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The Istana and Sri Temasek


Orchard Road, Singapore 238823

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Shielded from the bustling Orchard Road by a sprawling green lung, the Istana (which means “Palace” in Malay) serves as the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore. The well-manicured grounds are home to several buildings, including the Main Building (commonly referred to as the Istana), Sri Temasek, Istana Villa, and The Lodge.

Among these buildings, the Main Building and Sri Temasek hold particular significance. They have been graced by numerous local and foreign dignitaries through the years, and have also witnessed important milestones and events in Singapore's history. Together, they represent the sovereignty of Singapore as an independent state.

The Istana is a reflection of Singapore's rich cultural heritage and history. It was first built in 1869 as the residence of British colonial governors, and later became the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore after Singapore gained independence in 1965.

Over the years, the Istana has undergone extensive renovations and refurbishments to preserve its grandeur and heritage. Today, it stands as a magnificent symbol of Singapore's strength, resilience, and progress as a nation.

Government House

The Istana, originally known as Government House, was touted as ‘the finest building of its kind in the Far East’ in an 1890 guidebook to Singapore. Its construction was initiated by Sir Harry St George Ord, the first Governor of the Straits Settlements, who intended it to be the governor’s residence. The initial estimated construction cost was 100,000 Spanish dollars for labour, furnishings, and landscaping. Ord reassured the Legislative Council that extravagance and opulence would be avoided. As costs increased, Indian convict labour was brought in to cut spending. However, by the time the Government House was completed, the costs had mushroomed to more than 185,000 Spanish dollars – almost twice the original projected budget.

Occupants of the Istana

During World War II, the Japanese military seized control of the Istana. In 1943, the Japanese Supreme Commander Count Hisaichi Terauchi designated the magnificent residence as the General Headquarters of the Southern Expeditionary Forces, relocating it from Vietnam to Singapore. The domestic staff who had survived the bombings were brought back to the Istana to serve Terauchi, who reportedly treated them well. They were instructed to don their old uniforms and maintain the house as they had done before. While the Japanese redecorated a few rooms in their style and destroyed items bearing the British crest, they left much of the Government House intact.

After the war, the British regained ownership of the Istana and handed it over to Singapore's first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State), Encik Yusof bin Ishak, in 1959 when Singapore attained full self-governance. The building was then renamed Istana Negara Singapura (meaning "Palace of the State of Singapore" in Malay).

Since Singapore's independence in 1965, the Istana has been the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore. When the Istana underwent extensive renovations between 1996 and 1998, then-President Ong Teng Cheong temporarily shifted to the Former Command House on Kheam Hock Road.

Architecture and Furnishings of Istana Negara Singapura

The Main Building (Istana Negara Singapura) was designed by Colonial Engineer Major John F. A. McNair, who also served as the Superintendent of Convicts. He chose an eclectic style for the building, incorporating European and Malay elements in its architecture. Neo-Palladian influences can be seen in features such as Doric and Ionic pilasters and columns, architraves, cornices, and arches. At the same time, characteristics typical of Malay houses are also present, such as wide verandahs, large louvred windows, and dwarfed piers and arches that resemble stilts elevating the entire structure. These tropical adaptations provided much-needed ventilation in Singapore's tropical heat and can also be found in the Former Parliament House.

The Main Building has a symmetrical plan, with an imposing projected portico dominating its front façade, flanked by twin porticoes crowned with triangular pediments. The prominent central tower stands out from the rooftop. The marble used in the construction of the edifice was imported from Java.

Inside the Main Building are stately halls that function as venues for state ceremonies and receptions. Local officials are introduced to visiting heads of state and ministers in the Reception Hall, while foreign guests are hosted at state banquets in the Banquet Hall. Official ceremonies, such as the swearing-in of ministers and national award investitures, are held in the State Room. These halls display numerous state gifts, as well as artworks by local and foreign artists.

Architecture of Sri Temasek

Sri Temasek is a double-storey bungalow that was once the colonial secretary’s residence; it was then designated as the official residence of the Prime Minister after Singapore gained independence. Its name recalls Singapore’s ancient name, Temasek, which means ‘sea town’ in Javanese. The architecture of Sri Temasek is a mix of both European and Indian elements. Some noteworthy features in the building include the delicate and ornate fretwork on the building’s timber arcade and the main stairway leading to the second storey. Like the Main Building, Sri Temasek also has spacious verandahs on the ground floor.

The Istana and Sri Temasek Today

On certain holidays, the Istana grounds and the Main Building are open to the public. The Changing of the Guards ceremony is held at its main entrance on selected months.

The Istana and Sri Temasek were gazetted collectively as a National Monument.

Our National Monuments

Our National Monuments are an integral part of Singapore’s built heritage, which the National Heritage Board (NHB) preserves and promotes for posterity. They are monuments and sites that are accorded the highest level of protection in Singapore.

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