National Monuments Of Singapore: Former City Hall
What is a National Monument? Who gazettes them? How many national monuments are there in Singapore? To date, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division of National Heritage Board, has identified and gazetted 75 buildings, structures and sites of national significance as an integral part of Singapore’s built heritage.
And we're here to tell you all about them - one National Monument at a time!
Here they all are on a Google Map we specially created. Every Wonderwall.sg logo, or "W", indicates a spot where a National Monument of Singapore is located:
You've probably passed by or stepped into more than a few of them without realising they were National Monuments: Al-Abrar Mosque, Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), the Civilian War Memorial, Saint Andrew's Cathedral, the Esplanade Park Memorials, Fort Siloso on Sentosa - no need to plan an itinerary for friends visiting from overseas; just show them this article ✌️
In this edition, we throw the spotlight on a historied building: the Former City Hall. It housed the Japanese forces after the Fall of Singapore (1942), saw the formal announcement of the surrender of the Japanese on its steps (1945), and was the site for the swearing in of our first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew (1959).
The 25th building to be gazetted a National Monument of Singapore is located right opposite the Padang (also the location for National Day Parade 2023), with the nearest MRT stations being City Hall MRT or Raffles Place MRT.
📅 Significant dates
- 1926-1929: Municipal Building (part of the National Gallery today)
- Jan 2011-Nov 2015: National Gallery
- 23 Jul 1929: Municipal Building
- 22 Sep 1951: Renamed "City Hall"
- 24 Nov 2015: National Gallery
- 14 Feb 1992
IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/@LEIDEN UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES, DIGITAL COLLECTIONS
Completed in 1929, the edifice was built to house the Municipal Council and was originally known as the Municipal Building. The Municipal Council had been formally established in 1856 to oversee the maintenance of public infrastructure and the provision of water, electricity, and gas in Singapore. Initially, it operated from rooms in the Town Hall before moving to other locations in the town area; it eventually into the Municipal Building upon the structure's completion.
Prior to land reclamations in the 20th century, the Municipal Building was part of Singapore’s seafront Neoclassical façade. Vessels approaching the harbour or sailing past would be greeted by the sight of the impressive colonial buildings that exhibited the prowess and might of the British Empire.
The Japanese delegation leaving the Municipal Building after the surrender ceremony inside. | IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/@CHARLES TRUSLER
The City Hall Chamber has a storied past - it is where the Japanese officially surrendered to the British, and our first Head of State, Yusof bin Ishak, was sworn in. | IMAGE: NG KAI
World War II
When the Japanese began to launch their attacks on Singapore, the Municipal Building was opened to the public who sought shelter from air raids. The building became the municipal headquarters of the occupying forces after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 Feb 1942. At the start of the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese gathered Allied prisoners-of-war in front of the Municipal Building, and marched them to the infamous camp in Changi.
It was also in this building that Supreme Commander of the Southeast Asian Command Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten accepted the surrender from General Seishiro Itagaki on 12 Sep 1945. On the same day, a huge victory parade took place on the Padang in front of the Municipal Building and the Supreme Court to celebrate the end of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore.
A funeral service was conducted for Singapore’s war hero, Lim Bo Seng, outside the Municipal Building on 13 Jan 1946. His mortal remains were then interred near MacRitchie Reservoir, and a memorial was erected in his honour.
Road to Independence
The building was duly renamed City Hall when King George VI granted city status to Singapore in 1951. After the landslide victory of the People’s Action Party in the 1959 Legislative Assembly General Elections, Lee Kuan Yew was sworn into political office as Singapore’s first Prime Minister with his eight cabinet ministers in the Former City Hall. Singapore’s full internal self-governance was formally declared on the building’s steps.
On 3 Dec 1959, large crowds congregated outside the Former City Hall to witness the installation of Yusof bin Ishak as Singapore’s first Malayan-born Yang di-Pertuan Negara ("Head of State" in Malay). They were also introduced for the first time to the state anthem, Majulah Singapura, state crest, and state flag.
On 16 Sep 1963, Lee read the Proclamation of Malaysia from the steps of the Former City Hall, announcing the end of colonial rule and the formation of the Federation of Malaysia with Singapore as a member state. The City Council was abolished that same year; its function to oversee electricity, water, and gas supplies was transferred to the newly formed Public Utilities Board.
After Singapore gained independence on 9 Aug 1965, the edifice housed various government offices, such as the Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture, and offices of the Judiciary. It also remained the venue for swearing-in ceremonies of high government office holders.
The Former City Hall wing of the National Gallery. | IMAGES: NG KAI
As part of the National Gallery today
Since 2015, the Former City Hall and Former Supreme Court have combined to form the National Gallery Singapore, the largest museum in Singapore.
IMAGES: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/@SENGKANG
📐 Design and architecture
The Former City Hall stands imposingly in front of the Padang, the large open field in Singapore’s civic centre that Sir Stamford Raffles ordered to be included in the Town Plan. When designing the building, Municipal Architects F. D. Meadows and Alexander Gordon cleverly exploited its prestigious location by creating a front that is both stately and colossal.
The edifice was erected on a solid plinth (the lower square slab at the base of a column) and has a grand stairway leading to its main entrance. It has a flat roof. Undoubtedly, the most outstanding feature of the edifice is the luxurious row of Corinthian columns of gigantic proportions. Cavaliere Rudolfo Nolli, an Italian architect and a sculptor who was based in Singapore, was commissioned to supply the columns and granolithic stone cladding. Later, he was also appointed to decorate the Former City Hall’s neighbour, the Former Supreme Court.
Touted as a forerunner of the post-war International Style, the Former City Hall combines both Neoclassical and Modernist architectural elements in its design. Behind its symmetrical faux stone façade, colonnade (a row of columns supporting a roof), and entablature (a horizontal part that rests on the columns) is actually a steel structure. The windows and interior are stripped of the usual treatments and decorations befitting of Neoclassical architecture, and adopt instead a simpler design that is characteristic of Modernist buildings.
🕖 Opening hours
General admission is free for Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, with ticketed tours and exhibitions available as well. Find out more here.
Due to National Day Parade 2023, The Gallery will be closed on 28-30 Jul, 8-12 Aug.