Oct 31, 2010

National Art Gallery Open House – From where did our PM see the Cows?

City Hall and Former Supreme Court

As I stood dejected in City Hall, having missed out the goodie bag and the organized tour despite being an early bird, I resigned to fate, became my own tour guide and found my way to the Chamber. Alas, it was darkened for some architectural video screening. Then it hit me that I am now lost, wandering along the corridors of City Hall and not knowing what is my objective. At this moment, my mind recalled a photo in Dr Tan’s stamp book and instantly my interest in City Hall was re-aroused.

You can find the photo in the Retrievia blog where the authors have kindly put the book up online.

Carpeting the Padang
Coincidentally when I saw this, I was once again reminded of the photo in the stamp book. This was taken at the Padang after my Open House visit. I think they used this CAT vehicle to re-carpet the Padang, see my other photo for a better view.

Why was my interest in City Hall aroused by a photo of bull power on the Padang? The image of the poor beast toiling in front of City Hall reminded me of a little but significant account in Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs when he talked about greening Singapore and I quote:

One morning in November 1964 I looked across the Padang from my office window at City Hall to see several cows grazing on the Esplanade! A few days later a lawyer driving on a main road just outside the city hit a cow and died.

Source: From Third World to First – The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

MM Lee's memoirs - From Third World to First - The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

Incidentally Dr Tan’s stamp book covered the first incident when he wrote about the bullock cart. You can read it here.

From where did the lawyer hit the cow?

The second account is interesting. How could a cow been hit but the driver was the casualty instead? So I tried to dig out more information from the media to corroborate MM’s account of the incident. Can you guess the name of this main road?

Lawyer dies as car hits a cow

A Singapore lawyer, Mr Lim Seow Beng, 38, died early today after a motor accident at the 6th mile, Bukit Timah Road …. Mr Lim was turning into Dunearn Road from Bukit Timah Road on his way home in Oriole Crescent when a cow came into his path. His car collided into the cow and he was flung out as it plunged into a monsoon drain. Mr Lim died on the way to the General Hospital.

Source: The Straits Times, 16 November 1964

Street Directory Oriole Crescent
Where did the accident happen? 6ms Bukit Timah would be at the Namly / Eng Neo area. Since the report tells us the driver turned into Dunearn Road from Bukit Timah Road, it should not be at Eng Neo junction that he turned. More likely he made a U-turn before the junction. Linden Road would be a good place to turn in to reach his home in Oriole Crescent, the U-shaped road behind Nanyang Girls' High School. I'm speculating a lot here based on this 2010 street directory. (Source:

The U-turn before Eng Neo junction. This could be where the lawyer hit the cow. Many questions remain unanswered. Was the cow grazing on the grass patch beside the U-turn? How could the car plunge into the monsoon drain from the impact, i.e. was the cow that heavy or was the driver speeding? The accident could have happened in the wee hours since the report mentions he "died early today" on the way to hospital. (Source: Google Maps)

From where did MM see the cows?

So what is the significance of both incidents to our nation? I quote the book again:

The city became scruffy while we were in Malaysia, after two communal riots in July and September 1964. Morale went down and discipline slackened. Two incidents stirred me to action.

You can find the passage just before the mention of the bovine incidents. So you see, both incidents were the triggers that stirred MM Lee (then Prime Minister of Singapore) to restore the morale and discipline lacking during our unsuccessful stint in Malaysia (read the book to find out what MM did to those Esplanade cows). In the same chapter where MM wrote about greening Singapore, he mentioned that "Greening raised the morale of people and gave them pride in their surroundings". Indeed the cleaning up and greening efforts made us proud and visitors envious.

I'm surprised to discover the National Environment Agency has a website on Clean and Green Singapore. I can't link our current campaign to what MM wrote in his memoirs about greening Singapore. His challenges then were to grow more plants and trees. We must be pretty expert at that now; nowadays much of the work is on waterways and parks, how to integrate them into our living environment.

The sighting of the cows from the window was therefore a small historic moment for Singapore. MM must have been shocked and even angered to find cows on the Esplanade (notice the use of exclamation marks in his description); the low morale and discipline must have been "tak boleh tahan" for him. The rest, as we know, is history (if you don't know, read his memoirs).

From where exactly did MM see the cows? That would be inside the Prime Minister’s office in City Hall. Unfortunately I had absolutely no clue where was the PM Office in the building and the Open House kits were of no help.

The National Art Gallery Open House Activity Guide is the biggest brochure I have ever seen for an open house, unfortunately the floor layout plan inside does not show the location of the Prime Minister Office. The tour brochure (pictured above), designed for losers like me who missed out on the organized tour self-guided tour, emphasizes more on the former Supreme Court. That City Hall once housed the office of Singapore's first Prime Minister is mentioned but its exact location is not revealed.

Perhaps the organized tours brought participants to the PM Office; in that case maybe one of my readers will know the answer.

Common sense tells us that in order for MM Lee to "look across the Padang" from his office window, the room itself must be fronting the Padang. I checked with the activity guide and my memory. On level 2, after the steps and main entrance, the rooms on the left and right were closed. On level 3, only the room on the left was opened (they call it Visitors' Corner). In short, the Visitors' Corner was the only room fronting the Padang opened to the public. Curious about how MM Lee might have seen the cows grazing on the Esplanade, I went in for a "second shot".

City Hall - No access
There seems to be a level 4 in City Hall but the organizers sealed it off during Open House. I wonder what is up there, more offices?

City Hall - Visitors' Corner
The Visitors' Corner was a big room where I found the wall of signatures. I took my "second shot" from the window to the left of this picture.

View of Esplanade from City Hall
View of Esplanade from City Hall - my "second shot" of how MM Lee might have seen the cows. See Marina Bay Sands? In 1964 he was dead set against gambling. While he might have already envisioned the Marina Bay land reclamation from his office window and therefore a new skyline, he would not imagine gambling as its raison d'etre.

Aerial Photo, Stamford Bridge
1950s aerial photo of City Hall, Padang and Esplanade. Where were the cows grazing on the Esplanade? Assuming they grazed on what later became the Satay Club and Esplande Theatres, one would have to look across the Padang and beyond the moderately-wooded Connaught Dr. to see the animals, assuming his line of sight from the office window is not blocked by the Corinthian columns of City Hall!


Adelin said...

wah, even this also stir your interest?!

Icemoon said...

I like to stand in the office of giants and see things from their perspective. :P

Adelin said...

heh. but there's still no definite answer right?

Icemoon said...

Yea, case closed. lol

thanida said...

Great blog! There is lots of good information, not only me but also everyone can understand it easily


Photographer Matt Smith said...

Nice post thanks foor sharing