Former Custom House building

Singapore Infopedia


The former Custom House building located on Maxwell Road served as the headquarters of the Department of Customs and Excise (now Singapore Customs) from June 1932 to August 1989.1 The building was designed by Frank Dorrington Ward, who was the chief architect of the Public Works Department (PWD) from 1928 to 1939.2 The building was given conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in 2007. Custom House was renamed Maxwell Chambers in 2010 and designated a historic site by the National Heritage Board (NHB) in the same year.3


The four-storey former Custom House building was commissioned and built by the PWD in 1932 at a cost of $313,000. It was initially built to house the Department of Customs and Excise, one of Singapore’s oldest tax collection and border protection agencies. Other occupants of the building were the Film Censor’s Office and the Maxwell Road Post Office.4

The customs and excise department handled administrative functions such as issuance of permits for import and export and revenue collection, and conducted special investigations. From the late 1940s to 1970s, the department’s officers used Custom House as a base to suppress the smuggling of contraband and drugs, as well as the illicit distillation of liquor.Drug trafficking in Singapore was at its peak in the mid-1970s. According to a newspaper report, a closely guarded room at Custom House had, at one time during this period, stored up to S$10 million worth of drugs such as heroin and opium seized from traffickers as well as confiscated gold bars and cash.6

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, the building became a place of refuge for expatriate customs officers and their families who had escaped from Malaya. It also sheltered Australian soldiers who were rescued after being attacked by Japanese troops. The customs department also played a significant role in war relief funding efforts by collecting taxes on fireworks, playing cards and rubber.7

Through the years, Custom House has witnessed many of the customs department’s organisational and name changes. First established as the Government Monopolies Department in 1910, it was renamed the Excise Department in 1935 and then the Department of Customs and Excise in 1938. The department was reconstituted as Singapore Customs in April 2003 and made its headquarters at Revenue House located along Newton Road.8

Custom House was also the scene of a number of dramatic moments. In 1958, a man sustained serious head injuries as a result of a fall from a first-floor window of the building when he tried to escape an interrogation about illicit liquor.9 In 1972, a steel-framed window fell 40 ft (about 12 m) from the second floor of the building, with the resulting flying glass splinters hitting and injuring four people, including a child.10


Between 1959 and 1973, Custom House underwent several renovations and extensions as the customs department expanded. In 1959, a new lift was installed and the entrance hall was renovated to provide a proper entrance to the building.11

As the number of customs staff increased from around 600 in 1963 to about 1,100 in 1967, and added responsibilities given to the department as a result of rising smuggling activities, more office space was needed for the department. Hence, Custom House was again renovated in 1967 as part of a S$215,000 extension plan that increased the floor area of the building by 1,060 sq m.12

In 1973, the building was fully air-conditioned at a cost of S$365,000 to provide staff with more comfortable working conditions and structural modifications were carried out to add a fourth floor to the building. In addition, a new lift to the Film Censor’s Office and a PABX telephone system, costing about S$155,000 in total, were installed. With the new telephone system installed, members of the public would find it easier to contact customs staff.13

Architectural features

The style and architecture of Custom House is reminiscent of other buildings designed by Frank Dorrington Ward, which include the former Supreme Court building, the former Traffic Police Headquarters building (now the Red Dot Design Museum), and the old Hill Street Police Station and Barracks building (previously Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts Building and renamed Old Hill Street Police Station in 2012).14

Custom House was designed around a courtyard surrounded by rooms with windows for light and air to enter. This design worked well in Singapore’s hot and humid climate before the days of air-conditioning. Its main entrance comprised a curved façade that demonstrated how a building could be designed and constructed around a street corner. Other notable design features include abstract sun-like motifs and steel-framed windows that were typically found in architectural designs of the 1930s.15

With their stately neoclassical features, the former Custom House and the former Traffic Police Headquarters building contributed greatly to Maxwell Road’s historical charm and appeal. Both were gazetted as conservation buildings by the URA on 2 April 2007.16 The NHB also acknowledged Custom House’s architectural and historical significance, and designated it as Singapore’s 88th historic site on 8 October 2010.17

Relocation of Customs Department

In 1989, the Customs and Excise department moved its headquarters to larger, rented premises at the World Trade Centre.18 The vacated Custom House was refurbished, renamed White House and leased out by the Land Office (now Singapore Land Authority) for commercial use.19

In 2006, the Ministry of Law and the Economic Development Board jointly announced plans to set up an arbitration centre at the former Custom House. Singapore was fast becoming a venue of choice in Asia for the settling of commercial disputes out of court, and the centre was part of the government’s initiatives to encourage the growth of Singapore as an arbitration hub.20

