The Merdeka Bridge spans the Kallang Basin, adjoining Nicoll Highway and providing a main traffic artery between the eastern part of Singapore and the city.1 Designed by R. J. Hollis-Bee of the colonial Public Works Department, the pre-stressed bridge is 2,000 ft long and 65 ft wide, and cost $6.05 million to build. Named by then Minister for Communications and Works Francis Thomas, Merdeka Bridge was regarded as a symbol of Singapore’s aspirations for independence in the 1950s.2 It was opened by then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock on 17 August 1956.3 The National Heritage Board marked it as a historic site in 2002.4
In the 1950s, there was frequent traffic congestion at the junction of Kallang, Geylang and Mountbatten roads.5 During peak periods, Kallang Road carried more than 2,000 vehicles per hour in each direction.6 To alleviate the bottleneck, the government-appointed Kallang Basin Development Committee proposed building a coastal road and a bridge linking Kallang to Beach Road.7
The construction of the coastal road and bridge required a community of traders to move out of the Beach Road reclamation area. This area was, at that time, occupied by about 600 charcoal and firewood traders and 400 illegal squatters living in attap (thatched) huts.8 From October 1954, the traders were moved to an alternative site in Tanjong Rhu, while the squatters were resettled in Singapore Improvement Trust flats at Guillemard Road in early 1955.9
Preliminary tests on the proposed site were completed in July 1954, and tenders were called a few months later.10 On 24 December, a $4.485-million contract was awarded to Paul Y. Construction Company, in association with Messrs Hume Industries and Messrs Sime Darby. The Public Works Department (PWD) oversaw the project.11
Building the bridge
Construction of the Kallang bridge, as it was known then, went ahead despite several controversial issues. First, the bridge design was seen as wasteful and extravagant as, according to civil engineers in Malaya, a much shorter bridge would have sufficed. Secondly, the contract was awarded to a firm that had no experience with pre-stressed concrete bridge construction and had also submitted the highest tender bid. This was in sharp contrast to another bid that not only cost $357,000 less, but had also undertaken some of the largest public works in the then colony. The latter also had an experienced associate company that had constructed, in Pakistan, the longest pre-stressed concrete bridge in Asia.12
Designed by PWD superintending engineer of major works, R. J. Hollis-Bee, the Kallang bridge cost $6.07 million.13 Consisting of 25 spans measuring 80 ft each in length, or a total length of 2,000 ft, the bridge was designed to be long and to span mostly dry, filled-in ground.14 The poor quality of the subsoil influenced the decision to build a longer bridge rather than a shorter one with the bund approach. This was because the construction of a bund would have taken a long time. It also avoided the risk of a sudden subsidence should a road be built on such a bund later, as it stood above newly reclaimed ground.15
Investigations indicated that mud at the Kallang Basin site was up to 70 ft deep at some points.16 The poor quality of the subsoil beneath the bridge therefore required the builders to drive 130-ft piles for greater stability.17 The main foundation of the bridge consisted of about 130,000 tons of hard filling material and spalls (small granite rocks).18 The pre-stressed concrete method that was used to build the Kallang bridge was new at the time, and the structure was touted as the largest pre-stressed bridge of its kind in Southeast Asia.19
With a width of 65 ft, the bridge could accommodate a dual carriageway as well as footpaths and cycling tracks on each side.20 It was designed with a head room of 10 ft at high tide.21
Preparatory work for the construction of the bridge began in January 1955, and the project was slated to be completed over 18 months.22 However, dock strikes in London delayed steel supplies for six weeks, and a local strike affected the sub-contractors for the beams.23 In June 1956, excessive mud occurred around the road connecting the bridge with Connaught Drive, delaying the bridge opening to August.24 Difficulties in clearing squatters from the Beach Road reclamation site caused further delays.25
Naming the bridge
On 21 June 1956, then Minister for Communications and Works Francis Thomas officially named the structure Merdeka Bridge (merdeka being Malay for “independence” or “freedom”) because it represented the confidence and aspiration of the people of Singapore. The road that linked to the bridge was named Nicoll Highway, after former governor of Singapore John Nicoll. The bridge came to be regarded as a significant achievement and a symbol of Singapore’s pursuit of independence.26
Opening the bridge
