Making Istana more accessible

The Istana will soon open its gates to the public more frequently. President Halimah Yacob said on Sunday that she wants to make the Istana "more accessible to ordinary Singaporeans". This means more opportunities for the public to walk its grounds beyond open houses during Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Deepavali, Labour Day and National Day. Her office is studying how to invite more families as well as groups such as social service organisations to visit the Istana.

The move is timely. Its significance extends beyond greater accessibility to the official residence of the President. The Istana also houses the office of the Prime Minister and the room where the weekly Cabinet meetings are held. It is the seat of the highest executive power of the Government.

Making the Istana more accessible to the public can demystify the workings of the Government.

The large crowds at the open houses show there is demand for such visits. More than 72,000 people visited the Istana in the five open houses this year.

As the plans for greater public accessibility are being drawn up, I have four wishes.

First, even as the Istana welcomes more visitors, it should not become a tourist attraction or a public park. Dignity and decorum must be maintained.

Second, the Istana is not just a collection of buildings and gardens. I hope that visitors also get to meet and hear the stories of ordinary Singaporeans working there - like the gardeners and cleaners who keep the premises spick and span.

Third, more government bodies and organs of state can take the cue from the Istana. Examples include the courts and Parliament. While Parliament sessions and court hearings are open to the public, more can be done to help the public understand how they work, such as through open houses and guided tours.

Lastly, greater public accessibility to government premises should not be an end in itself. The aim must be greater public involvement in governance. This will further deepen Singaporeans' roots here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Making Istana more accessible'. Print Edition | Subscribe