The Istana's façade. A Tembusu tree used to sit where the lawn fountain is now.
|Former names||Government House of Singapore|
|Current tenants||President of Singapore|
|Owner||Government of Singapore|
|Floor area||106 acres (0.43 km2) (area occupied)|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||J. F. A. McNair|
|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.
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 between 1867 and 1869 on the instructions of Sir Harry Saint George Ord, Singapore's first colonial governor. It was formerly known as "Government House". The architect was Major John Frederick Adolphus McNair. 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, as 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 in 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.
The entire Government House, its grounds and auxiliary residences were built by convict labour – John Frederick Adolphus 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. The Governor, Sir Shenton Thomas, and Daisy, Lady 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 Hisaichi Terauchi, commander of the Japanese Southern Army, and Major General Kawamura, commander of the Singapore Defence Forces.
The building continued to be used by governors of the newly created Crown Colony of Singapore. When Singapore attained self-rule in 1959, the building was handed over to the Government of Singapore. 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 of Singapore 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 occupation by the 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 nor cabinet ministers have lived there since 1959. 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 – Chinese 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. The grounds are also often used for state functions and ceremonial occasions such as swearings-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 and structures in the grounds
- Sri Temasek, also built in 1869 for the colonial secretary, is 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).
- Victoria Pond.
- A nine-hole golf course.
- A burial place of Bencoolen Muslims who came to Singapore between 1825 and 1828 is 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 the Cabinet of Singapore to visiting dignitaries and foreign heads of missions. As its name states, tea receptions are held here after a state dinner.
- In the Banquet Hall, guests dine with the President and are entertained. At the end of the hall is a trompe-l'œil painted with a backdrop of orchids. The room, formerly part of the kitchen and some workshops, is also used to display state gifts.
- 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 or President, or for presentations of awards. When it was the sitting room of Sir Shenton Thomas, he had a statue of Queen Victoria at one end of the room. The statue was later removed to make way for what is now the Presidential Chair and two state flags: the National Flag 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 on the second floor leading to the East and West Sitting Rooms. It is where the President holds discussions with foreign dignitaries.
- The East Sitting Room features a collection of state gifts, including a set of chinaware made in France and presented to President Benjamin Henry Sheares which is displayed in a bulletproof glass case.
- The West Sitting Room is a parlour that has been the setting for many interviews with heads of state and Members of Parliament. The room is laid with original timber flooring from the 1930s. Displayed on the walls of the room are priceless replicas of Arab tapestry presented by the Sultan of Oman to President Ong Teng Cheong in the 1990s.
- The Sheares Room is a private dining hall named after Dr. Benjamin Sheares, the second President of Singapore. It is used by the President and his 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 hang on the right of the room.
- The Yusof Room is named for 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 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-centimetre (14 in) statue is made of wood from India, ivory and mother of pearl. The Guardian was made by Indian labourers who constructed the Istana and was presented to Sir Shenton Thomas to commemorate his taking up of residence there. During the Second World War, the statue was placed in a storeroom. It was forgotten until 1995 when Istana guards were tasked to clear the storeroom, at which time it was found lying next to the British coat of arms which used to hang at the main entrance to the Istana.
- Despite the name of the President's Lounge, it also serves as the main balcony of the Istana which overlooks the ceremonial square and lawn on the ground floor. The room is styled like the White House's Blue Room, which coincidentally overlooks the White House lawn. Facing this lounge is the office of the President.
- The Office of the President of Singapore, which is out of bounds to the public, has four main 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.
- The Prime Minister's Office, based in the Istana.
- Istana Kampong Glam, former palace of the Sultan of Singapore.
- History of Singapore
- Government Houses of the British Empire and Commonwealth
- Similar British Malayan colonial residences:
- The Istana Singapore: Its Grounds and Landscape, Singapore: President's Office, 1994, ISBN 978-9971-88-447-5.
- Norman Edwards; Peter Keys (1996), Singapore – A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, Singapore: Times Books International, ISBN 978-9971-65-231-9.
- Gan, James Wan Meng; Lau, Aileen [T.] (2005), Birds Seen at the Istana, Singapore: Singapore Environment Council, ISBN 978-981-05-2730-3.
- Mysteries of the Istana [videorecording; Hey Singapore, Series 1; first broadcast 25 December 1995], Singapore: Television Corporation of Singapore, 1995.
- Ong, Lay Hong, producer (1996), The Istana: The Jewel of Temasek [videorecording; first broadcast 18 February 1996], Singapore: Television Corporation of Singapore, OCLC 422781304.
- Pantin, Gail (2009), A Day at the Istana, Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, ISBN 978-981-426-024-4.
- Seet, K[hiam] K[eong]; Mealin, Peter, photographer (2000), The Istana, Singapore: Times Editions, ISBN 978-981-232-116-9.
- Tan, Wee Kiat [et al.] (2003), Gardens of the Istana, Singapore: National Parks Board, ISBN 978-981-04-9167-3.
- Wong, Tuan Wah [et al.] (2011), Lau, Aileen T., ed., Trees of the Istana: Treasures in the Domain, Singapore: Suntree Media Pte. Ltd. in association with National Parks Board, ISBN 978-981-08-7481-0.
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