Nicoll Highway and Merdeka Bridge were officially opened on 17 August 1956 by then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock.27 Thousands gathered at both ends of the bridge to witness the event. The 500 guests in attendance included government and religious leaders as well as the engineers who had worked on the bridge. The Singapore Volunteer Corps made up the guard-of-honour, and the Singapore Police Force Band provided music for the occasion.28 There were speeches by Francis Thomas and Acting City Council President R. Middleton-Smith, as well as prayers by the religious leaders present. In his speech, Lim called Merdeka Bridge “a bridge into the future”, saying that it symbolised the spirit in which Singapore would achieve independence, with “calm and thoughtful planning and through the painstaking laying of a stable solid foundation”.29
At the close of the ceremony, a plane chartered by the Indian community passed over the bridge, showering the crowds with roses. A number of Chinese organisations presented a dragon dance and let off firecrackers while the Malay community staged a koleh (a narrow rowing craft) procession.30 Excited spectators from both ends of the bridge broke through the crowd control barriers and streamed across the bridge.31
Because the bridge was built partially on poor coastal soil, the bridge engineers anticipated that the structure and its foundations would experience some resettlement. In the months following its opening, the road was covered with a light temporary surface and motorists were instructed to drive slowly. After several months, the road was resurfaced with a permanent layer of asphalt.32
Following the widening of Nicoll Highway from four to seven lanes in 1965, Merdeka Bridge was widened with three additional lanes in 1966 at a cost of S$1.5 million. As part of the plan to alleviate congestion, traffic flow in the additional lanes was reversed every day, taking traffic into the city in the morning and towards the East Coast area in the evening.33 This reversible or “tidal” arrangement stopped in 1992, when the flexi-lanes were converted into a permanent dual carriageway of three lanes on each side. The bridge structure was subsequently strengthened to enable it to withstand heavier loads, and upgraded to include wider pedestrian walkways on both sides.34
One of the distinctive features of Merdeka Bridge was a pair of stone lions, dubbed the “Merdeka Lions”.35 Commissioned by the PWD in 1955, the majestic statues were produced in the Philippines and were positioned in a crouch and roaring, with their heads turned to the right to face oncoming traffic.36 The lions stood at the base of tall stone monuments of blue mosaic at each end of the bridge, from its opening in 1956 until the widening of Nicoll Highway in 1966. They were then relocated to Stadium Walk, near the entrance of Kallang Park.37
In 1987, several letters to the press suggested that the lions should be moved to a more appropriate site, but locations such as building entrances, steps or driveways were considered unsuitable as the statues would not face the viewer because of the orientation of their heads.38 The PWD later transferred the statues to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) for eventual relocation to the future SAFTI Military Institute (SAFTI MI). SAFTI MI was seen as a fitting site for the lions with their symbolic qualities of courage, strength and excellence. In the meantime, MINDEF stored the statues at the old SAFTI at Pasir Laba Camp. On 22 July 1995, the lions were finally moved to the new SAFTI MI at Upper Jurong Road, where they were installed at the base of the 17-storey observation tower.39
On 23 May 1964, a bomb planted in the sand exploded under the fifth span of the bridge on the Crawford Street side. The bridge was unscathed and only a small lallang fire was started.40 A second attempt to blow up the bridge by Indonesian saboteurs took place in July, and while unsuccessful, it caused a hole in the road that was 3 ft long, 1 ft wide and 3 inches deep.41
The bridge was marked as a historic site by the National Heritage Board in 2002, with a plaque explaining its history and significance placed at the bridge.42
In April 2004, a tunnel collapsed at the Mass Rapid Transit Circle Line construction site.43 This caused part of Nicoll Highway to cave in and a 24.5-metre section of Merdeka Bridge nearest the accident site to break off. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, the area around the bridge was closed to the public due to fears that the bridge would collapse, but it was later determined to be structurally safe. The damaged segment of the bridge was cut off to avoid putting pressure on the rest of the structure and to allow the Crawford Underpass below the bridge to be re-opened to traffic.44
Joanna HS Tan
1. Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1953 (Singapore: Printed at the G. P. O., 1953), 27 (Call no. RCLOS 354.59570086 SIN–[RFL]); Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1955 (Singapore: Printed at the G. P. O., 1955), 40 (Call no. RCLOS 354.59570086 SIN–[RFL]); Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway: Opening Ceremony by the Chief Minister, the Honourable Mr. Lim Yew Hock on August 17, 1956 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1956), 10. (Call no. RCLOS 624 MER-[RFL])
2. Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 40; Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1956 (Singapore: Printed at the G. P. O., 1956), 20 (Call no. RCLOS 354.59570086 SIN–[RFL]); Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 4.
3. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway.
4. “WWII Shinto Shrine Marked as a Historic Site,” Straits Times, 17 September 2002, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “New Coast Road – Ready By July,” Straits Times, 27 December 1955, 5; “Plan to Break the Bottleneck,” Straits Times, 1 June 1953, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 4.
6. “Kallang Bridge Date: June 1956,” Straits Times, 13 January 1955, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 10.
7. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 3; “A Bridge of Size,” Straits Times, 14 January 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Firewood, Charcoal Traders to Move,” Singapore Free Press, 6 September 1954, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “$1.1 Mil. Houses for Attap Dwellers,” Singapore Free Press, 30 December 1954, 5 (From NewspaperSG); “Firewood, Charcoal Traders to Move.”
10. Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1953, 27; “Bridge of Size.”
11. Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 40; “Kallang Bridge Contract,” Straits Times, 25 December 1954, 7; “Flexi-Lanes on Nicoll Highway to Go,” Straits Times, 28 April 1992, 19 (From NewspaperSG); “New Coast Road.”
12. “Bridge of Size.”
13. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 4–5.
14. “Bridge of Size”; Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 40; Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 11.
15. “Kallang Bridge Date”; “Bridge of Size.”
16. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 10.
17. “Kallang Bridge Contract,” Straits Times, 25 December 1954, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1953, 27.
18. “Today It Will Rain Roses on Merdeka Bridge,” Straits Times, 17 August 1956, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Kallang Bridge Will Be Built on This Bund, Then Channel Made,” Straits Times, 26 November 1954, 7 (From NewspaperSG); “Kallang Bridge Contract.”
20. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 11.
21. “Kallang Bridge Contract”; “Kallang Bridge Date.”
23. Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1955, 40.
24. “Mud Bogs Down Merdeka Road,” Straits Times, 26 June 1956, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Firewood Dealers Hold Up New Coastal Road,” Singapore Free Press, 4 February 1956, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 2–3.
27. Public Works Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1956, 20.
28. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway; Nan Hall, “Tens of Thousands Turn Out to Cheer,” Straits Times, 18 August 1956, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Merdeka Bridge and Nicoll Highway, 2, 4–6; Hall, “Tens of Thousands Turn Out to Cheer.”
30. “Today It Will Rain Roses”; Hall, “Tens of Thousands Turn Out to Cheer.”
31. “Merdeka Bridge – Pride of Singapore – Opened,” Straits Times, 1 August 1956, 1; “The Rush to Cross the Merdeka Bridge,” Straits Times, 18 August 1956, 7 (From Newspaper); Hall, “Tens of Thousands Turn Out to Cheer.”
32. Today It Will Rain Roses.”
33. “Merdeka Bridge a 7-Lane Highway Soon,” Straits Times, 5 August 1966, 4; “Flexi-Lanes on Nicoll Highway to Go,” Straits Times, 28 April 1992, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Flexi-Lanes on Nicoll Highway to Go.”
35. “The Merdeka Lions,” The Singapore Architect no. 190 (1996): 60–61. (Call no. RSING 720.5 SA no 190/96)
36. “Two Lions Will Keep Watch on Motorists,” Straits Times, 1 July 1956, 11 (From NewspaperSG); “Merdeka Lions,” 60–61.
37. “Search Is On to Give Merdeka Lions a Better Home,” Straits Times, 15 June 1987, 15; “Merdeka Lions Get New Home,” Straits Times, 24 August 1995, 2 (From NewspaperSG); “Bridging Our Past,” Treasures of Time (October/November 2002), 11. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TT)
38. “Merdeka Lions,” 60–61.
39. “Merdeka Lions Get New Home”; “Bridging Our Past,” 11; “Merdeka Lions,” 60–61.
40. “Attempt to Blow Up Merdeka Bridge,” Straits Times, 24 May 1964, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “Sabotage Bid on Merdeka Bridge,” Straits Times, 22 July 1964, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “WWII Shinto Shrine Marked as a Historic Site”; Rosalyn Lim, “History on Plaques,” Today, 17 September 2002, 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Sharon Loh, “MRT Worksite Collapse Wrecks Nicoll Highway,” Straits Times, 21 April 2004, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
44. “Bridge Section to Be Cut Off So Underpass Can Open,” Straits Times, 23 April 2004, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as of 2016 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.
_People:Tan, Joanna Hwang Soo