The Istana

Singapore Infopedia


The Istana is the official residence of the president of Singapore. Spanning over 40 ha, it is located along Orchard Road, Singapore’s prime shopping district.1 The present structure was designed and built by John Frederick Adolphus McNair in 1869,2 and originally served as the residence of the governor of the Straits Settlements and later the governor of the Colony of Singapore.3 Previously known as Government House, The Istana was gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992.4

Built shortly after Stamford Raffles had set up a trading post in Singapore in 1819, the first Government House was a wooden house with a thatched roof located on Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill; known today as Fort Canning Hill). The Government House was later extended, and redesigned in the neoclassical style by George Dromgold Coleman, Singapore’s pioneer colonial architect, before it was demolished in 1859.5

In 1867, with an initial sum of $100,000 approved by the Legislative Council, then Governor of the Straits Settlements Harry Ord purchased 106 ac (about 43 ha) of land belonging to merchant Charles Robert Prinsep, which was part of his nutmeg plantation, to build a new Government House.6 With colonial engineer McNair at the helm, construction of the new Government House (the current Istana) began that same year, with the foundation stone laid by Lady Ord in July 1867.7 Convict labourers from India, Ceylon and Hong Kong were brought in to work on the project. For 20 cents a day, these labourers served as stone masons, stone cutters, plumbers, carpenters and painters.8

As it was later decided that the building should be larger than the original plan, there was insufficient budget to complete the final phase of the construction. Fortunately, in February 1869, the Legislative Council approved an additional sum of $40,000 requested by McNair to finish the project. The building was finally completed in October 1869 at a total cost of $185,000, just in time for the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh to Singapore.9

The Government House became the official residence of colonial governors, housing a total of 21 governors during colonial rule in Singapore.10 It was renamed Istana Negara Singapura (Palace of the State of Singapore) in 1959 when Singapore gained self-government. The name was shortened to The Istana when Singapore became a sovereign republic in 1965.11

A well-proportioned building in the shape of a cross,12 The Istana’s architecture is similar to many 18th-century neo-Palladian buildings in India designed by British military engineers. Its layout includes features typical of Malay houses, such as wide verandahs, large louvred windows and panelled doors to improve ventilation and thus result in a cool, airy interior.13 The dwarfed piers and arches, which resemble stilts, elevate the structure of the building and thus help to provide the interior with the needed ventilation suitable for Singapore’s tropical weather.14 Dominating the entire structure is a central three-storey tower.15

The Istana underwent extensive renovation between 1996 to 1998 to create more room for state functions as well as to upgrade its mechanical and electrical services. The building currently has six function rooms used for various ceremonies and for guests’ accommodation.16

Within the Istana grounds are three other buildings: Sri Temasek (1869), which was originally built as a residence for the colonial secretary and now functions as the official residence of the prime minister,17 Istana Villa (1938) and the Lodge (1974).18 The Istana grounds is open to the public during the following public holidays: Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Hari Raya Puasa, Labour Day and National Day.19


Vernon Cornelius

1. “The Istana,” President’s Office, accessed 20 July 2016.
2. “History,” President’s Office, accessed 3 November 2016.
3. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 130. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
4. Preservation of Monuments (Consolidation) Order 1992, Sp. S 56/92, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 14 February 1992, 226–41. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
5. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 130–1.
6. Office of the President, Singapore, Our Istana: Through the Years (Singapore: Office of the President of the Republic of Singapore, 2015), 19 (Call no. RSING 959.57 OUR-[HIS]); President’s Office, “History.”
7. President’s Office, “History”; Pugalenthi Sr., Singapore Landmarks: Monuments, Memorials, Statues & Historic Sites (Singapore: VJ Times International, 1999), 53. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PUG-[HIS])
8. Office of the President, Singapore, Our Istana, 20; Pugalenthi, Singapore Landmarks, 53.
9. Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 21, 24 (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU); President’s Office, “History.”
10. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 218 (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 156. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
11. Office of the President, Singapore, Our Istana, 21.
12. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 24; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 131.
13. “The Grounds,” President’s Office, accessed 3 August 2016. (2013, January 25). 
14. Office of the President, Singapore, Our Istana, 20; President’s Office, “The Grounds.”
15. President’s Office, “The Grounds.”
16. “Istana to Undergo Major Revamp,” Business Times, 10 March 1994, 2 (From NewspaperSG); President’s Office, “The Istana.”
17. Office of the President, Singapore, Our Istana, 127–8; Pugalenthi, Singapore Landmarks, 54.
18. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 218; “100 Years of History,” Straits Times, 5 November 1983, 9; “The Past and the Present,” Straits Times, 12 May 1988, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
19. President’s Office, “The Grounds.”  

Further resource
The Istana Singapore: Its Grounds and Landscape (Singapore: President’s Office. 1994). (Call no. RSING 725.17095957 IST)

The information in this article is valid as of 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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