SINGAPORE - Every year, the Istana welcomes visitors on Hari Raya Puasa.
Members of the public can take photos, watch performances and go on special tours to learn more about the rich flora, fauna and biodiversity of the Istana grounds.
This year though, with circuit breaker measures still in effect due to the Covid-19 outbreak, no such visits are possible.
So instead of walking around the Istana, educational psychologist Sharifah Mariam Aljunied, a member of the Muhammadiyah Welfare Home's management committee, was treated to a first-of-its-kind experience on Sunday (May 24).
She joined President Halimah Yacob on a virtual tour of the Istana, which was held on a video-conferencing platform. More than 120 beneficiaries from social service agencies New Life Stories, Ain Society, Jamiyah Halfway House, Muhammadiyah Welfare Home and Pertapis Halfway House and their families also took part in the virtual tour.
For about half an hour, participants enjoyed 360-degree views of the reception hall, state room and banquet hall inside the Istana's main building. They also learnt about its history, watched videos of the changing of guards ceremony and were treated to a light show display on the building's facade.
The participants were decked out in their Hari Raya best for the video call and had the opportunity to interact with Madam Halimah after the tour.
The President was asked about how she was coping during the circuit breaker and about her favourite dishes, among other things.
Answering a Muhammadiyah Welfare Home resident's question on how the circuit breaker has impacted her relationship with her family, Madam Halimah said she has continued to maintain close ties with family members.
This year, she was able to break fast with her family throughout the whole fasting month, instead of doing so for just about a week. In the past, some family members would have gone out to break fast with friends.
"This past month has been special because all our family members are at home and break fast together throughout the month...The relationships are kept tight and not cut. While we have to observe the Covid-19 measures, we also end up connecting with one another," she said.
Dr Mariam, 53, said her favourite part of the experience was the conversation with Madam Halimah.
"It wasn't just her delivering a speech - it was a cosy experience where we got to interact and get a better sense of Madam Halimah as a person, beyond (her role as) the president that we love and respect," she said.
She added that the virtual tour was a "very cool" experience.
"We got to see things that we wouldn't have been able to see if we had gone for a typical tour in person, such as the light show."
Housewife Rahmah Anes, 61, who is a beneficiary of Ain Society, a charity that supports cancer patients and their families, also said she enjoyed the virtual tour:
"I have difficulty walking and need to get around with a walking stick, so it would have been hard for me to get to the Istana even if it had been open for visits. It was a good opportunity for me to see how the Istana looks like from the inside."
Madam Halimah said that she was delighted to host social services' beneficiaries at the first virtual Istana open house on Sunday.
"This year, we could not have our usual Istana open house in celebration of Hari Raya due to Covid-19. But I am glad that technology has made it possible for us to present our open house in a different manner. As we celebrate a different Hari Raya this year, let us not forget the less fortunate groups in our community. I hope this experience will add some festive cheer," she added.
The Istana open houses this year were slated to be held on the second day of Chinese New Year (Jan 26), Labour Day (May 1), Hari Raya Puasa (May 24), two weeks before National Day (July 26) and on Deepavali (Nov 14).
The Istana open house on Labour Day, for Madam Halimah to meet workers and families, was the first one that had to be cancelled this year.