea Carnival, was introduced in 1970 and it provided entertainment and fun for the family. The National Walk was also introduced and it attracted nearly 30,000 participants of all ages. Mass events became the mainstay of the festival. It became a means by which the SSC’s Sports for All policy could be implemented. National Jog and National Cycling were included in the sports festival in 1975. The Dragon Boat Race, which draws capacity crowd spectatorship, was included in 1978.
The First Asian Wimbledon was organised in 1971 in conjunction with the festival. This tournament attracted a number of top tennis players in Asia. The Pesta Sukan has become so popular that most of the counterparts of the NSAs in other countries have included this event in their annual sports calendar. The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Social Affairs, Mr Chan Chee Seng, appropriately dubbed it as the “Annual Little Olympics”.