Singapore Conference Hall



The Singapore Conference Hall is located at 7 Shenton Way. Besides serving as the headquarters of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) from 1965 to 2000, it also witnessed many significant events in Singapore’s history. After extensive renovation works, it was reopened in 2001 as the home of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Formerly known as the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House, the building was gazetted as a national monument on 28 December 2010.1

Background
During the 1959 general election, the People’s Action Party (PAP) proposed to unify the trade union movement as part of its five-year plan for Singapore. Included in this plan was the promise to build a headquarters for the unions.2

Shortly after winning the elections, PAP relocated the elderly residents of Nantina Home, an old folks’ home on Queen Street, and converted the building into a temporary headquarters for the Singapore Trades Union Congress (STUC) and its affiliated unions. The unions had earlier rejected a vacant government bungalow on Canning Rise because it was deemed an inconvenient location. On 1 November 1959, the STUC moved from its former home on Towner Road into the temporary trade union house.3

Design and construction
In October 1960, the PAP government set up a planning committee headed by then Minister for Labour and Law K. M. Byrne to study the suitability of building the proposed trade union house on a vacant site on Armenian Street, which was previously occupied by St Andrew’s School. The committee eventually chose a site on Shenton Way in May 1961. The three-acre plot was three times larger than the one on Armenian Street. It was envisioned that the building would provide not only sufficient facilities for STUC and other unions, but also a space to host international conferences.4


The government launched an architectural competition on 14 June 1961 to select a design for the proposed building. The assessors were two local architects, Ng Keng Siang and Tio Seng Chin.5 The winning design, submitted by William Lim, Chan Voon Fee and Lim Chong Keat from Malayan Architects Co-Partnership, was announced on 17 March 1962. All 16 entries submitted for the competition were subsequently exhibited at the Victoria Memorial Hall from 19 to 24 March.6

On 8 August 1962, the foundation stone of the Trade Union House was laid by M. S. Munusamy, a school watchman randomly selected from among 42 rank-and-file trade unionists. By then, the government had dissolved STUC, and the unions in Singapore had split into two groups: Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) and NTUC.7 In 1963, following the arrests and detention of some SATU leaders under a security operation known as Operation Cold Store, SATU was declared an unlawful association and NTUC became Singapore’s only registered national trade union centre.8

Construction of the trade union house was completed by September 1965 and the $4-million building was opened by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 15 October, just two months after Singapore gained independence.9

Building features
Officially named the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House, the landmark was the first modern building on Shenton Way. It is recognised as a prime example of Singapore’s urban architecture in the 1960s and one of the earliest buildings to demonstrate distinctive Malayan features. It was designed to suit the local tropical climate, especially through the use of a cantilevered roof and terraces to provide shade and a natural ventilation system to keep the interior cool.10

The five-storey building consisted of two sections, with the trade union accommodation on one side and the conference hall on the other. In the union section, accessible by a separate entrance, the second to fourth floors were occupied by the offices of NTUC and its affiliated unions as well as a research library. There was a restaurant on the first floor, and its kitchen and service areas were on the ground floor below it. Reception rooms were also located on the ground floor.11

The other side of the building was the conference hall, which consisted mainly of a large exhibition hall on the ground floor and an auditorium above that could accommodate over 1,000 people.12 The exhibition hall covered an enclosed area of 28 m by 11 m, and could be subdivided into two or three sections for smaller events. The main feature of the conference hall was the three-storey-high auditorium, which had entrances located on the second and fourth floors. On the first floor below the auditorium were secretarial and administrative rooms, a lounge for delegates and a press room.13

The auditorium was designed to cater for international conferences. Its facilities included a projection room, sound control room, special soundproof booth for recording speeches, as well as equipment for radio and television broadcasting and simultaneous multilingual translation. In addition, an acoustic consultant was engaged to ensure that the hall would meet international acoustics standards for both conferences and musical performances.14

Renovations and change of use
Between 1988 and 1989, the Conference Hall and Trade Union House was renovated at a cost of S$2.5 million to improve NTUC’s operations. Although the government recognised the need for a new union building by 1990, it was only a decade later that the NTUC relocated its headquarters to bigger premises – the former POSB Centre on Bras Basah Road.15 The government then leased the Shenton Way building to the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), which needed a permanent venue for its rehearsals and performances.16


After the NTUC moved out, the SCO undertook extensive modifications to the building. The S$14.7-million renovation was completed in 2001. The building was reopened as the Singapore Conference Hall on 22 September that year by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.17 The original auditorium is now the SCO Concert Hall. The premises also house a resource library, score library, exhibition hall, sectional practice hall and studios.18

Historical significance
Since its opening, the building has been the site of many historic events. In 1971, it hosted the first Commonwealth Heads of Government conference to be held outside London.19 Besides international events, it was also the venue for national events like the 1969 state banquet to celebrate both National Day and the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore,20 the launch of the inaugural Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979,21 National Day Award ceremonies22 and National Day Rally speeches.23 It was also a nomination and counting centre during elections, where election results were announced and post-election press conferences were held.24


