Young Men’s Christian Association

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Singapore is located at 1 Orchard Road.1 Founded on the same Christian principles as its parent in Britain, the YMCA was officially established in Singapore on 30 June 1903. In its early years, the organisation was instrumental in providing members with access to self-enrichment programmes and sports facilities. Today, it caters to members of all religions and ethnicities through educational and social interaction activities.2

Background of YMCA movement

The YMCA was started by George Williams in London in 1844.3 Poor working conditions were the norm then and there was little opportunity for social and spiritual development. The pioneer members met regularly to socialise and study the Bible. The group was then known as a self-help and spiritual group for young industrial workers, but later called itself the YMCA. The concept soon gained a following as other industrial companies and factories started their own groups. Over time, the YMCA grew into a worldwide movement, with associations set up across the world.4

Establishment of YMCA in Singapore
There are several accounts of how the YMCA was founded in Singapore. According to writer Walter Makepeace, prominent officials and missionaries signed an appeal in 1900 to set up the YMCA in Singapore.5 Separately, businessman G. W. Lovell was said to have advocated for the establishment of YMCA in Singapore in order to divert British youth in the colony away from vices such as gambling and prostitution. He encouraged John R. Mott, an influential figure among the Protestants and a vigorous champion of the YMCA, to approach the English National Council of YMCAs for the services of an experienced general secretary to help set up a YMCA branch in Singapore. Robert Pringle, who was instrumental in starting the YMCA in Bombay (India) and Colombo (Sri Lanka), was subsequently sent to Singapore.6 With his expertise, the YMCA of Singapore was officially established on 30 June 1903 at Nos. 1 and 2 Armenian Street.7

As the YMCA grew in membership and expanded its range of programmes, it was relocated in 1904 to another building on the same street called Zetland House, which had formerly housed the American Embassy.8

Further expansion was again required, and in 1909 the government granted the YMCA a 999-year lease for a site in Dhoby Ghaut. The YMCA officially moved to its new Orchard Road premises in 1911.9

Among the work that the YMCA does is promoting sports for healthy living and development.10 The organisation was instrumental in introducing many sports to youths in Singapore by providing access to proper facilities including tennis courts, grounds for football, hockey, cricket as well as Singapore’s first swimming pool.11

The YMCA also offers technical and commercial education programmes for youths to further their studies and learn new skills.12 Technical education sessions began in 1913, while shorthand and book-keeping courses were started in 1919. Classes in typewriting and accountancy followed soon after. There were also classes to aid preparation for the London Chamber of Commerce examinations.13

Japanese Occupation

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, all British YMCA administrators and staff were interned in Changi Prison. The YMCA building on Orchard Road was seized and turned into the interrogation and torture headquarters of the Kempeitai (secret military police).14 The Japanese installed jail cells within the building and tortured the prisoners.15 War heroine Elizabeth Choy was a YMCA member accused of relaying messages to British internees. She was imprisoned for a total of 193 days and tortured by electric shock, beatings and starvation.16

After the end of World War II, there were differing views on what should be done with the YMCA building. Although the British had wanted it demolished and then to designate the open space as a memorial to those who had suffered under the Japanese, the building became a Forces Centre for a Salvation Army services welfare team from India. The YMCA finally managed to reclaim the building following numerous discussions. After much hard work, fundraising and refurbishment, the YMCA resumed operations in the Orchard Road building in December 1946.17

In 1969, plans were underway for rebuilding the Orchard Road premises. However, the rebuilding committee had to revise their proposal many times before gaining approval from the authorities.18 Approval was eventually obtained by 1979 for the construction of a nine-storey building.19 Two donation draws were then held in 1981 and 1982 to raise funds for the rebuilding.20 Reopened on 24 November 1984, the building at 1 Orchard Road is currently the headquarters of the YMCA of Singapore.21

Related associations

As the YMCA in Singapore was established with British youth in mind, some local personalities, such as philanthropist and social reformer Chen Su Lan, wanted a second YMCA to serve the interests of the Chinese majority. Attempts to start a Chinese YMCA began as early as 1924, but the idea was strongly opposed by the British authorities and the original YMCA in Singapore.22 However, Chen persevered and the Chinese YMCA was finally set up in 1946.23 In March 1974, the Chinese YMCA was renamed Metropolitan YMCA (MYMCA) to reflect its aim to serve people of all ethnicities.24 Even though both the MYMCA and the YMCA belong to the international YMCA movement and have similar aims, they remain separate organisations.25

