At the heart of the civic and cultural district of Singapore is the Padang, a large open field in front of the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings (presently home to the National Gallery Singapore). The Padang, which means field or open ground in Malay, was a place where sporting activities, social interactions and major celebrations took place.1 Today, this field of approximately 4.3 ha continues to be a venue for sporting and community events.2
History and development
When Sir Stamford Raffles and Major William Farquhar arrived in Singapore via the Singapore river, they saw a large piece of flat land between the sea and a tree-covered hill.3 Raffles decided this area was to be reserved for public use. However, while on a visit in 1822, Raffles discovered that his instructions had been disregarded, and European merchants had been allowed to build on that land. Further construction in the area was immediately halted, and a town committee was appointed to implement Raffles’s plan for the town of Singapore, which included an open space for social and public activities.4 In the town plan drawn by Lieutenant Philip Jackson and published in 1828, the Padang was labelled as an open square.5 This area was also called the Plain or Raffles Plain, and subsequently the Esplanade for some time until 1907 when it became known as the Padang.6
Encircling the Padang is Connaught Drive and St Andrew’s Road. Around 1890, the Padang was enlarged to twice the original size through reclamation, and a road called New Esplanade Road was constructed between the sea and the field. In 1907, the road was renamed Connaught Drive by the Municipal Council in commemoration of a visit in 1906 by the Duke of Connaught, the brother of King Edward VII. Similarly, St Andrew’s Road on the north side of the field was originally known as Esplanade Road.7
A 2.4-metre bronze statue of Sir Stamford Raffles used to stand on the field facing the sea. It was installed on 27 June 1887 in celebration of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. The statue was removed from the Padang and relocated to the front of the Victoria Memorial Hall at Empress Place in 1919, when Singapore commemorated the centenary of its founding by Raffles.8
Occupying the site along St Andrew’s Road and facing the Padang were houses that once belonged to Edward Boustead, owner of a commercial firm; Thomas Church, the resident councillor; and Dr William Montgomerie, the resident surgeon. The site of Boustead’s houses later became the Grand Hotel de l’Europe.9 Between the 1920s and 1930s, these houses and the hotel made way for the colonial government building programme. Under this programme, the City Hall (Municipal Building) designed by municipal architect F. D. Meadows and the former Supreme Court designed by municipal architect F. Dorrington Ward were constructed.10
On either end of the Padang are the Singapore Recreation Club (SRC) and the Singapore Cricket Club (SCC). Around where the SRC stands was once a small hill that was flattened for the installation of a battery of 12-pounder guns in defense against ship attacks. The site came to be known as Scandal Point, as people congregated there to gossip.11 Both club houses have been a feature of the Padang for more than a hundred years.
There were suggestions for the redevelopment of the Padang as early as the 1830s, when then Governor Robert Fullerton contemplated putting the area up for sale to developers. In the 1850s, the centre section of the Padang was considered as a viable site for the relocation of St Andrew’s Cathedral. In the 1930s, the government proposed turning the Padang into a plaza, but was forced to back down after the public rejected the idea. The Padang thus remains an open public space.12
Events and activities
The Padang has been the venue for many activities and major occasions, such as King George V’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1935 and the 1945 postwar victory parade marking the Japanese surrender.13 Even before the SRC and SCC were up and running, cricket was already being played on the Padang as far back as 1837. The Padang was then the main sporting field, with both clubs organising various sporting activities there, including tennis, hockey, football, bowls and athletics.14
New Year’s celebrations, including games, also took place on the Padang. Besides games like tug-of-war and football, various races such as foot races, jockey races, sack races, rickshaw races and even a race after a pig were held at the Padang on that day.15 On other days, people would gather at the Padang for a leisurely stroll or to socialise.
After 1959 and independence
The Padang was the venue for the inauguration of the first Yang di Pertuan Negara, Yusof Ishak, in 1959 when Singapore gained self-government. The Padang has been used for National Day Parades since 1966, and for Singapore’s Golden Jubilee National Day celebrations in 2015. It continues to be a venue for sports activities like cricket and tennis, and Formula 1 Grand Prix events. In August 2019, the National Heritage Board announced that the Padang will be gazetted as a national monument, recognising its historical significance to Singapore.16
1. Ray Tyers, Singapore, Then and Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2018), 144. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-HIS])
2. Melody Zaccheus, “ST Padang and Three Bridges at Singapore River to Be Designated National Monuments,” Straits Times, 3 August 2019.
3. Harold Frank Pearson, Stories of Early Singapore (London: University of London Press Ltd, 1955), 84. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 PEA-[JSB])
4. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 283. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
5. Philip Jackson, Plan of the Town of Singapore, 1828, survey map, Survey Department, Singapore. (National Archives of Singapore accession no. SP002981).
6. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 283.
7. Tyers, Singapore, Then and Now, 138–42.
8. “Centenary of Singapore,” Straits Times, 7 February 1919, 27 (From NewspaperSG); Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 377–78. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]).
9. Peter Keys, “Where There Is Still Time to Stand and Stare,” Straits Times, 30 August 1981, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 284; Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictorial History, 1819–2000 (Singapore: Archipelago Press in association with the National Heritage Board, 1999), 192. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS])
11. Tyers, Singapore, Then and Now, 138.
12. Sharp, Singapore Cricket Club, 10; Tyers, Singapore, Then and Now, 144–45.
13. Singapore Recreation Club, Singapore Recreation Club Celebrates 1883–2007 (Singapore: Singapore Recreation Club, 2008), 48. (Call no. RSING 796.0605957 SIN); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 285.
14. Sharp, Singapore Cricket Club, 19; George Murray Reith and Walter Makepeace, Handbook to Singapore with Map (Singapore: Fraser and Neave, 1907), 40. (Call no. RRARE 959.5703 REI-[LKL])
15. Donald Davies, “New Year Goings-on in the Old Days,” Straits Times, 26 December 1954, 10 (From NewspaperSG); “New Year Pageant Peculiar to Singapore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 30 December 1936, 15 (From NewspaperSG); Sharp, Singapore Cricket Club, 17.
16. Zaccheus, “ST Padang and Three Bridges.”
Lai Chee Kien, “The Padang: Centrepiece of Colonial Design,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2016).
The information in this article is valid as at March 2021 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.