On 28 December 2010, the Singapore Conference Hall was gazetted as a national monument. This marked the first time the Preservation of Monuments Board had given this status to a structure built in post-colonial Singapore – an acknowledgement of its significance in Singapore’s history.25



Authors

Isabel Tan & Valerie Chew



References
1. National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall; Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 487. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Devi, G. U., et al. (2002). Singapore’s 100 historic places. Singapore: Archipelago Press, p. 90. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS]); Feng, Y. (2010, December 28). S’pore Conference Hall a national monument. The Straits Times, p. 3; Lui, J. (2011, January 5). Singapore Conference Hall was a stunner. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Site for Trade Union House selected. (1960, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. New headquarters for the T.U.C.. (1959, November 3). The Straits Times, p. 9; Old folk to make way for unions. (1959, July 11). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Designs sought for Trade Union House. (1961, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall
5. Designs sought for Trade Union House. (1961, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 4; Winners of design contest named. (1962, March 18). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN); Architectural competition for the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. (1962, October). Rumah: Journal of the Singapore Institute of Architects, 5, 9–34. (Call no.: RCLOS 720.5 R)
6. National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall; National Heritage Board. (2010, December 27). Two new national monuments celebrate Singapore’s post-independence years and contributions of notable individuals [Press release]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN); Winners of design contest named. (1962, March 18). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall; Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN); ‘Unknown’ hero lays stone of T. U. House. (1962, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Govt. says ‘no’ to Satu bid for federation. (1963, November 14). The Straits Times, p. 4; NTUC enters a new phase. (1964, January 10). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall; Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 487. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Leong, W. K. (2000, November 24). Orchestra gets a historic home. The Straits Times, p. 3; Leong, W. K. (2001, September 22). Singapore Chinese Orchestra gets own home. The Straits Times, p. H5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN)
10. An important centre for civic and cultural activities. (1965, October 15). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall; Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN); Devi, G. U., et al. (2002). Singapore’s 100 historic places. Singapore: Archipelago Press, p. 90. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
11. Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN)
12. National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall; Leong, W. K. (2000, November 24). Orchestra gets a historic home. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN)
14. Souvenir brochure for the opening of the Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House on 15th October 1965. (1965). Singapore: Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.9 SIN)
15. New NTUC HQ a one-stop centre. (2000, July 21). The Straits Times, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. National Heritage Board. (2016, April 12). Former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House. Retrieved 2016, December 5 from Roots website: https://roots.sg/Content/Places/national-monuments/former-singapore-conference-hall-and-trade-union-house-now-singapore-conference-hall
17. Leong, W. K. (2001, September 22). Singapore Chinese Orchestra gets own home. The Straits Times, p. H5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. New music on Shenton Way. (2001, July 23). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Liu, G. (1999). Singapore: A pictorial history 1819–2000. Singapore: Archipelago Press, p. 266. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS]); Devi, G. U., et al. (2002). Singapore’s 100 historic places. Singapore: Archipelago Press, p. 90. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
20. Lee, K. Y. (1969, August 8). The Prime Minister’s speech at the state banquet in celebration of National Day and the 150th anniversary of the founding of modern Singapore, held at Singapore Conference Hall on 8th, August, 1969. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
21. Lee to launch ‘use Mandarin campaign’. (1979, September 7). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Tan W. J. (1971, December 11). 154 given N-Day awards. The Straits Times, p. 19; N-Day awards. (1980, November 29). New Nation, p. 4; Investiture ceremony. (1990, November 15). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. (1984, August 19). National Day Rally: Speech by the Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Singapore Conference Hall [Video recording]; Singapore Broadcasting Corporation. (1985, August 18). National Day Rally: Speech by the Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Singapore Conference Hall [Video recording]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
24. Feng, Y. (2010, December 28). S’pore Conference Hall a national monument. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Feng, Y. (2010, December 28). S’pore Conference Hall a national monument. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources
Liu, G. (1999). Singapore: A pictorial history 18192000. Singapore: Archipelago Press; National Heritage Board.

(Call no.: RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS])

Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). (1984, August 19). National Day Rally: Speech by the Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew at Singapore Conference Hall. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). (1985, August 18). National Day Rally: Speech by the Prime Minister Me Lee Kuan Yew at Singapore Conference Hall. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

Singapore Conference Hall. (n.d.). About us: Singapore Conference Hall. Retrieved 2017, February 28 from Singapore Conference Hall website: https://www.sch.org.sg/aboutus-past.html

Singapore Conference Hall & Trade Union House. (1964, September). Rumah: Journal of the Singapore Institute of Architects, 7.
(Call no.: RCLOS 720.5 R)

Wee, L. (1999, September 16). New ‘parent’ for orchestra. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2011 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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Subject
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Monuments
Buildings--Singapore
National monuments
Historic buildings
Singapore Conference Hall--Buildings
Trade Union House--Buildings
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Historic Buildings
Monuments--Singapore