The inaugural SGIFF was held in 1987, the brainchild of Geoffrey Malone and Leland Whitney. Malone was inspired to start the festival after attending the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Francisco and felt that a large-scale film festival would help to breathe new life into the faltering Singapore film scene at the time. One of the early hurdles that the organizers faced was finding a theatre where they could replace the outdated technology with the latest state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment. Leland Whitney, who worked as a representative of a company who sold this equipment, hoped that once theatregoers saw the quality difference, they would demand that other theatres update their technology as well.
The upwards trajectory of the festival has been the result of constant improvements to its programming. In 1991, the festival introduced the Silver Screen Awards which recognize and aim to promote filmmakers from Asia. As the first international competition geared specifically towards Asian films, it played a pivotal role in promoting Asian Cinema to the position it holds today.
In 2014, the festival expanded its Singapore Short Film awards to become the Southeast Asian Short Film award. This expansion led to a partnership between SGIFF and the Academy Awards, wherein a film that receives this award becomes eligible for nomination from the academy and no longer requires a theatrical run to qualify.
Other programmes at SGIFF include the Southeast Asian Film Lab, which runs a workshop for aspiring filmmakers. Participants will complete the workshop by pitching a full-length film to an industry jury with one film receiving a grant of $5,000 as the Most Promising Project and the Youth Jury & Critics Programme ,which runs a mentorship program for aspiring film critics.