The Istana's façade. A Tembusu tree used to sit where the lawn fountain is now.
|Former names||Government House of Singapore|
|Location||Grounds of Istana Singapore|
|Address||Orchard Road, Singapore|
|Current tenants||President of Singapore|
|Owner||Government of Singapore|
|Floor area||106 acres (0.43 km2) (Area Occupied)|
|Design and construction|
|Designated:||14 February 1992|
The Istana is the official residence and office of the President of Singapore. Meaning "palace" in Malay, it is where the president receives and entertains state guests. The Istana is also the working office of the Prime Minister of Singapore. It is in a large open compound in the otherwise urbanised setting of the Orchard Road area.
The 106 acre (0.4 km²) estate was once part of the extensive nutmeg plantation of Mount Sophia. In 1867, the British colonial government acquired the land and built a mansion to be the official home of the British governor. This continued until 1959 when Singapore was granted self-government, and the governor was replaced by the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, who was in turn replaced by the president.
British colonial days
The Istana was built in 1867-1869 on the instructions of Sir Harry Saint George Ord, Singapore's first colonial governor. It was formerly known as 'Government House'. Within the same compound is Sri Temasek, one of several senior colonial officers' residences in the Istana previously assigned to the colonial secretary.
Sir Harry's desire for a stately governor's residence arose from his dissatisfaction with the leased housing on Grange Hill and Leonie Hill that Governors had to make do with. An earlier governor's residence on Bukit Larangan (now Fort Canning), a flimsy timber structure, had been torn down to make way for the fort and was never replaced.
Ord's views were met with much resistance amongst his colleagues. To build a residence of palatial proportions and cost was deemed too extravagant. Ord stood his ground, however, and eventually acquired 106 acres (0.43 km2) of land from C.R. Prinsep's nutmeg estate in 1867. Construction began later in the year after the design was finalised on March 1867.
Disapproval of Ord's initial plans seemed to have evaporated by the time Government House was completed in 1869, as attested to in a report in The Straits Times on 24 April of that year,
"Far better to have a handsome memorial of extravagance to stare us in the face, than a memory of folly, in a half finished, or even badly finished work. Laying all prejudices aside moreover...it must be admitted that the building is a handsome one — the handsomest in a long way in the Settlement and one which will be an ornament to the place long after those who fought for and against it have passed away."
It was completed just in time for a visit by the Duke of Edinburgh.
The entire Government House, its grounds and auxiliary residences were built by convict labour — J.F.A. McNair supervisor for the construction of Government House, was, conveniently, superintendent of convicts. It was an impressive building and won accolades from its occupants, writers and visitors.
A "nearly perfect" residence is how Sir Frederick Weld, Governor of the Straits Settlements and official resident there from 1880 to 1887, described it in a lecture at the Royal Colonial Institute in London. He said Government House was
"...cool and airy, with a beautiful view of land and sea, and glimpses of the town and shipping through the trees, whilst landward, when the evening haze or the morning mist soften the outlines of the undulations, fill each little valley, and bring out the masses of dark trees, rising against the skyline, it would be hard to find a more perfect picture of repose in a richer landscape."
World War II
During the Japanese invasion of 1942, deliberate shelling destroyed the small ceremonial guns on the steps of Government House and left the building and its grounds in a state of ruin. Then Governor Sir Shenton Thomas and Lady Daisy Thomas loyally remained in Government House with their servants until the very last moments. When they finally evacuated, they took with them the Union Flag that had been flying in front of Government House and carefully kept it hidden throughout the Japanese Occupation. During the occupation, the house was occupied by Field Marshal Count Terauchi, commander of the Japanese Southern Army, and Major General Kawamura, commander of the Singapore Defense Forces.
When Singapore attained self-rule in 1959, the building was handed over to the Singapore Government. It was then renamed the Istana. Yusof Ishak was appointed the first local head of state, the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, and took up office at the Istana.
The building was extensively renovated between 1996 and 1998 to add more space and modern day conveniences. The building today has six function rooms used for ceremonial and entertainment purposes. The offices of the president and his staff are in the building.
Since its first occupancy in 1869, the Istana has seen 21 terms of governorship (1869–1958), two terms of Yang di-Pertuan Negara (1959–1965) and six terms of Presidential occupation (since 1965), not to mention the Japanese occupancy between 1942 and 1945.
Today, the Istana is the official residence of the President of Singapore. However, no presidents have lived there since 1959 nor any cabinet ministers. The villas which are meant to be used for foreign heads of state are used rarely. The Istana building and its grounds are open to the public on five selected statutory holidays — Lunar New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa, Labour Day and National Day. Due to the closeness of Deepavali and Hari Raya Puasa in some years, the grounds of the Istana are sometimes open only once during this period in commemoration of both public holidays. Other times, its grounds are often used for state functions and ceremonial occasions such as swearing-in, investitures and the presentation of credentials by heads of foreign missions. The Prime Minister, Senior Minister, and Minister Mentor have their offices in the Istana Annex.
