Room for heritage as SGH undergoes revamp

Buildings such as the century-old Bowyer Block will be conserved amid plans to redevelop SGH

A ward in SGH during the 1950s. The hospital began in a wooden shed by the Singapore River in 1821, and moved in 1882. PHOTO: SINGAPORE GENERAL HOSPITAL
The Singapore General Hospital in 1919.

The next 20 years will see the Outram Campus, which includes the country's oldest hospital Singapore General Hospital (SGH), undergo a massive transformation. But there will still be room for history.

Buildings such as the 100-year- old Bowyer Block and clock tower, and the Mistri wing will be preserved, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday as he traced SGH's roots, which began in a wooden shed by the Singapore River in 1821. It moved to its current location in 1882, on a hill near the Sepoy Lines.

"Sepoys were Indian soldiers in the British Raj and there used to be a road here called the Sepoy Lines," he explained.

"That's why to this day, many older Singaporeans still call this place 'See Pai Po' which is the Hokkien rendering of Sepoy Lines."

The place was also where the Sepoys' camp or cantonment was located, hence the nearby Cantonment Road, he added.

In 1905, Singapore's first medical school, the King Edward VII College of Medicine, was established there.

Today, it is known as the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, and is part of the National University of Singapore at Kent Ridge.

The hospital used to have open wards linked by long corridors with colours painted on the ground to help patients, many of whom were illiterate, find their way.

Some things have not changed over the decades. "The only trouble (then) is you are looking down and following the line and if you are not careful you will bump into something. Today, you look down into your iPhone as you walk along following your app and you have the same problem," said Mr Lee, to much laughter from an audience largely of senior doctors.

But a lot is also different now.

The Outram Campus as it currently stands was developed in the 1970s and completed in 1981. He said: "I remember when Mr Lee Kuan Yew opened it, we were all impressed by the facilities and buildings. It was a quantum change from what the old hospital used to be."

That was 35 years ago and medicine has changed enormously since. The new plans to redevelop the SGH campus have been long awaited by many.

But not everything will go.

Mr Lee promised: "While we upgrade, we will where possible also preserve or re-purpose some of our old buildings to remind us of our heritage."

This includes the Bowyer Block and clock tower, which commemorate those who have given their lives to public healthcare, in particular Dr John Bowyer - a former chief medical officer who died during the war. It is the only remaining structure from 1926, and now houses the SGH Museum and some outpatient services.

The Mistri wing, now home to the Diabetes and Metabolism Centre, is another building set for preservation. It was donated by Mr Navroji Mistri who had a passion for helping the poor.

He was a Parsi who made his fortune selling soda water in Singapore. In 1952, he donated $950,000 to build a ward for poor patients.

Said Mr Lee: "(It) reminds us of how we can help the vulnerable and needy amongst us, through our own efforts."

Salma Khalik

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2016, with the headline Room for heritage as SGH undergoes revamp. Subscribe