Feb 2, 2009

Istana Open House 2009: A Palace and the Splendour of Temasek

My reason for visiting the Istana was twofold. After years of repeating the happy-new-year-where-is-my-red-packet regime, I decided it was time for a change. Moreover the Open House provided a rare chance for a glimpse inside the sprawling garden that is the official residence of the President of Singapore. What is the Istana? Just as our President trounces the US President in salary, the Istana triumphs the White House in acres. Does the President need such a big house?

Genesis of a Palace

Istana Singapore

The Istana was born on 1867. The year should ring a bell if you were an attentive history student like Yours Truly (I can even remember that momentous page in my history textbook which shows the governor seated with his council). On April Fool’s Day the same year, the Straits Settlements comprising Singapore, Malacca and Penang became a Crown Colony, taking orders directly from the Colonial Office in London instead of the Governor-General of India. The Governor, in office since February, was promoted in stature if not in position. He could now stop listening to bullshit from British India have more autonomy. As a Crown Colony, the Governor was assisted by the Executive and Legislative Councils.

The governor was Sir Harry Ord and the Istana, his brainchild. The Istana was meant to be his residence. The first governor’s residence was on Bukit Larangan, i.e. Fort Canning, built after the founding by Raffles but demolished in 1859. A governor was too important to be made homeless, so arrangements were made for leased housing on Grange Hill and later Leonie Hill. But as Harry tried to show - even before HDB - home ownership is important.

So the dissatisfied Harry acquired 106 acres of land from Charles Prinsep’s nutmeg plantation and ordered a proper Government House be built. The design was finalised in March and the foundation stone laid (by Lady Ord) in July 1867. But Harry was not without his detractors. Some of his colleagues thought he was too extravagant. To pull out real figures, the initial building fund was at $100,000. The final sum amounted to $185,000. The Istana was completed in 1869.

Istana Singapore

Shoot and be shot (by my camera). The Open House saw many visitors whipping out their cameras. Many were posing for the camera so I just conveniently shot them. For example, here and here. They look pretty unsingaporean.

Istana Singapore

Locals were the minority during the Open House. Young ladies like these make my day and they might not be locals. There is no foolproof way to identify a local unless they “open their golden mouth” (金口一开).

Istana Singapore

Look! A giant in front of the Istana.

Glory of Temasek for the Second Man

Sri Temasek

To the south of the Istana lies a two-storey detached house also built in 1869. Called Sri Temasek – Splendour of Temasek – it was the residence of the Colonial Secretary. I’m not sure of its genesis, whether the Colonial Secretary ordered it built or because the Governor and his Second Man should live close together.

In any case, Sri Temasek is the official residence of the Prime Minister of Singapore. But just like the Istana, no Prime Minister ever lived inside as their home. In fact it was not used for many years and fell into disrepair, finally undergoing restoration between 2006 and 2008. The 2008 National Day message was delivered there.

So, unlike the US President, ours do not stay in a ‘White House’. (Edit: My friend Johnny told me a very simple reason for this - US presidents typically stay in another state while ours just stay in another estate) Perhaps no succeeding presidents after Yusof Ishak wanted to ‘spoil market’. Or perhaps like Harry, they believe in home ownership (governors last time were rightly, expatriates; they returned to Britain after their term or took up position in other colonies. Our presidents are all citizens and they are deeply rooted in Singapore.). Or perhaps both buildings are symbols of opulence, good for ceremonies and entertaining foreign guests, but no president should ever stay in a palace (Istana is Malay for palace).

Today, the Istana houses the office of the President and the Prime Minister. The latter (Prime Minister’s Office, PMO) is in the Istana Annex.

Sri Temasek

No access to Sri Temasek during Open House. Luckily there was a public lavatory nearby and this was as close I could get. The previous photo of Sri Temasek and its picturesque lawn was taken from non-public area, with a men-in-blue staring from afar.

The Villa, for Whom?

Istana Villa

Visitors will walk past a house on the way to the Istana. Called the Istana Villa, it was built in 1938. Not the residence of the President or Prime Minister, maybe for the butler? Just joking, I really do not know its purpose. It could be used to house foreign heads of state, a guesthouse?

Sri Temasek and Istana Villa were out of bounds during the Open House. Men-in-blue were stationed inconspicuously nearby to stop any unauthorised access.

Military Guardroom for the Guards?

Military Guardroom

This is the military guardroom of the Istana. It could be used by the sentries at the Istana Main Entrance. SAF Provost Unit supplies one unit of 20 guards monthly to perform ceremonial guard duties at the Istana.

Istana Guards

Hastily snapped this outside the guardroom. They were probably relieving the two sentries at the main gate. Photo was taken at 1016, so when are guards supposed to relieve duties?


Adelin said...

perhaps by the the time they reach and with all those fanciful hand gestures or whatever, it would be 1030am.

Anonymous said...

Great photos and very thought provoking! Keep on sharing.

Icemoon said...

Adelin, army is rush to wait, wait to rush.

SeenThisSceneThat, thanks for your encouragement. More Istana to come.

Victor said...

Woah, no wonder you had to do research the night before the visit. Very well-researched article. But next time, take note that the President appears only when the sun goes down.

Azmee Mohamed said...


Icemoonz, Mat Celopz here la. Hehehe..

Wah I see you went to the Istana.. I went there too, but I reached there at reaching 1pm...

Icemoon said...

Victor, thanks for the tip. Did you get to shake Nathan's hand? Haha.

Mat Celopz, good to see you here! I read your adventure, very creative photos you have there.

Victor said...

>Did you get to shake Nathan's hand?

No, I couldn't get past the President's men.