Istana Park

A tropical oasis in the heart of Orchard Road, the Istana Park was officially opened on 6 September 1996.1 It is bordered by Orchard Road, Penang Road, Penang Lane and Buyong Road. The 1.3-hectare Istana Park is a landmark situated opposite The Istana, Singapore’s presidential palace.2 The park was designed and built as an extension to the main entrance of The Istana.3 It has a number of unique features not found in other parks in Singapore.4 

Plans to turn the area fronting the entrance of The Istana into a lush landscaped park marking the entrance to the Civic District were first unveiled to the public on 20 February 1992. Lee Yiok Seng, then Senior Parliamentary Secretary (National Development), unveiled this plan when he opened a public exhibition at Marina Square. Teh Tien Yong, the architectural head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), revealed that two design proposals were being considered. The preferred design was a layout which focused on a central core consisting of a water feature and planting beds. Teh explained that the main reason for building a park in front of The Istana was to give “more prominence” to its entrance.5

By November 1993, design plans for the park were finalised. Landscape architectural consultant firm, Ren Matsui Landscape Design, drew up the concept and design for the park, while the Public Works Department provided architectural and engineering design services. The park cost S$13 million and occupies an area the size of about 1.5 football fields.6 Palms and plants indigenous to the region were grown in the park, in order to blend in with the entrance to The Istana, which had undergone a S$1.7-million improvement project earlier.7

Work on the Istana Park was completed in late 1995. The park was officially opened on 6 September 1996 by then National Development Minister Lim Hng Kiang.8 The park serves as a gateway to the Civic District, a historically significant area comprising important landmarks, civic, cultural and historical buildings, as well as public parks in the heart of the city.9 The park was hence designed to evoke a feeling of formality and grandeur.10 

The Istana Park has several unique features. Its identifying landmark is the Festival Arch centrepiece.11 This is a 26-metre long, four-storey high concrete and stainless steel structure rising from a rectangular pool with slow, flowing water.12 The Arch was designed by design consultant, Ren Matsui.13 He conceived the idea for its structure by studying the gates of The Istana,14 from which banners and flags fly during national events.15 The Arch is symbolic of the park’s location as a gateway to the Civic District, as well as its proximity to The Istana.16

At the base of the Festival Arch is a rectangular pool.17 The pool is one-third the size of an Olympic pool with a water depth of 40 cm. It is called the “reflecting pool” as park users are able to see the reflection of the arch in the pool.18 Dwarf coconut palm trees are planted in specially designed plots within eight small Palm Pools. This makes the trees look like they are growing in the water, reinforcing the impression of a tropical oasis in the heart of Orchard Road.19

More than 151 species of plants are grown in the park. The plants are sourced from Malaysia, Indonesia and around the region. It includes some unusual flora, such as the Elephant Fern, with fronds that can grow up to 3 m long. Palm trees planted include the Fishtail, the Rhapis, the Assai, and the Foxtail from Queensland, Australia, with its leaves arranged in a circular plume and resembling a fox’s tail.20 Variegated Giant Reeds, a type of grass with blades striped in different shades of green and yellow, are also grown.21 In addition, there are beds of colourful Heliconia and Anthurium, and assorted foliage plants.22 The eastern side of the park is a lush tropical garden with six different zones that showcase tropical plants. One of them is a water plant zone with aquatic grasses and lilies.23

Lighting in the park was specially designed to illuminate its main features, especially the Arch and the greenery. Plants like the Yellow Flame trees and coconut palms are lit from the ground so that their branch patterns stand out at night.24 The park’s lighting design is also part of the URA’s Civic District Lighting Plan, which aims to give the district a distinct night identity.25 The park is lighted daily from 7 pm–7 am.26

The Istana Park is also a popular site for art and culture exhibitions, photography, and wedding receptions.27 In 2008, a studio-café called My Art Space was opened, providing an avenue for members of the public to try their hand at painting or to just relax amidst the lush greenery of the park.28

Another addition to the Istana Park is the Istana Heritage Gallery. Opened on 7 October 2016 by then President Tony Tan, this gallery is the size of three four-room Housing and Development Board flats, and showcases state gifts from world leaders. A brainchild of Dr Tan, the gallery is part of efforts to inform the public about the history and heritage of The Istana.29 Curated by the National Heritage Board’s Preservation of Sites and Monuments division, the gallery is divided into six sections that chronicle the history and transformation of The Istana, its functions, and the flora and fauna of the grounds. The launch of the gallery is considered a rare and historic gathering of relatives of Singapore’s past presidents, including the late president Yusof bin Ishak’s wife Puan Noor Aishah.30         


Nureza Ahmad

1. Sandra Pearce, “Plans Unveiled for $13M Istana Park in the City,” Straits Times, 13 November 1993, 29; Tan Hsueh Yun, “Creative Parks Possible If People Are More Responsible,” Straits Times, 7 September 1996, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Istana Park to Be Built As Gateway to the Civil District,” Straits Times, 21 February 1992, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Nuebronner Eugene, “Singapore’s Palace,” Straits Times, 6 May 2008, 124. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Tan Hsueh Yun, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool for Istana Park,” Straits Times, 3 June 1995, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Istana Park to Be Built.”
6. Tan, “Creative Parks Possible.” 
7. Pearce, “Plans Unveiled for $13M”; William Warren, Singapore: City of Gardens (Hong Kong: Periplus Edition, 2000), 52. (Call no. RSING q915.957 WAR-[TRA])
8. Tan, “Creative Parks Possible.”
9. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool”; Eugene, “Singapore’s Palace”; Tan, “Creative Parks Possible”; Tan Hsueh Yun, “City Gets New Sparkle With Clever Night Lights,” Straits Times, 24 January 1997, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool.”
11. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool.”
12. Pearce, “Plans Unveiled for $13M”; Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool”; “Istana Park,” National Parks Board, accessed 3 February 2017.
13. Warren, City of Gardens, 52.
14. Pearce, “Plans Unveiled for $13M.”
15. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool”; Tan, “Creative Parks Possible.”
16. Pearce, “Plans Unveiled for $13M”; Warren, City of Gardens, 52.
17. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool.”
18. Tan, “Creative Parks Possible.”
19. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool”; Pearce, “Plans Unveiled for $13M.”
20. Tan Hsueh Yun, “Unusual Palms and Colourful Plants at New Istana Park,” Straits Times, 22 February 1996, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Warren, City of Gardens, 52.
21. Tan, “Unusual Palms and Colourful Plants.”
22. Warren, City of Gardens, 52.
23. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool.”
24. Tan, “Trees Aglow and Reflecting Pool.”
25. Tan, “City Gets New Sparkle.” 
26. National Parks Board, “Istana Park.”
27. Tan, “Creative Parks Possible”; “Orchard Rd Head-Turners,” Straits Times, 18 April 1997, 44; “Istana Park Comes Alive with Art Show,” Straits Times, 26 April 1997, 45; “What’s Up This Week…And The Weeks Ahead: Charity,” Straits Times, 2 March 2012, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
28. National Parks Board, “Istana Park”; Kezia Toh, “Let’s Jam with Paint,” Straits Times, 7 March 2014, 4–5. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Melody Zaccheus, “President Tan Launches Istana Heritage Gallery,” Straits Times, 8 October 2016, 4; Lim Yan Liang and Toh Yong Chuan, “Gallery to Offer Year-Round Glimpse of Istana’s Treasures,” Straits Times, 14 February 2016, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Zaccheus, “President Tan Launches Istana Heritage Gallery.”

The information in this article is valid as at 31 October 2018 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.

Istana (Singapore)
Places of interest
Parks and gardens