On the first Sunday of the month, there is a Changing of the Guards parade, which is a popular public event.
The Istana is similar to many 18th century neo-Palladian style buildings designed by British military engineers in India. It has a tropical layout, like a Malay house, surrounded by statuesque columns, deep verandahs, louvred windows and panelled doors, to promote cross ventilation. The central three-storey 28-metre-high tower block dominates the building. The reasonably well-proportioned two-storey side wings feature Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders with Ionic colonnades at the second storey and Doric colonnades at the first storey. The building sits in the its elevated position overlooking its stately grounds, the Domain, reminiscent of the great gardens of England.
Buildings throughout the grounds
- Sri Temasek, also built in 1869, for the colonial secretary and was the official residence of the prime minister
- The Annexe
- The Istana Villa (1938)
- The Lodge (1974)
- The Japanese Gun, presented to Lord Louis Mountbatten after the Japanese surrender in 1945
- Marsh Garden (1970)
- Lily ponds
- A nine-hole golf course
- A burial place of the Bencoolen Muslims, who came to Singapore between 1825 and 1828, located on the southern slopes of the grounds close to the Orchard Road entrance
Rooms in the Main Building
- The Reception Hall is where the president introduces his cabinet to visiting dignitaries and foreign heads of missions. As its name states, tea receptions are held here right after a state dinner
- Banquet Hall: Guest dine in with the president and get entertained in this room. At the end of this hall is a trompe-l'œil painted with a backdrop of orchids. The room is also used to display state gifts during its open house. The room is made out of formerly what's of the kitchen and some workshops.
- The State Room is the seat and office of the President of Singapore. The hall is used for events such as the swearing in of a newly elected cabinet/president or for presentations of gifts, awards etc. It used to be the sitting room of Sir Shenton Thomas, he originally placed a statue of Queen Victoria at the end. The statue was later removed and preserved to make way for what is now the Presidential Chair and two state flags: Singapore and the Presidential Standard. The statue of Queen Victoria now stands at the end of the Victoria Pond located south of the Istana Grounds.
- The reception room, not to be confused with the reception hall, is a small parlour at the second floor leading to the East and West Sitting Rooms. It is where the president discusses with foreign dignitaries.
- East Sitting Room: This room features the whole collection of state gifts; out of the few is a set of chinaware made in France and presented to president, Benjamin Sheares. This set is individually displayed in a bullet-proof glass case.
- West Sitting Room: This parlour is the setting to many interviews with heads of state and members of parliament. The room is laid with original timber flooring from the 1930s. On display on the walls of the room are priceless replicas of Arab tapestry presented by the Sultan of Oman to the late Ong Teng Cheong in the 1990s.
- Sheares Room: As the name indicates, the private dining hall was named after, Dr Benjamin Henry Sheares, the second president of Singapore. It serves as the private dining hall to the first family or in some cases the cabinet. Name cards indicating the sitting positions of each person are printed and gold plated by Risis. Besides the unique boat-shaped dining table in the room, seven painted panels depicting the seven presidents and their respective cabinet members hangs to the right of the room.
- The Yusof Room is named by the first president of Singapore, Yusof bin Ishak; his bust sits at the end of this parlour. The room features a large Chinese-style panel painted on with phoenixes and peonies.
The U-shaped Grand Staircase leads to the second and third floors of the Istana. On the first landing stands the Guardian of the House on a raised display cabinet. The 35 cm tall statute is made of wood from India, ivory and mother of pearl. The guardian was made by Indian laborers who constructed the Istana and was presented Shenton Thomas to congratulate him in moving into his new official residence. During the Second World war, the statute was trashed into the Istana's storeroom being long forgotten. Until 1995 when the Istana guards were tasked to clear the storeroom, it was found lying next to the British coat of arms which used to hang at the main entrance to the Istana.
- President's Lounge: Despite its name, it also serves as the main balcony of the Istana, which overlooks the ceremonial square and lawn on the ground floor. The room is similarly styled to the White House's Blue Room, which coincidentally overlooks the lawn of the latter. Facing this lounge is the office of the president.
- Office of President of Singapore: This room, which is on the third floor of the Istana, is forbidden to the public and only the President of Singapore himself can access the premises. The room has four key pieces of furniture: a maroon sofa for guests to rest on, the main office desk made out of wood, a cowhide office chair, and a wooden side desk.
- Istana Kampong Glam, former palace of the Sultan of Singapore
- History of Singapore
- Timeline of Singaporean history
- Government Houses of the British Empire and Commonwealth
- National Heritage Board (2002), Singapore's 100 Historic Places, Archipelago Press, ISBN 981-4068-23-3
- Norman Edwards, Peter Keys (1996), Singapore - A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, Times Books International, ISBN 9971-65-231-5
- President's Office, Istana, "The Istana"
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