Besides the MYMCA and the YMCA, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) was also established in Singapore. It was set up in 1875 by educator and missionary, Sophia Cooke.26 The YWCA is a sister organisation of the YMCA and caters to the interests and needs of women in Singapore.27

YMCA today

As an organisation built on Christian principles, the YMCA reaches out to the youths in Singapore and encourages healthy development, in keeping with the Christian ideals of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.28 Volunteerism and community work are promoted through camps and programmes to aid the less fortunate in Singapore.29

In recent years, the YMCA has worked hard to establish itself as a charity organisation.30 With a large pool of volunteers, the organisation hosts a wide range of activities for reaching out to the needy and less fortunate in Singapore.31 It also has international exchange programmes that gives the opportunity for local students to help the less fortunate overseas.32


Cherylyn Tok & Neo Tiong Seng

1. “Contact Us,” YMCA of Singapore, 11 January 2017.
2. Robbie B. H. Goh, Christian Ministry and the Asian Nation: The Metropolitan YMCA in Singapore, 1946–2006 (Singapore: Metropolitan YMCA, 2006), 23 (Call no. RSING 267.395957 GOH); Raymond Flower, The Y: First 100 Years in Singapore, 1902–2002 (Singapore: Young Men’s Christian Association of Singapore, 2002), 6 (Call no. RSING q267.395957 FLO); “History,” YMCA of Singapore, 11 January 2017.
3. YMCA of Singapore, “History.”
4. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 16–24.
5. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 6.
6. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 5–6.
7. Goh, Christian Ministry and the Asian Nation, 23; Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 6.
8. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 7.
9. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 8.
10. Rowland Lyne, et al., The YMCA of Singapore: 90 Years of Service to the Community (Singapore: Young Men’s Christian Association of Singapore, 1992), 45 (Call no. RSING 267.395957 YMC); “Organisational Profile,” YMCA of Singapore, 11 January 2017.
11. “YMCA Singapore,” World Alliance of YMCAs, 12 January 2017.
12. World Alliance of YMCAs, “YMCA Singapore.”
13. Lyne, et al., YMCA of Singapore, 59.
14. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 41–42.
15. “Doctor Given Shock Torture Treatment,” Straits Times, 17 February 1946, 3; "Singaporeans Share Their War-Time Experiences at Talk,” Straits Times, 9 December 1991, 4; “Curtain Drops on ‘Double Tenth’ Case,” Indian Daily Mail, 16 April 1946, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 42.
16. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 42.
17. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 45–46.
18. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 87.
19. Gloria Chandy, “Why There Were Only Europeans,” New Nation, 21 May 1979, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Work on YMCA Complex to Start Soon,” Straits Times, 5 April 1981, 5; “Page 12 Advertisements Column 4,” Straits Times, 10 November 1982, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 89.
22. Flower, First 100 Years in Singapore, 48–49.
23. “Values & Heritage,” Metropolitan YMCA, accessed 22 January 2017.
24. “New Name for Chinese YMCA,” Straits Times, 7 April 1974, 9. (From  NewspaperSG)
25. World Alliance of YMCAs, “YMCA Singapore.”
26. “Milestones,” YWCA, 22 January 2017.
27. “Y.M.C.A. Receives the Y.W.C.A.,” Straits Times, 4 October 1911, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Vision, Mission and Core Values,” YMCA of Singapore, 11 January 2017. 
29. “Organisational Profile,” YMCA of Singapore, accessed 11 January 2017. 
30. “IPC Status,” YMCA of Singapore, accessed 22 January 2017.
31. “Organisational Profile,” YMCA of Singapore, accessed 11 January 2017.
32. “University-YMCA (Uni-Y),” YMCA of Singapore, 11 January 2017.

The information in this article is valid as of 2017 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. 

Young Men's Christian associations--Singapore
Social work with youth--Singapore
Christian communities--Singapore