by Sutherland, Duncan
Sri Temasek is a 19th-century bungalow designated as the prime minister’s official residence.1 It was formerly the residence of the colonial secretary. While the house has been unoccupied since 1959, it was used regularly for meetings and official social events during the 1960s and 1970s. The building deteriorated during a period of disuse, but was restored in 2008. The house is situated within the grounds of The Istana.
The bungalow was designed by J. F. A. McNair, the colonial engineer who also designed the Government House (now The Istana). It was constructed in 1869 for the colonial secretary, the second-highest-ranking official in the Straits Settlements.2 For 90 years, the building served as a home for a succession of colonial secretaries and their families, and as a venue for official entertaining.3
Soon after Singapore attained self-rule in June 1959, the house was named Sri Temasek (meaning “splendour of Temasek”), the original Javanese name for Singapore.4 While the bungalow was also refurbished for then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the Lee family remained in their Oxley Road home as Lee and his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, wanted a more modest lifestyle for their children. However, Lee did relax on the golf green in the evenings with his family, and Lee’s wife had a fragrant garden nearby.5
Used extensively for official purposes, Sri Temasek had a higher profile during this period relative to the colonial days. It hosted some of the discussions on merger with Malaya, as well as a reception for officials who had worked on the merger referendum in 1962. Upon Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, ministers were summoned to Sri Temasek to sign the separation agreement. For security reasons, Lee’s family also stayed in the house during the week of the separation announcement.6
After Singapore became an independent republic, many visiting foreign dignitaries were received at Sri Temasek, including Jordan’s King Hussein, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, British Prime Minister Edward Heath and American Senator Edward Kennedy. In 1983, the house was used for Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen’s lying-in-state. Goh Chok Tong also lunched with ministers there before his first cabinet meeting as prime minister in 1990.7
Sri Temasek is a symmetrical two-storey bungalow situated on a hillock within the grounds of The Istana. Combining Eastern and Western elements, Sri Temasek is a white building with a red pyramid roof. It has a front portico with three Tuscan columns, and at the sides and back of the house are deep verandahs. The second-storey balustrades are decorated with figure-eight patterns and above the porch are green Chinese breeze blocks with various designs.8
The ground-floor verandah is characterised by arches of delicate fretwork and Malay-style fascia beneath the roof eaves. The doorways have swinging pintu pagars (“wooden half-doors”) for privacy when the main doors are kept open for ventilation. Behind the house, a covered walkway leads to storerooms and the former servants’ quarters. A tall water tower stands next to the site of a now-demolished two-storey annex.9
On the ground floor, two front doors lead into a foyer, at one end of which is a staircase featuring Asian swastikas on the balustrade.10 The foyer and main room have marble floors and there are smaller rooms at the back of the house.11 Typical of such buildings, the bedrooms are located on the upper floor to take advantage of cross-ventilation, and each one opens onto the verandah. An upstairs drawing room extending above the porch features a round wooden moon gate, a traditional Chinese feature.12
The bungalow has a total floor space of almost 1,558 sq m.13
Decline and restoration
Along with The Istana, Sri Temasek was gazetted a national monument in February 1992.14 With infrequent use, however, the bungalow deteriorated due to weather, termites and age, thus necessitating an extensive restoration programme.15
CPG Consultants undertook the restoration project, which began in 2006. They carried out essential structural repairs, and restored or recreated fine architectural details. Some timber parts were replaced with termite-proof aluminium. The 19th-century brick pit along the driveway was restored,16 while a new kitchen and washrooms were installed. The former servants’ quarters was converted into a heritage gallery.17
Completion in 2008, the Sri Temasek restoration project won the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Architectural Heritage Award.18
In 2008, Sri Temasek was the setting for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day message.19 In 2010, the funeral for Kwa Geok Choo was held at Sri Temasek and attended by some 14,000 people.20 A private family wake for Lee Kuan Yew was also held in Sri Temasek from 23 to 24 March 2015.21
1. Tay Suan Chiang, “Heritage Winners,” Straits Times, 4 October 2008, 105. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Tan Wee Kiat et al., Gardens of the Istana (Singapore: National Park Boards, 2003), 110. (Call no. RSING q635.095957 GAR)
3. Lee Siew Hua, “Silent Star of Singapore,” Straits Times, 13 August 2008, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 381. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
5. Lee, “Silent Star of Singapore.”
6. Lee, “Silent Star of Singapore.”
7. Lee, “Silent Star of Singapore.”
8. “Sri Temasek: Heritage on a Hill,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, accessed 25 April 2017; Tay Suan Chiang, “Grand Dame’s Facelift,” Straits Times, 4 October 2008, 106. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Urban Redevelopment Authority, “Heritage on a Hill.”
10. Urban Redevelopment Authority, “Heritage on a Hill.”
11. Urban Redevelopment Authority, “Heritage on a Hill.”
12. “Sri Temasek,” President’s Office, accessed 20 March 2017.
13. Urban Redevelopment Authority, “Heritage on a Hill.”
14. Robert Powell, Living Legacy: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage Renewed (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1994), 210. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 POW)
15. Goh Kim Chai, “Heritage on a Hill,” Skyline (November–December 2008), 17–18. (From BookSG)
16. Goh, “Heritage on a Hill,” 18–19.
17. Goh, “Heritage on a Hill,” 18–19.
18. Tay, “Heritage Winners.”
19. Tay, “Heritage Winners.”
20. Lynda Hong, “Methodist Girls’ School Pays Tribute to Mrs Lee,” Today, 5 October 2010, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Prime Minister’s Office, “Period of National Mourning Declared,” press release, 23 March 2015.
The information in this article is valid as of 2015 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.
Heritage and Culture
Politics and Government
Streets and Places