To cater to the needs of the arbitration centre, conservation and addition works were carried out on the building and completed at a cost of S$17 million in July 2007. A new facade with a drop-off point for vehicles was built at the back of the building. However, the facades facing Maxwell Road were faithfully restored and preserved, along with the rotunda and domed roof that used to serve as the entrance to the building.21

Maxwell Chambers
Custom House was renamed Maxwell Chambers upon its official opening as an arbitration centre in January 2010. The opening was attended by government officials as well as experts and practitioners from the international legal and arbitration fields. Branded as the world’s first integrated arbitration facility featuring the use of modern technology, the centre has 14 fully equipped hearing rooms and 12 preparation rooms, and provides translation, recording and secretarial services.22

Maxwell Chambers houses many international arbitration institutions, including the Singapore International Arbitration Centre and the International Centre for Dispute Resolution.23 In addition to its state-of-the-art arbitration facilities,24 the building has also become a dining destination with eateries and casual bistros serving Italian, Japanese and Asian cuisines.25

Maxwell Chambers was one of the five winning projects of the 2012 URA Architectural Heritage Awards. The annual award aims to “promote quality restoration of monuments and buildings with preservation and conservation status in Singapore.”26


Renee Seow

1. “Customs Buildings,” Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, accessed 2012;   Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building,” press release, 8 October 2010; Kimberly Spykerman, “Custom House Marked as Historic Site,” Straits Times, 9 October 2010. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Maxwell Chambers,” Straits Times, 6 October 2012 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; Natasha Ann Zachariah, “Heritage’s High-Five,” Straits Times, 6 October 2012, 16–17 (From NewspaperSG); Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 442. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
3. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building.”
4. Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, “Customs Buildings”; Spykerman, “Custom House Marked as Historic Site”; Tay Suan Ching, “Jailhouse Rocks,” Straits Times, 23 January 2010, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Our History,” Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, accessed 2014; “Heritage Gallery,” Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, accessed 2014.
6. K. S. Sidhu, “Out – Secrets of Customs Strong Room,” Straits Times, 17 October 1979, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; Spykerman, “Custom House Marked as Historic Site.”
8. Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, “Customs Buildings”; “New Customs HQ,” Straits Times, 15 May 1996, 27 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; Tay, “Jailhouse Rocks.”
9. “Man Injured in Fall from Customs Office,” Straits Times, 4 September 1958, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Spykerman, “Custom House Marked as Historic Site.”
10. Edward Liu, “Four Hurt as Window Falls 40 Feet,” Straits Times, 5 January 1972, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building.”
12. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; “S’pore Customs Build-Up to Check Rise in Smuggling Activities,” Straits Times, 2 August 1967, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
13. William Campbell, “Cool Comfort Soon for Customs House Staff,” Straits Times, 11 April 1972, 7; “Customs’ $365,000 Air-Con,” Straits Times, 27 September 1974, 7; “Liao Is Promoted Asst Comptroller of Customs,” Straits Times, 1 April 1972, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Maxwell Chambers”; “Old Hill Street Police Station,” Ministry of Communications and Information, accessed 5 December 2012; Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; Zachariah, “Heritage’s High-Five.”
15. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 442.
16. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; “Customs House,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, accessed 8 October 2010.
17. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; Spykerman, “Custom House Marked as Historic Site.”
18. “Customs and Excise Dept Moving to New Offices in WTC,” Straits Times, 9 August 1989, 16; “Customs Dept to Shift Home Base,” Straits Times, 7 June 1989, 41 (From NewspaperSG); Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, “Customs Buildings.”
19. Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building”; Tay, “Jailhouse Rocks.”
20. Khushwant Singh, “S’pore Gears Up to Be Top Arbitration Centre in Asia,” Straits Times, 6 October 2006, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “International Arbitration Centre,” Forum Architects Pte Ltd, accessed 7 November 2011.
22. Maxwell Chambers, “Arbitration Experts in Singapore for Landmark Conference and the Launch of Maxwell Chambers, press release, 21 January 2010; Singapore Customs and National Heritage Board, “Customs Heritage Preserved in History Building.”
23. Spykerman, “Custom House Marked as Historic Site”; “Offices,” Maxwell Chambers, accessed 2011. 24. “Maxwell Chambers”; Zachariah, “Heritage’s High-Five”; Tay, “Jailhouse Rocks.”
25. “Food & Beverage,” Mawell Chambers, accessed 2011; Tay, “Jailhouse Rocks.”
26. “Maxwell Chambers Wins URA Architectural Heritage Award,” AsiaOne, 5 October 2012; “2012 URA Architectural Heritage Awards (Category B),” Urban Redevelopment Authority, accessed 2012.

The information in this article is valid as of 1 July 2013 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 resources on the topic.

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