Singapore Conference Hall a national monument

The Singapore Conference Hall is the first post-colonial building to be gazetted a national monument.
The Singapore Conference Hall is the first post-colonial building to be gazetted a national monument. ST PHOTO: BRYAN VAN DER BEEK

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 28, 2010. 

Two new sites have joined the list of national monuments protected by the Government, including the first post-colonial building to be gazetted as such.

They are the Singapore Conference Hall located in Shenton Way and three memorials in Esplanade Park – the Lim Bo Seng Memorial, the Tan Kim Seng Fountain and the Cenotaph. The memorials are considered one monument.

Together, the two sites bring the number of national monuments in Singapore to 63, the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) said yesterday.

A highlight is the choice of the conference hall, the first time a landmark built in the post-colonial era has been included in the list.

The building, completed in October 1965 after Singapore’s independence, was chosen for being closely intertwined with the country’s independence, Ms Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Monuments Board, said in a press release.

Declared open by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, it served as the headquarters of the National Trades Union Congress until the 1990s.

The white, glass-panelled building, designed by pioneer Singapore architects William Lim, Chan Voon Fee and Lim Chong Keat, is also “a testament to their important contributions to Singapore’s built heritage”, said the board. 

But the unusual choice has also raised eyebrows. Some said they had not even heard of the conference hall. Business manager Ng Yong Kiat, 30, said: “What? Wait, let me Google it.”

This was a markedly different response from heritage conservationists, who said the move to gazette the conference hall came too late.

It was renovated in 1997, and in 2001 came under the management of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which now uses the space for rehearsals and concerts.

Dr Lai Chee Kien, an assistant professor of architecture at the National University of Singapore, described the board’s choice as a “weird conferment”.

This was because its renovation works in the 1990s – including the installation of air conditioners and removal of its interior mosaic tiles – had left the hall greatly changed, said Dr Lai.

But Mr Ho Weng Hin, a partner of Studio Lapis, an architectural research and conservation consultancy, said the move was better late than never.

Gazetting the conference hall now could suggest greater emphasis on the preservation of other modern buildings that need to be protected urgently, said Mr Ho, who is also a member of the Singapore Heritage Society. 

Some of these include the Pearl Bank apartments in Outram and the Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road, he said.

An independent architectural conservator, Dr Yeo Kang Shua, also recommended that the board consider protecting post-colonial sites like the Paya Lebar Airport or the Singapore Badminton Hall.
Referring to the the now-demolished National Stadium and National Theatre, Dr Yeo said: “We have already lost too many national icons – buildings that remind us of Singapore’s nation-building.”

All these questions end up in one place: How does the Preservation of Monuments Board select which buildings to protect and which not to?

Asked this, it said all monuments are chosen for their “socio-historical merit”, “importance to community” and “architectural merit”.

The board declined to elaborate on the process of selection, which takes about a year, or why it decided to pick a post-colonial building to be gazetted this year.

With regard to the Esplanade memorials, the board said they were picked as they honoured individuals for their contributions to the community.

Dr Lim Whye Geok, the 73-year-old son of Lim Bo Seng, said the family was grateful and happy about the honour. 

The family had unsuccessfully appealed to the National Heritage Board last year to have the war hero’s grave in MacRitchie Reservoir Park gazetted as a monument.

New to the list
THE SINGAPORE CONFERENCE HALL

Completed in 1965, the former Singapore Conference Hall and Trade Union House was built to fulfil an electoral promise by the People’s Action Party for a venue to unify trade unions and to host conferences. It has witnessed key events such as vote-counting and, more recently, was the venue of the state funeral for former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee.

THE TAN KIM SENG FOUNTAIN

This fountain was built in 1882 at Battery Road, but was later moved to its current location at Esplanade Park in 1925. It was designed by an English ironworks company and is dedicated to Straits Chinese merchant Tan Kim Seng for his generous aid to Singapore society in the 19th century. 

His best-known contribution was money to the British government in 1857 towards Singapore’s first public waterworks system. Kim Seng Road in River Valley is named after him.

THE CENOTAPH

Built in 1920, this monument now recognises the soldiers of Singapore who took part in World Wars I and II.

It was designed by one of the country’s oldest architectural firms, Swan and MacLaren. The firm also designed other monuments, including the Sultan Mosque in Kampong Glam and the Raffles Hotel.

The Cenotaph is the first Singapore military commemorative structure and the only structure that honours individuals who died in both wars.

THE LIM BO SENG MEMORIAL

The memorial is dedicated to a war hero for his efforts during the Japanese occupation in Singapore during the 1940s. Lim died in 1944. The memorial was unveiled in 1954.

Designed by architect Ng Keng Siang, the memorial is also significant for its Chinese-style architecture. It is the only structure known to be built to honour an individual for his efforts in World War II.